The shadow-line

Picture: Kaskazi kayaks

I didn’t intend to write about the sea twice in a row, but something happened today.

As I walked near where I live, carrying home books from the second-hand store and thinking about my flight in the morning, I noticed a man in the sea.

It was a bright day and a low tide and the sea was on the far side of a wide shelf of black rocks that are usually covered. The man had fallen from his kayak and clung to the side of it. The sea was so blue and the man so near shore you couldn’t imagine he was in serious danger. The water was very clear; you could see the dark kelp beds and the lines of clear turquoise water above the sandy bottom and the bands of dark purple and deeper blue beyond.

I’ve always hoped I’d do well in an emergency. Ever since I was a small boy roaming the wilds of my backyard I’ve played out moments of crisis and derring-do – hold-ups and Hindenburgs and airplane hijackings – rehearsing how, while others gawped and shrieked, I might spring into action like James Bond or a panther. So I’d like to say that when I saw the man in the water I was ready to go, but actually I stood wondering why he was swimming when he had a perfectly good kayak. I wondered if he wasn’t cold. Then I wondered if I should do anything. But it would be embarrassing to do something if he didn’t want any doing done. It’s good to be a hero, but you don’t want to intrude.

I might still be standing there like a columnist at a cocktail party if a splendid woman hadn’t run past me, eyes on the ocean. She wore a jacket with a reflective stripe so I assumed she knew what she was doing.

We ran down the stairs from the sea wall and balanced across the sharp ridges and rock pools towards the sea. There were anemones and whelks in the pools and I tried not to stand on them. She was attached to the NSRI and lived nearby and someone had called her. We reached the edge of the rocks. The man had been in the water for an hour. It is cold in the Atlantic. He let go of the kayak and struggled his way through kelp beds and breakers.

I called: “Are you okay?”

He was too tired to answer. He wasn’t far away but to reach him you would have to jump into the sea and make your own way through the rocks and currents.

“I think he’s okay,” I said. The woman was taking off her jeans. You can’t let a woman strip to her underwear and go into the sea on her own, but first I had to find a dry place to put my books and somewhere to wedge my phone.

I remembered times I might have died: an overturned car in the Karoo; a head-on collision in Parktown North with a stranger I later dated; a rugby fan pointing a gun at my head on the M1; a mishap in the mountains of Turkey. It must happen every day on the road or in our bodies without our realising. Each moment our heart doesn’t stop beating is another lucky escape.

Once, many years ago, I was in the sea at sunset in winter and the water was too cold and the rip too strong. I couldn’t get back and I was very sure I would drown. A man swam out to me but then he couldn’t get back in either. He was a lifesaver on holiday from England, and I apologised for being the cause of his death. “S’okay,” he said, a little insincerely. Finally people linked hands to form a human chain that reached us and pulled us in. When I remember that day I remember the loneliness of dying so near shore while the world carries on. Instead I should remember the chain of hands.

This afternoon we helped the man out and he was stunned with cold and tiredness. He shook but he was all right. I kept wanting to touch him, like a talisman, as though his return from the other side of the kine would bring me good luck: I wanted to ask him what he now knew. Of course, he knew nothing, except that he was alive. We find more meaning watching someone come clawing back across that thin line than doing it ourselves.

By the time we reached the promenade there were other NSRI members, and more arriving. I already donate each month to the NSRI; now I’m glad I do.

We looked back from the sea wall. From that elevation the sea looked perfectly calm. The clear channels were like the roads of a sunken city. Close to where he’d nearly died, a whale blew. “Wow,” said the man. “A whale.”

Times, 16 September 2013