What I have learned while wearing a wetsuit

At the end of 2020, my son Jack and I had a dream: we wanted to go the beach every morning while I was on leave. But then the government closed the beaches, from December 29, through until January 15, 2021.

Covid lockdowns are what they are, and we had no choice but to stay home. We weren’t happy though.

Our beach-going has a long history. Well, my beach-going has a long history: I was born in Johannesburg, but my father had grown up in East London, and we had holidays by the sea all through my childhood. We moved to East London in my last year of primary school, and going to the beach was simply something we did as a family all the time.

Then, I moved to Cape Town when I got my first job as a reporter at the Cape Times, and the beach became slightly less of a thing. I kept going, but eventually got worn down by the amount of time it took to drive to a beach, and the coldness of the water when you got there. Working long hours didn’t help.

(Aside: the average sea temperature in East London in January is 24.4 degrees Celsius. The average sea temperature in the same month in Cape Town is 18.9C. In winter, in July, East London averages 21.6C, while Cape Town averages 15.3C)

Still, when I had Jack I was determined he would have a beach childhood – and we would go to the beach as often as we could, even in the face of his determination to run as far as he could, as fast as he could – on one occasion straight into the frigid water at Camps Bay, fully clothed, in the middle of winter.

Swimming with the children

But going to the beach often meant he was swimming and I was paddling – I just never got used to the cold water.

Then, when he was 11 or 12, we spent a mid-winter holiday with my sister and her family in Durban (average temperature 21.8C in July). I reverted to my roots, borrowed a boogie board (as a bodyboard is also known) and swam with the children every chance I got.

And Jack was electrified. He was amazed that I knew how to ride a wave (I do it badly, but I do it) and thrilled to share the water with me.

I came back to Cape Town, thought long and hard about our holiday in Durban, and went out and bought a wetsuit. I decided I wanted to be in the water again, and a wetsuit was a way to beat the cold.

We have been bodyboarding together ever since. There were some years in the deep hell of the teenage years when he wouldn’t get up early to go to the beach (a necessity in Cape Town’s heady tourism years). But even in the deep hell, if I got him to the waves, he was always willing to go in the water with me.

So now, in 2022, we have been getting in the car early in the morning and going to Surfer’s Corner at Muizenberg. Jack, now 19, has graduated to a surfboard, and I am still playing in the waves closer to shore.

I am back at work and we get to the beach three or four times a week as things stand now. Sometimes on a weekend morning, and sometimes on a weekday evening.

An encounter on the beachfront

On one of those weekday evenings, a woman walking past stopped to talk to me.

“My husband says you should be my motivation,” she said.

It turned out she sits on the beach while her family go in the water, and she had been watching me ride the big swells that were the aftermath of the big Southern Ocean storm.

The secret is a wetsuit, I said, thinking of the cold water.

There was a pause, and she said: “I don’t really swim.”

I confided that I am not a strong swimmer at all, and that I don’t go in the water deeper than my waist, and that I have no skill in paddling into waves. I just wait for a breaking wave and jump and have fun.

She said she could see I was having fun. I recommended a second-hand shop for a cheaper wetsuit and perhaps her own boogie board. Oh, she said, my grand-daughter has one of those.

She thanked me again for being her motivation and went off to join her family, looking thoughtful.

And I so do hope she braves the sea, even if she just puts on a costume and plays in the baby waves. I hope the example I set showed her that you can never be too old or too unglamorous to have fun. And that you can shed your dignity in favour of spending time with your child.

Mother and son at the beach

Jack and I at Langebaan in June 2021.

Because there is no way I embody dignity on the beach, dear reader. I am not a pretty sight in a wetsuit. There are bulges where there shouldn’t be bulges. I am also not the youngest person in the water, nor, as I have indicated, am I the most skilful. But, according to Jack, I am super-cool.

And that matters much more than dignity.

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Main picture: Jack at a beach in Cape Town. Picture by Renee Moodie.

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