Topic: Facing Fergus by Jeremy Boase

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Memories a Plenty Competition Winners 2009 - Jeremy Boase. A vivid account what it was like for the writer to take part in his very first triathlon at Mount Maunganui in the teeth of a tropical cyclone. This is quite recent social history, as Fergus hit in December 1996, but it's a good reminder that history isn't just what happened 100 years ago - it's being made now.

Looking strange ?: See an archived version here

Facing Fergus

While my stomach wrestled with a bowl of Weetbix I hadn't enjoyed, my eyes scanned the ocean. The view had not improved in the few seconds since my last inspection.

My feet were cool on the damp grass but nervous tension and five millimetres of neoprene kept my legs warm. My torso was covered by a singlet and baggy sweatshirt, my head by a fluorescent swim cap. Behind me my bike rested expectantly on a steel bar, helmet cupped in the handlebars, shoes locked into the pedals. Beside me another man, similarly dressed, maintained a continual stream of chatter. I leant on a crowd control barrier and gazed sightlessly at the water.

When it left the islands and headed for Northland, the Met Service boffins had downgraded Fergus from a cyclone to a deep depression. And officially it wouldn't arrive for another 24 hours, bringing wind, rain and destruction to holidaying communities from Northland to Poverty Bay. But these formal distinctions felt hollow as Fergus' leading edge threw an endless supply of waves at the Main Beach while I re-considered my triathlon debut.

I had happily survived 28 years on this planet without entering a triathlon; most in the northern hemisphere and almost all without having to enter a body of water larger than a bath. Sure I had once proudly received my 25-metre freestyle certificate, reward for surviving the unheated outdoor pool where my primary teachers took revenge on the unruly. But that flimsy piece of paper Facing Fergus/2 (and equally flimsy achievement now I think about it) was hardly a strong crutch to lean on in the adult world. Particularly the frightening adult world that lay immediately ahead.

The path to race day was paved with familiar bricks: a desire to retain at least a modicum of fitness from my younger, easier years; a colleague's good-natured but perhaps accurate gibe at 'wussy Poms'; a romantic desire to 'be a triathlete'. The recurring doubts were equally common: the fear of failure, of humiliation, of confirming stereotypes.

Eventually the romance proved irresistible and for the first time in nearly twenty years I sought swimming advice. After the coach's eyebrows had returned to their normal position a plan was hatched, a plan that exclusively involved the warm, flat waters of Memorial Park pool and the cool, mostly-flat waters of Pilot Bay. No mention of walls of water flung shore-wards by a cyclone-come-deep-depression with an Irishman's name and temper.

The day before the race concerned friends had warned me that the persistent easterlies were generating a large swell. Their sub-text was plain: Are you crazy? Debatable as that question may have been, it was too late to consider. I had already entered. And told everyone that I had. There could be no retreat with honor intact. Unless...

The pre-race briefing was late – the organisers in relaxed, post-Christmas mood – but soon confirmed that my final escape route was blocked. Despite the waves, the race was definitely on. And while there had been thoughts of a transfer to Pilot Bay as happened in '88 and '93 when storms blew in, those Facing Fergus/3 thoughts had been rejected. The impatient audience rumbled at the news, some expressing relieved assent, others perhaps in prayer. For me, all honourable options were now exhausted. So was I; must have been the stress.

With the necessities covered, the microphone was passed to a man who looked uncannily like the maunga that was his backdrop: tall with strong, broad shoulders, a broader middle, and not much cover on top.

Peter Fitzsimmons stood on the steps of the surf club over which he would soon preside, ready to offer handy hints to those swimmers not familiar with surf conditions. A nearby wit suggested that using an IRB would be the best 'hint' he could offer. The resultant laughter and knowing smiles confirmed I was not alone in being just a touch stressed about the prospect of actually starting the race. The queue for the gents confirmed the same thing – 200 athletes, large waves, and a single cubicle was far from the right combination.

The race organisers had arranged for the women to start first. Whether this act of gallantry was totally appreciated by the direct recipients is unknown but it certainly helped the watching male and team athletes. I felt greatly encouraged that not one of the women appeared to have drowned during the eight minutes that crept by before the men were called to the line. If they could do it, then surely I could.
Couldn't I?

As the huddle of athletes shuffled forwards, anticipating the starter's gun, a huge wave hit the shore. Then another. I shuffled backwards, gradually becoming part of the watching crowd rather than the waiting athletes. But being the only person on the beach wearing a wetsuit and swim cap was soon Facing Fergus/4 going to look both obvious and lame so, when the hooter finally sounded, impending shame forced me forwards and into battle.

The details from here are a bit hazy. I remember water coming towards me, water above me, water inside me, and finally, thankfully, water underneath me.

I remember arriving back on the beach upside-down after a woeful attempt
at body-surfing. I remember reaching the safety of the sand only to be ushered back into the waves to complete the second leg of the M-shaped course.

I remember, and can still feel, the relief and accomplishment of finishing the swim, of feeling wet sand give way to dry, then to the solid permanence of grass and finally to tarmac. The 'firmer' after the 'terror', so to speak.

I know from the results sheet, sitting treasured in a bottom drawer alongside my 25-metre freestyle certificate, that I finished the race, even if the details of the cycle and run escape recall.

And now, 13 years and many races later, I know that I'm looking forward to another Surfbreaker triathlon this Christmas. I wonder if Fergus will be there.

 

Competition entries from 2011 to 2013 can be found here: http://tauranga.kete.net.nz/en/new_zealand_society_of_authors_bay_of_plenty  

This page was archived at perma CC in January 2017: https://perma:cc/S6G3-3XCR

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