Survival in False Bay

Wednesday, 08 February 2006 12:08 | Written by 
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Sunday 6th February 2006: Gordon's Bay, Cape Town, South Africa
(by Rob Mousley)

Surf Ski nose sheered off
...the nose sheered off...
The Sunday race was cancelled because a gale force southeaster was blasting False Bay at 40kts or more. Undaunted, Daantjie Malan and Clifford Binedell decided to do the 18km Gordon's Bay to Monwabisi downwind run in their Fenn Millennium double ski instead. They were joined by friends in another two double skis.

The pair had come prepared: lifejackets, body leashes, flares and a fair bit of experience: Daantjie, a 45 year-old from Strand, has just done the 2005 Men's Health Cape Point Challenge, a 56km paddle known as the toughest ski race in the world, finishing third in the Veterans category. Clifford (also 45) from Stellenbosch, has done several Cape Points and with Matthew van Heerden won the 2004 Discovery Men's Health Doubles Series. These are strong, experienced paddlers.

They arrived on the beach at Gordon's Bay at about 10h00. The bay itself was flat but the wind was so strong it was lifting spray off the water and the sea was covered with a smoky haze. Further out, False Bay was a maelstrom of white water, the tops of the 3 to 4m swells being blown off in streamers of spume.


As they left the bay, the swells built up rapidly and the conditions were every bit as good as they'd hoped. "Fantastic. Huge runs, fabulous," said Clifford, "the sort of thing where you're all yelling and whooping as you go down the wave. Marvellous!"

Somewhere off Strand Beach the three skis regrouped. They were already half way and they agreed at this point to proceed independently, "See you at Monwabisi!" The other skis quickly gained about 100m ahead of the two.

Roughly 8km from Monwabisi a massive, exceptionally steep wave lifted the back of the ski. As they descended at a steeper and steeper angle, the nose of the ski hit the trough and buried itself like a rocket hitting mud. Daantjie was submerged in a welter of foam and Clifford was catapulted into the air as the ski pitch poled. "I was right under water," said Daantjie, "out of the corner of my eye I saw Clifford flying through the air." As they surfaced, they were laughing, high on adrenalin. They clambered back on and set off in pursuit of the other two skis.

Detail: ski nose
...sheered right off...
What they didn't know was that their ski had been badly damaged. As they caught the next wave, Daantjie saw to his horror the nose of ski starting to fold. Moments later it sheered right off, some 60cm from the tip.

The ski immediately filled with water and seemed about to sink. The two men undid their leashes as fast as they could so that they wouldn't be dragged under with the ski. "I'd always thought the ski would float," said Clifford, "but there's just the little stringer, nothing at all!"

They were a long way out to sea. "At that moment I glanced up at the land," said Daantjie, "and it was far, far away."

"We didn't have a cell phone - but we couldn't have used it anyway. As it was, I found it almost impossible to use the flares," said Clifford, "I was getting knocked about and I struggled to get them out of the container and not lose my paddle." He managed to fire off a couple of the pencil flares but they realised that it was highly unlikely that they'd be seen.

The other two skis were already out of sight; they wouldn't have been able to do anything anyway. Clifford doubts that they could even have paddled upwind into such a gale.

The two men decided that they had no other choice but to stick with the waterlogged ski. "We just paddled, with our arms above the water, our feet hooked in the straps. We found that if we could get a little momentum up, the ski would seem to rise towards the surface a bit."

The route was in fairly close proximity to Seal Island, known as a feeding ground for Great White sharks. "All the time we were thinking sharks. At one point we saw this big black thing in the water. I asked Daantjie what it was and he said, ‘I don't know - but it's big!'" As the huge shape rose to the surface Daantjie had a surreal moment. "I thought for a second that we had a crocodile in the water with us," he said, "the thing was leathery and scaly..." The "thing" was a huge leatherback turtle. The largest reptile species, leatherbacks grow to 2.5m and can weight 1.5 tons. Clifford reckons this one was every bit that size.

Meanwhile the shore party had realised that they were in trouble and had people on the beaches looking for them. But the two were battling on, paddling with the wind and waves in the only direction they could go - straight downwind. "We knew that no-one would be able to find us. We were invisible; just two heads sticking out of the water."

Lucky escape - noseless surf skiEvery time a big wave came past, Clifford would find himself under water. "I'd go right under, feet in the straps, holding my breath." They kept getting knocked off the ski but never lost contact with it. The slow pace of their progress almost led them to despair. "After fifteen minutes it looked as though we'd made no progress at all," said Daantjie.

One and a half long, cold hours later, they finally got to Monwabisi Beach. Their troubles weren't over. "Getting in at Monwabisi was terrifying," said Clifford, "real survival school stuff."

They undid their leashes and clung to the ski, clutching onto the foot straps. "We went in with the ski, being tumbled with it in the breakers." Amazingly the ski wasn't any more damaged and they eventually arrived on the beach, shaking with cold and exhaustion.

They staggered up to the road and lay on the hot tarmac trying to warm themselves. A passing police patrol car stopped and offered to take them back to the station and thaw them out. At that moment their relieved friends arrived and their ordeal was over.

That night Clifford kept waking up in a cold sweat and he said with a chuckle, "I don't think Daantjie slept all that well either!"

Daantjie confirmed that he too spent a restless Sunday night, his mind endlessly replaying the sequence of events. "It was a real wake-up call," he said, "It just shows, it can happen to anybody. I realised the Good Lord had given me another chance."

The two men had been involved in an incident two days previously at Barker Rock during a race off Clifton Beach. A group of paddlers, going too close to the rock, had been sucked into a breaking wave which had tumbled them on top of each other. One of the skis had ended up with a sizeable hole in its bow and Daantjie speculates that there might have been damage caused to their ski at that point.

The nose folded at the point where the horizontal stringer in the bow stops. "If the stringer was extended another 10cm further forward," he said, "who knows? Perhaps it wouldn't have happened."

What lessons can be learned from this story?

The two men were fully prepared. They were experienced and fit; they had lifejackets, leashes and flares. They weren't on their own.

They didn't have a cell phone - but feel that it would have been impossible to use one in the conditions. The flares weren't seen (or at least no-one called them into the NSRI) probably because they were so far out to sea. They both felt that their lifejackets were key to their survival.

But the most important factor of all was their decision to stick with the damaged ski. It gave them a focal point for their efforts and forced them to stick together. It also helped them to get in at Monwabisi Beach. "We were getting hammered," said Daantjie, "but I didn't mind because each time a wave hit we were being taken a little further into shore.

Leatherback Turtle

Leatherback Turtle
As for the turtle: Clifford called the Two Oceans Aquarium and they told him that leatherbacks are extremely seldom seen in False Bay. Critically endangered, the small population in South Africa lives and breeds off the Zululand coast and this one was about 1000km astray.

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