I don't know how I get back in-I just don't believe that fear should control our lives.
I briefly met Caleb Swanepoel on Scripps Beach in San Diego. I was playing tennis in the La Jolla Hardcourt National Championships and Caleb was competing in the World Adaptive Surf Championships. I decided to take a walk on the beach between matches. My eyes are typically staring vacantly at the sea sand on a beach walk, but in La Jolla the scenery is just too dramatic to look down. The vibrant, endless blue sky with towering cliffs neighboring the ocean, draws ones gaze upwards.
My gaze fluttered and focused on prosthetic limbs, crutches and wheelchairs strewn across the sand. Not your typical beach scene. Most assistive devices were baking in the sun, with no owner nearby. The air was charged with adrenaline and excitement. It dawned on me that I stumbled upon an adaptive surfing competition. Specifically, the Stance ISA World Adaptive Surf Championship. Flags from all over the world were staked into sand. I located the South African Adaptive Surfing Team by the colors of my homeland. I am so thankful that Caleb was available to share his story with me.
Caleb, your courage and drive is admirable.
My name is Caleb Swanepoel and I am from South Africa. I grew up in the small community of Prince Albert (The Karoo) with two brothers and two sisters. The Karoo is a semi arid farming community. The rock formations of the Zwarberg Mountains are quite dramatic. On the 27th of June, 2015 I was with my family at Buffalo Bay (Buffelsbaai). The beach is part of a 14 kilometer stretch of white sand surrounded by indigenous natural bush. This beach is ideal for swimming and surfing and locals claim it is the most wonderful beach on the globe. I had just finished my first semester at University of Cape Town where I am pursuing a degree in Theater and Performance. The conditions were perfect for catching waves and so my brothers and I put on our fins and wetsuits to do some body surfing at a break called Murphy’s Point.
We were catching waves about 100 meters from the beach when I saw a Great White Shark ahead of me in the water. I shouted two words to my brothers: “shark" and “swim” and we started swimming as fast as we could to the beach but I had a sinking feeling in the back of my mind that something horrible was about to happen. It was then that I felt somethings slam into the left side of my body. The shark had bitten into me and was pulling me under the water. I hopelessly tried to hit the shark and push it off my leg. I felt something disconnect, there was no pain. I just felt something leave my body. I had a moment of clarity to think: “now what…”. I did not think I was going to survive. My younger brother turned back and started pulling me by my wetsuit towards the beach. The shark came back and circled us. It then bit into my left leg.
It is a miracle that I am alive today. I lost my right leg above the knee and received a laceration to my left knee. Above the knee shark attack victims usually bleed out within ten minutes. In my case, my femoral artery went into spasm, preventing a bleed out. With the help of emergency units NSRI and ER24 and the incredible team at George Medi-Clinic, I am alive today.
I went back into the water very early after my shark attack and in 2016 I joined a few friends on a team-building day at Muizenberg Beach. We went out on SUP boards and tried to surf them. This lead to some surf lessons on a longboard and a trip to the Adaptive Surfing Championships in South Africa. This is where I met Tasha Mentasi. She has been an incredible mentor, coach and friend to me.
People often ask me, “how do you get back in the water?” I don’t know how I get back in. I get scared just like everyone else but I have found enjoyment in surfing and I don’t believe that we should allow fear to control our lives. The massive support from my family, my town and new people I meet on social media motivates me to keep going and it encourages me to get out there and have fun.
One of the most rewarding aspects of surfing is being able to stand up on the board and catch a clean, powerful wave feeling the energy beneath you. Surfing also provides a chance to clear your mind and just be in the moment as you catch that wave. One of the hardest aspects of surfing for me is handling the conditions of the ocean. Paddling out can be challenging and when duck diving under large sets I have some anxiety that my surf leg might come off in the water. Surfing also requires committing to a wave. When you hesitate you are more likely to fall.
When I first started surfing, I surfed at Muizenberg beach in Cape Town. It is a beginner wave and forgiving. My goals are to keep shortening my board and reducing the length of my surf leg. I condition in the pool with swimming and now work on my surf skills at Long Beach in Cape Town which has a distinct peak with powerful rights and lefts.
My grandad used to say: “when things are tough, you make friends with it.” I try to remember these words as I pursue my goal of becoming a better surfer.