There's a man in my small town who goes for a swim in the ocean every morning.
Nothing exceptional about that. But it's the fact that the whole exercise takes him around two hours that's a little unusual.
Jim grew up in town. As far as he knows, his family have been here for something like eighty years. On the one block on the road into town is Jim's brick place, behind it his parents' timber place, and beside it the ramshackle tin shed where an uncle once lived.
Jim grew up a surfer, part of a generation who enjoyed extraordinary freedoms, empty waves and unhurried lives.
They fiercely protected their ground, though by today’s standards they were under no real pressure.
Jim left school and began to travel, making pilgrimages to Indonesia's Mentawai Islands, Puerto Escondido in Mexico, California, France and Hawaii's Sunset Beach. He learned photography and built a substantial folio of work from all over the world.
Aiming to maintain a level of performance, he worked hard on his fitness and found himself training others for a living. He coached sprinters and offered personal training for clients at home and as far away as Dubai. And year after year, he devoted his days to surfing the cold waters of home and the warm waters of the tropics. Kelp and coral, pines and palms. When he materialises from those years on the photo-board in his livingroom, he's sunburnt, laughing and fit as a bull.
At 42, he was behind the wheel of a car on a country highway with his wife beside him and his infant son in the back, when the lines of the road suddenly blurred and merged. Frightened and unable to control the vehicle, he swapped seats with his wife. On another occasion around the same time, he was sitting on the ocean waiting for a wave when the horizon doubled and he couldn't unscramble it.
It took two years to get a diagnosis: scans revealed scarring on the brain, and Jim was told he had progressive multiple sclerosis. By then, so many dire scenarios had been considered that he says this explanation felt like a relief. But slowly and steadily, the disease began to rob him of his powers. Tremors, paralysis, crippling fatigue in the afternoons. Changes in his speech, sudden falls. And before long, surfing was out of the question.
Jim's responded to this loss with a kind of stubborn resolve that we probably all hope we'd adopt. He's kept taking photographs, kept pitching them for publication. And every morning, he climbs onto a mobility scooter and slowly makes his way around the block to the beach. There, he undresses and grimly counts sit ups and stretches before transferring himself to a walking frame to get across the sand; and lastly to a cane to make his way through the shallows. Carefully balanced on the cane, he waits for an incoming wave and drops himself face-first into the water. He repeats the plunge three times, sips a little seawater for good luck and then painstakingly undertakes the journey in reverse. He’ll readily accept a hand with the transition into the water, but Jim has no interest in pity. He's interested in finding ways to fight back, wanting to set an example. He still hangs out with his lifelong mates, still loves a beer and a cackle.
I've watched Jim go through his swimming routine many times. The key to the whole thing is the look on his face when he rises from the water. It's pure joy. (Well, he roars a bit some days when it's freezing, but who wouldn't?) He says it’s the only time he forgets the disease for a moment. He also says the ocean's been good to him his whole life and that he can’t turn his back on it now. It’s a fascinating way to perceive the world: Jim somehow owes the ocean for the good times.
It's terrifying to contemplate having the ocean taken off you by torturous increments, day after day. It's also the highest expression of the human spirit to maintain that spark of defiance, that deep well of resolve that keeps finding a way.
24 The Leatherjacket
28 Cannot Look Away
54 The Long View:
A Short History of Binoculars
66 The Caretaker:
104 The Dupain House
110 Travels on La Costa Sur
118 The Parable of the Global Rhinoceros
10 Mislaid Books of the Sea
Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely
Journal of Travel and Research
Kaisou: Plants of the Sea
72 The Church of the Open Sky
102 Greg Malouf
116 Too High
The Coffee Wars