Three men in a boat

Posted by Darrel Bristow-Bovey on 23 April 2018

There’s bound to be some ego and bravado, especially when the boat is heading for dangerous waters.

Leaving False Bay as dawn breaks. Photo by Teagan Cunniffe.

Sometimes courage comes from unexpected corners.

I was on a small boat leaving Simon’s Town harbour just before sunrise, heading out to sea to look for sharks. There was an English couple, an Australian, a Frenchman, Teagan the photographer and me. Teagan’s from Durban so she’s afraid of sharks, and as we went out across a purpling sea towards Cape Point, conversation turned to courage.

I’ll say this for the Australian: he was not afraid to be Australian. He explained how he wasn’t afraid of anything. He had skydived and surfed big waves and wrestled crocodiles and saved small children from burning buildings and all the things that Australians do. He gave tips on how to be brave around sharks. They’re more afraid of you than you are of them, he said. You have to look them in the eye and show them you’re not afraid. Just keep telling yourself, he told Teagan, that you’re the master of this situation.

The Frenchman listened quietly and I saw that he had very kind eyes.

‘But don’t you agree,’ he said gently when the Aussie paused to take a sip of water, ‘that courage isn’t when you’re not afraid, it’s when you’re afraid but do it anyway? That the truly courageous person is the one who is most afraid?’

The Australian did not agree. He looked at the English couple for support but they weren’t thinking about courage. They were vomiting over the side. If Aussies are the most courageous people on Earth, the English are definitely the champion vomiters.

What, the Australian wanted to know, did Frenchmen know about courage? When the going gets tough, the French go get a cappuccino. He laughed, to show that he was joking and a good bloke really. I wanted to point out that cappuccino is Italian, but I didn’t want to encourage more conversation. One by one we moved away from the Australian, leaving him sitting there congratulating himself on having won the argument.

Soon, the first sharks came around. Even if you aren’t afraid of sharks, there’s something deep and primal inside that cautions you against leaving a warm, dry boat and climbing into a deep body of water with a shark in it. Teagan’s hands were trembling as she adjusted her snorkel. The Aussie went splashing overboard, all big movements and bravado. The Frenchman lowered himself in gently and gave us a thumbs up.

‘Come in,’ he called, ‘the water’s fine!’

Teagan did get in and she swam with the sharks and she didn’t quit even when they swarmed round and nuzzled her. She was courageous. I noticed the Frenchman climb back on the boat and do something with the skipper, then return to the sea, but I didn’t think much of it.

Later, as we were heading back to shore and Teagan was glowing with that feeling of salt and satisfaction from a day at sea confronting your fears, I noticed the Frenchman’s hand was freshly bandaged.

‘What happened?’ I asked.

He shrugged extravagantly and nonchalantly, the way a Frenchman might shrug when you ask why his wife has left him. We kept asking, and eventually, it emerged that when he was giving us the thumbs up with his right hand, he had accidentally splashed his left hand into the mouth of a passing shark. It had given him a little nosh. It wasn’t too bad, he said. With the bandage, there was hardly any blood.

Why didn’t you say anything, we asked? He shrugged again. He knew Teagan was nervous, he said. He didn’t want to frighten her.

And as we came back into harbour I realised that both the Aussie and the Frenchie were wrong. Courage isn’t about being fearless, and it’s not about facing your fears. Courage is when you put yourself aside and think of someone else.

Read Darrel’s cageless shark diving story here: Flying with sharks off the Cape coast

 

This story first appears in the May 2018 issue of Getaway magazine.

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