I sat in the water feeling uneasy. I couldn’t say exactly why, but I felt anxious, like something wasn’t right out here. The spot was a no name break as far as I was concerned. I’d found it near a small town named “George” on the Wild Coast of South Africa. My father had dropped me off after a long day and night together traveling from his home in Cape Town. That had been trying. I hardly knew my father and we were as different as we could be. I, an 18 year old surf kid from the beaches of San Diego and he a 56 year old renegade plastic surgeon with two small children and a nagging second wife. We chatted amicably during the drive but hadn’t really done anything on the way. I arrived only 6 months before at his doorstep in one of the toniest parts of the Cape unannounced. I wrote a letter telling him I was coming, but apparently it hadn’t made it before I did. Mail from the States took a month to travel the 14,000 miles across two continents. He hadn’t recognized me at first. At 6 feet with long blonde hair I bore little resemblance to the 5 year old he had left behind. They found a place for me in the servant quarters a few yards away from the main house. His second wife was friendly and their 2 small kids at 6 and 8 loved their new brother. I taught the younger boy how to ride a bike, drew pictures for them and basically loved them and mentored them as if I were their father. My own father was a disappointment to all of us. A washed up surgeon who had lost his license to practice in California then run to Canada with his new wife and then Africa to stay one step in front of the law. He was an alcoholic and his new wife severely codependent. I found a job working in a local steak house and would come home late at night. Many times he would be waiting for me with an open bottle of Cabernet, clearly not his first. He would offer me a glass and after it was poured begin his long tedious drunken lamentations of mistakes made and excuses for abandoning myself and my 3 brothers with a mother dying of breast cancer. Needless to say I began to avoid these encounters as much as possible. The next morning his new wife would dig up the bottles from wherever my father had tried to stash them and confront me frantically recounting their odyssey across Africa with two small children as my father lost job after job when he botched surgeries or was caught drinking by hospital staff.
We spent the night in a nearby seedy hotel. George was a small farming town in a Dutch or “Boer” part of the country. The English and Dutch had come to an uneasy truce after the Boer War ended at the beginning of the 20th century. Comparable in many ways to the Civil War in the U.S. but fought between the British and Dutch settlers. The Dutch generally occupied the interior or farm lands and were strong supporters of the racial segregation system known as “apartheid” while the British were more for equality, educated, progressive and usually found in the cities. The bitterness and animosity between the two groups had remained even now after nearly 80 years. English travelers could encounter unfriendly locals in this area, but once they discovered my father and I were “Yanks” they warmed considerably. South Africans love their meat and you’re never far from a good steak. Blood rare steak was the only thing my father ever ate other then a baked potato with nothing on it and hand-fulls of vitamins so he fit right in. We dined in the local restaurant last night each of us ordering one of the large barbecued cuts the locals were know for.
This morning we woke at dawn. My father did his 50 push ups as was his custom as I watched from the bed next to his. We dressed and went out the door. He offered my 50 Rand about $100, but I refused. I knew I could use it but wasn’t in the habit of getting help from a parent since my mother passed away 4 years earlier. I was used to taking care of myself and waved goodbye as he got in his silver volkswagen and drove off. I turned towards the ocean with my 6’6″ Faith surfboard under my arm, my wetsuit and some clothes in a backpack. I purchased the board in Capetown at a small surf shop I found in the yellow pages. After taking a bus and train into town I had found the store. The guy at the counter seemed happy to see a Yank and confided that this particular board had belonged to the South African champion Shaun Tomson. I wasn’t sure if he was bull-shitting me but I liked the shape and the color. It was white with light green resin swirls in the gloss coat. On the center of the deck in large curvy green script was the word “Faith.” He said it was a one of a kind and I bought it for 200 Rand. I couldn’t argue that it was a great board. I had surfed it all over Cape Town and then met some people while working in the restaurant that I later began traveling with.
They were a fun group of college age kids a bit older than myself. There was Simon the strawberry blonde bruiser who had been fighting up on the border with the Communist guerillas and had his right bicep partially blown off. Murray a student at Cape Town University who drove a 1971 VW Bus with a rainbow stripe running around it. Murray always had weed even though it was highly illegal here and could be counted on for a ride even on the wildest adventures. John who was the dashing blond leading man of the group and his equally stunning girlfriend Yvonne also both students. They had the polished good manners of British aristocracy and found me endless entertainment as a shabby Californian with the lovely Hollywood accent. The one I hung out with the most though was Kevin. Kevin was also a student, very British and polished but with a love for trouble. He enjoyed nothing better then to get very pissed or drunk as I called it and drive recklessly through the streets in his Mini Cooper. He had crashed it many times although fortunately and miraculously not with me in it. His wealthy family would pay to repair whatever damage he did and he’d be off again on his self destructive way. Since the drinking age was 18 in South Africa it was perfectly legal for me to go to a pub and drink with my friends. This was an entirely new experience for me and I found myself drinking far more at times than I knew how to handle. One memorable night at a pub called “The Pig and Whistle” we had all been drinking Castle lager in bottles at a table near a fireplace. All of a sudden Kevin stood up and threw his bottle into the fireplace, glass shattering everywhere. He shoved me and said, “C’mon Yank, throw it in.” With my judgment somewhat impaired, I followed suit throwing my bottle into the roaring hearth. No sooner had I done it then a large man in a military uniform grabbed me by the collar yanking me off my feet. Simon, Murray and John stood up at our table with Simon grabbing the guy’s arm and stepping in between us. “He’s just a lightee and from America. He didn’t mean anythin’ mate.” Simon advised. The military man thought better after taking a look at Simon, Murray and John all glaring in his direction and released me back to my feet. At 18 I was 6 feet and 150 lbs. so was very thankful for the reprieve as I had no doubt who would have prevailed in the encounter.
This was the group who I was to rendezvous with here in George later but had 5 or 6 hours to kill before we met up at the restaurant again. The ocean was nearby and I had a surfboard so I began the mile or so walk down the paved rural road lined with grassy farmland on both sides. I could see a couple of Zebra and a group of Springbok, a large local antelope, grazing in the distance. After about 30 minutes I crested the slope that led down to the ocean. I could see a rocky beach and what looked to be head high surf coming in. As I got nearer and found a trail leading from the grassy slope to the sand and noticed African fishermen with long poles out on the rocks. It looked as if they were doing a primitive version of surf casting. I walked onto the pristine white sand sat down and looked out. Sure enough there were waves. As I had thought they were about head high and peeling both right and left. I began to undress and then put my wetsuit on. The water in Cape Town was cold. About the same as Northern California but usually even colder because of the constant wind. I put my clothes away in my pack, gathered my board and walked into the ocean. It was slightly warmer than I expected but we were up the coast quite a ways now on the Indian Ocean side of the Cape. It would get warmer and warmer now as we went North towards Jeffreys Bay which was our ultimate destination. Jeffreys was one of the best known waves in the world and had been featured in the movie, “Endless Summer.” I had always wanted to go there and had saved the $1500 for my plane ticket by working as a busboy in a restaurant back in San Diego. It had taken me more than a year to save it, but I had finally enough and walked into a travel agency and lay down the cash mostly in ones out of a shoebox I had stashed in my bedroom.
I paddled out through the surf and immediately began to feel uneasy. I wasn’t sure what I felt uneasy about but reasoned it might be that there was no one else in the water as far as the eye could see. I finally made it outside the breaking waves and sat waiting for a set. The feeling of unease was strong and my mind wandered thinking of some of the stories about gigantic sharks I’d heard about in these waters. Cape Town was known for having enormous Great Whites. A 2400 lb. beast had been caught off the rocks at a break I’d surfed ominously named “Danger Reef.” My friends had filled me in on local mythology regarding two specimens fisherman referred to as “Spot” and “The Sub.” Both were theoretically more than 25 feet in length. There was no shortage of these tales and they were all playing in my head as a wave finally came toward me. It peaked up behind me and I easily slid into it taking a few nice turns going left before kicking out and paddling back. Looking down through the clear water I could see sand plumes coming off the bottom about 6 feet below me. I rationalized it must be surf action causing it but couldn’t correlate the sand plumes with the waves no matter how I tried. I sat again looking out towards the horizon but began to feel a sense of impending and immediate danger. I tried to calm myself, thinking I was letting my mind run away with me but my anxiety wouldn’t leave. I decided to pull my feet up onto my board. As I waited for the set my attention was drawn towards the sandy bottom again as another plume of sand rose and then began to settle. For some reason this time I couldn’t take my eyes off of the plume now only four or five feet beneath me in the clear temperate water. The shape slowly began to form. It was the stuff of nightmares. The long tapered cylinder of a very large fish extending out in front and behind me slowly became undeniably a large shark. As I stared I could see the gills working and the broad green-brown stripes running across its back. “Tiger” was the word that formed in my mind and a cold fear like I’d never known gripped me suddenly feeling every inch of my digestive tract pucker from stem to stern. I had no doubt it knew I was there and felt like a mouse watching a cat waiting for that moment when one would move and the chase would start. I was obviously at an extreme disadvantage compared to the mouse because as a human I was the slowest creature in the ocean and no match for the reaction time of the 15 foot predator beneath me.
In that moment I saw my entire short life play out before me and read the headlines of the kid from California who had been dropped off by his father along the Wild Coast never to be seen again. I doubted anyone would figure it out unless my board and belongings were found on the beach. “The Beach!” The thought exploded like a single bright ray in a dark room. “Paddle.” I said to myself. “Carefully.” I told myself. “Quietly.” I put my hands in the water very gently trying not to make a ripple. I pushed forward toward the nose causing the board to move slowly backward. I felt sure the beast would attack any second but miraculously it just lay there, its gills working, coldly indifferent to the puny creature only a few feet above. I pushed the water again this time slowly turning to face the shore. It terrified me to take my eyes from the monster but there was no other way to get in. As soon as it was out of sight my imagination began to run wild, knowing it was about to grab a leg or drag me and my board down whole at any moment. A small wave rose up behind me and I took two strong strokes catching the swell in what seemed like a gift from the Gods. I didn’t attempt to stand wanting only to make it to a shore that seemed a mile away. As I rode the broken wave in the last few yards to the sand I imagined a large fin following close behind me like something out of a cartoon. In a few seconds my board hit the sand and I scrambled frantically up the shore like a castaway who had been marooned on a raft for months. I practically kissed the ground gasping for breath on my hands and knees I turned and sat in the wet sand looking back at the sea behind me. No fin, no shark, not a sign that anything had happened.
I gathered my board and walked back to where I had deposited my clothes only 20 minutes earlier feeling like I had just survived a near death experience. I looked around. The 100 yard wide beach was absolutely empty. The fishermen still stood on the rocks casting their long poles into the water from the nearby rocks but none seemed aware of what had just transpired. After I gathered myself and got dressed I wandered over to the rocks to see what the fishermen were catching. I saw one tall lean dark man of about 45 holding what looked like a short stick under a tidal rock. He jiggled it and then quickly yanked it out. As the end came out I could see long writhing tentacles clutching and coiling at the hooked stick and the mans weathered hands. It was a large octopus. He unceremoniously grabbed the legs and in one quick motion swung it against the rocks over and over, blood and ink splattering around. I watched as he unhooked the slimy carcass from the long gaff and lay the limp 4 foot body across a rock and began cutting it up into bait size chunks. He threw the whole mess in a red bucket he had nearby then walked closer to the water’s edge. He hooked a tentacle chunk onto a large treble hook and cast out into the ocean. I stood a few yards off as he sat down and lit a hand rolled cigarette and leaned back. I walked over to within a few feet trying not to surprise him. I was impressed with his obvious knowledge and skill and had plenty of time left so thought I would find out what he was fishing for. He looked up from under his hat. “hello suh.” He said tipping his brim. He clearly thought I was a local Dutchman. I wasn’t fond or comfortable with the South African system and it always bothered me when I was addressed as if I were a superior. “Oh sorry,” I said. “I was just wondering what you’re fishing for?” “Oh, you’re from America!” he said with a thick Dutch accent sitting up now smiling openly. “Yes.” I said. “What are you trying to catch here?” I said now pointing out to the water. “Why shark my son!” He said cheerily. “Beeg Shark!”
The waves are perfect today. Head-high, clean, glassy right-handers peeling down the point. This spot only breaks in the Winter and then only rarely. This and the difficult access keeps the crowds down. Usually I see the same people in the water over and over. Mostly more mature surfers, lots of women and local kids just getting started. Today there are only 6 of us out and more than enough waves for everyone. The rides are a quarter mile long so every paddle back up the point is a long effort returning to the take-off spot. My adult daughter is smiling broadly as I arrive from another such journey. “Beautiful wave.” she says as I approach. “Yeah, phew!” I say sitting back up on my yellow and white Harbour 9’6″ longboard. “Yours was really nice too.” I return. She is riding a much shorter board so has to work harder for every wave. The short surface of the smaller board fighting her as she paddles the less buoyant craft. “You got a few good pumps down the line.” I add. She smiles her beautiful smile. Large white teeth, white blonde hair and fair complexion, she is like a Winter Goddess I think to myself. Always so comfortable in the cold water she lounges easily next to me in the 60 degree ocean. “Wow” look at that set!” she says excitedly pointing to the West as another perfect group of waves come marching in. We both begin paddling again up the point in the direction of the oncoming lines. Further out a single male surfer turns to catch the first of the over-head swells as it feels the bottom and begins to break. He paddles into it hops up smoothly and slides down the face angling in our direction. He races towards us as we take the whole scene in. There are 3 more waves behind this one and the lush green trees that line the point silhouette against a luminous stormy sky. An image we both feel burning into our memories. We clear the wave just as he wooshes by. My daughter gives him a hoot, feeling the contact high from the beauty we have all just shared. The next wave turns towards us and begins to stand up. My daughter is just in front if me and spins to catch it. I am filled with joy seeing how expertly she judges the wave’s position and her own, adjusting her paddling speed and direction to be in just the right place to catch it but not be caught by it. “Woo-hoo!” I shout as the wave rises up under her, her board suddenly lifting like a bucking horse its tail coming up and its nose down. She lets the nose drop and pops her legs under her as it falls away landing her feet on the deck of the board just before it careens end over end. She redirects the energy across the wave and slides away down the point another big smile spreading across her face. My eyes follow her like they have so many times before as she learned the skills necessary to be here now. Everything so much the same but then again so different. She is an adult, I can speak to her as a peer now in the water whereas before I was her parent and instructor, lifeguard and father. I am still her father however no longer in that male body. Today I sit in the surf line-up as a woman with my grown daughter after so many years as her male parent. The experience a completion of a long journey finally realized on my own part and hers.
As my children approached adulthood it became clear it was time for me to begin considering my own identity. I had spent all my energy safe-guarding them and nurturing their selves even as my own slowly drained from me. The more realized and conscious they became the more apparent my own stunted self was revealed. I had been living a half-life, always knowing there was someone inside whom no one could see. Every experience done as a voyeur, knowing I should feel more but always looking at it through a veil that separated me from the direct emotion. Having children broke through that initially. The profound moment of watching your child arrive still gives me chills and woke me from my sleep. They became the most precious things in my universe and my all consuming meaning. At the time they arrived I was married to their Mom and began to imagine a traditional family life. Perhaps this visceral connection to someone other than myself would be enough for me to let go of the constant awareness that I was not whole. Painfully and perhaps mercifully their mother could not live that broken reality and we parted ways as intimate partners but not as parents. I fought to be near them at times feeling short changed as their father but understood the deep need young children have for their birth mother. I became a weekend-warrior. I spent very Saturday and Sunday with my children for 5 years never taking one off. I worked the other 5 days but felt such a strong bond that I needed it as much as they did.
All was well or so I thought. I attempted other traditional male-female relationships but I could never get past the veil and my incomplete self. I dated multiple women, some met my children and some didn’t. Some I told of my incomplete self and others never knew. Some bitterly condemned me when I shared and others empathized but left anyway. None could live with someone who was only half present. As my children became teenagers I saw them less. I attempted to bridge the widening distance from my children by teaching them to surf and sharing my joy of the ocean. When my son turned thirteen I realized he needed a father to show him how to be a man. He wanted to feel special as a boy who could have his own unique time with his male role-model. My daughter had her Mother already. They shared experiences my son was not privy to nor interested in. He was all boy and wanted to feel that we had our own things and activities. He needed to bang his shield and spear together and I had to show him how. I began taking him surfing. We started with the easy spots and the smaller days. He devoured the experiences eagerly. Often we would get up before dawn and school to arrive at the ocean just as it was getting light. After dozens and dozens of surf sessions he slowly improved. I watched as his self confidence blossomed his body grew and began to display the lean muscles of a young man. This confidence spread into school and other areas as he started wrestling and playing football. He embraced the toughest male sports loving and reveling in activities I used to cringe at. By the time he was 18 he was a supremely confident Alpha male. It seemed whatever we had done had gone right.
My daughter I picked up again, perhaps a bit late after realizing she needed that same male influence. We suffered through a more difficult adolescence together. She trying to figure herself out in a world significantly more hostile to young women than men and I struggling with my own growing pains. I pushed hard trying to keep her near hoping she’d feel the love of the ocean as a grounding force in her life. Her strong intuition seemed to know I was hiding something. Her Mother worried I was harming her in some unconscious way. I felt my day of reckoning approach even as the waves come relentlessly across the water. I finally shared my struggle and split identity to my daughter in a therapy session when she was few weeks shy of her 18th birthday. I had always hoped to wait until she arrived at the that magic adult number to somehow preserve her childhood from my own complications and had nearly got there. Her struggles made it seem more imperative to finally be honest and let her in on who her father actually was.
Initially there was disbelief. This grizzled, athletic very male father was in fact a woman? I can’t even imagine how strange that must have been for her to wrap her mind around. My heart broke to disappoint another woman, but this time the single most important one of my life. I felt myself fall from her esteem. I, like every parent had the sudden descent from the Olympian pedestal to the shattered reality of a common flawed mortal. I pondered her mother’s need to help in the crash even as I knew of its inevitability. I shared with my 21 year old son, now a 6-foot-six heavily muscled man a few weeks later. He embraced me now towering over me and said, “I love you no matter what Dad.” Tears rolled down my cheeks at those words. The fear I had held so long at this moment dissolving on the shoulder of my beautiful child.
He has held onto that position even though I know there has been struggle for him to comprehend it. We surf less since he has graduated college and lives in another town with his fiancé but my daughter has recently returned. In the interim she has found her understanding of her world and herself and how I fit in it as a woman. In some ways she has become my mentor. After all ironically she has lived as a woman longer than I. She arrives from her long paddle back after her last wave with a huge bright smile. “Gorgeous wave!” I say as she sits up next to me. “Yeah, thanks Dad.” she grins. Just then the man who caught the wave right before hers paddles up. “You ladies still killing it over here?” “Oh yeah!” I respond. “You know it!” He gives me a big smile stopping for a moment to chat. “Girl Power!” I hear him say as he paddles off. My daughter and I look at each other and laugh out loud. “You have no idea!”