The Sea can be a Dangerous Place as I Learnt

Being brought up by the sea brought us boundless joy as children. From a very early age we all learned to swim proficiently. As my father was brought up at the coast, he took us to the beach every weekend irrespective of what the weather conditions were like. Due to our competence, we were left unsupervised and unattended on the beach from an early age. Instead of the current generation frequenting the malls, we led an active life.

Even as a competent swimmer I twice almost did not see another day. On both occasions it was a spring tide which was the cause of my near fatal mishaps. Perhaps familiarity breeds contempt as I did not treat the sea with the caution it deserves.

These are the chronicles of those events still seared in my memory.

Main picture: This is a view of the main sand dune at Maitlands River Mouth 

Sand boarding

Let me commence with an episode which is strictly not swimming – not voluntarily at least. My dad made us kids a sand board. With many sand dunes within close proximity to our house, it would add to the list of things that we could do when at the beach.

View from the top of the dune. It took 10 minutes to climb it but only one minute to the river

View from the top of the Maitland River sand dune. It took 10 minutes to climb it but only one minute to the river

We already had a canoe which was permanently parked under a Norfolk Pine tree at Clarrie [Clarence] Woods’ house at Schoenmakerskop but sand boarding was a novelty. The first trial runs were at the Maitland River mouth. Soon we were skiing effortlessly down the highest dunes – and some were high.

Our next attempt was at Sardinia Bay. Naturally we wanted to ski down the highest dune and what better than the sea-facing side of the dune. At Maitland, there was no risk when using the highest dunes. The worst that could happen is that one would hit a shallow sandy river. But Sardinia Bay is different. With its cross currencies and backwash, it is never a safe beach to swim in.

Sardinia bay beach


As I gathered speed towards the sea water, I noted with dismay that the sea was extremely turbulent implying a spring tide. Furthermore the sand dune had been shifted by the wind since we were last there. As a consequence, it was half in the water rather than previously when the sea never reached the sand dune itself.

Sardinia Bay, Port Elizabeth#02

In this picture of the sand dunes at Sardinia Bay, the dune is separated from the sea unlike the time when we were sand boarding as it protruded into the sea

As the sea was sucked backwards before its next surge forward, I had to bail off the board. The board sped ever onwards to be claimed by the sea. Of more pressing concern as I rolled down the dune was whether I would come to a halt before the sea line.

I did.

But just.

I was shaken. It had been a close run thing.

As punishment, dad never made us a replacement board.


Our Canoe and the Tractor Tyre

The only vacations that we had away from home as children were over the Easter Holidays at a local holiday resort called Willows. All of the accommodation in those days was white washed rondawels. From a space utilisation perspective, they were inefficient but as children this was the least of our concerns. From morning until night fall, we were either swimming, examining the various rock pools or building huge dams out of sea sand.

The Willows

View of the Willows Tidal Pool at low tide. A bunch of children are playing on a tractor tyre in the pool

In this particular year, we had brought our canoe with. Being made out of hardboard and not fibreglass, it was extremely heavy to lug around. Hence we tended not to use it too often.

The day that we decided to use it was not, in retrospect, the most appropriate. It was a weekend with the tiny tidal pool being overcrowded. Secondly there was a spring tide. Probably the reason why we elected to use it that weekend was to impress the girls. Being a two-seated, I would take girls for a trip around the pool.

At low tide one can easily walk across the wall

At low tide one can easily walk across the sea wall

On this day the huge tidal swells would wash over the wall. If one got one’s timing right by paddling at the correct speed, one could catch the wave and “surf” in with it to the shore.

Apart from the canoe, the only other large object in the pool, were a few kids on a huge tractor tyre. As I came hurtling in on the canoe, I noticed some children on my right. As I swung to my left, a huge tractor tyre was spiralling rightwards, clearly out of control, into my chosen path. There were two options: either hit the kids or hit the tyre.


A view of the rondawels at Willows


The tyre it was.

With the tyre being larger and taller than the canoe, the canoe was forced under the tyre. The canoe capsized and became wedged under it. I tried to move but I could not extract myself from the canoe. The weight of the children on the tyre was pressing it down onto me trapped upside down in the canoe.

Finally they slid off the tyre. Almost immediately the canoe was released from the hold of the tyre and the canoe shot out of the water as it had two buoyancy compartments.

Again it had been a near-run thing.

Would I be lucky a third time?


The steel rope at Humewood Beach

Luck is fickle and bad luck strikes when least expected. This incident pales in comparison to the previous occurrences. Any sober analysis of the situation in this case would have disabused me of my decision. It would a rude awakening about the dangers of the sea.

As kids we always had to walk to school. The only exception was the first day at a new school. High school was different. As the Alexander Road High School was about a half an hour’s walk from home – it was at the other end of Newton Park from our house – my parents relented and purchased me a bike. Nothing special but at least it was not a Postman’s Bike otherwise I would have been the laughing stock of the school. In that case, I might even have looked a gift horse in the mouth and still walked to school.

Humewood in the 1970s

Humewood in the 1970s

Soon I was cycling everywhere – to Michael Baker’s house in Sunridge Park and down Target Kloof into Walmer. Finally I would indulge a guilty pleasure: cycle all the way to Humewood Beach to have a swim. I can never recall actually telling my parents where I was off to but just left home. It had always been this way when we went to the beach. In the McCleland household, the BEACH meant only one place and that was Schoenmakerskop. Having been born and raised at Schoenies – as we called it – my dad had a deep and abiding love of the place. He probably knew every rock, every fishing spot and every cranny.

Red Windmill in the 1970s

Red Windmill in the 1970s

That is why I wanted to cycle to Humewood Beach. This was where all the cool people swam; not the oldies like at Schoenies. With an unbroken record of success in achieving whatever I wanted to do in the water, I spotted the steel cable strung out from the desolate and broken down slipway across the sea.

Humewood in the 1970's with the steel cable clearly visible

Humewood in the 1970’s with the steel cable clearly visible

Even the fact that it was spring tide did not provide a pause. Perhaps my desire to prove that I could swim to the cable overrode my good sense and judgement. With a surfeit of confidence I tackled the task at hand. I had not heeded the signs.

By the time that I dived into the approaching waves, it was about 9am. The sun was already high in the sky as it beat down on the beach.

Instead of the fluid strokes that I was used it, my rhythm was fitful. The usual regular pattern of waves had been replaced by a swirling mass of water as if in a bubbling cauldron. As each swell approached, I lost sight of the beach and the steel cable.

Humewood 1970s

My implacable determination to succeed drove me to continue. I would not relent. In the swirling sea it is never easily apparent whether one is making progress or not. I swam for another fifteen minutes and only then judged my progress again. I was unsure whether I had made headway at all.

It was at that point, that panic set it. There were alternatives: swim to the steel rope which was relatively close or swim back which was much further. What decided me was the fact that even if I could take a break at the steel cable, I would still have to swim the whole way back.

The original car park with slipway extending into it

The original car park with slipway extending into it

Despite my misgivings in not completing the challenge that I had set myself, a daunting challenge still lay ahead. First there was the swim back and then the daunting prospect of cycling back home which included the precipitous Brickmakerskloof.

Finally I slowly and inexorably regained my confidence. At sea, one must use the power and motion of the water and not fight it. Swim when a swell comes past but remain still and float along when it is retreating.

This was a timely reminder to me that much of my sea swimming had been in a protected gully at Schoenmakerskop rather in the open sea where one is at the mercy of the vagaries of the currents.

HUmewood beachfront in the 1950s

Humewood beachfront in the 1950s with the slipway in the background

Then it was the daunting prospect of cycling home while feeling totally exhausted.

With disarming candour I admitted that open sea swimming would never be my forte.

Even forty years later whilst staying in the Garden Court Hotel in Port Elizabeth for three months when I had to perform a due diligence on a company, I would watch the swimmers training far out at sea way past the slipway. My pulse would still race even after all those years.


I have an admission to make – but do not tell a soul. If for no other reason, the reason why I never entered the Iron Man is the thought of having to swim 1.8 km at sea way out in the deep past that slipway and that steel cable.

I know.

I know

I am a wussie

But please do not tell a soul.

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1 Comment

  1. O what good memories. We lived in Newton Park and went to Andrew Rabie. Also toured the world with our bicycles. And those sand dunes at Van Standens!


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