‘Sea Vixens and Sea Wolves’ is the name of a WhatsApp group. The people on that group taught me to swim without teaching me how to swim.
vixen /’viksn/noun 1 a female FOX (= a wild animal of the dog family) 2 (old fashioned) an unpleasant and bad-tempered women.
A vixen is a fox and it’s in a fox’s nature is to deceive. Some would point to Eve and even argue that it is in a women’s nature to deceive but I’m not that brave. Adam could simply have been hungry or more likely, could not contain his curiosity and therefore, him biting into that apple probably had nothing to do with Eve’s nature nor her intentions. A story for another time though…
I can however state with certainty that on the 16th of October (last year) I got ‘vixed’. Added to a WhatsApp group by a wily (I dare not say ‘old’!) fox. The group was called ‘Sea Swimmers’ or something to that effect. It’s now called (Sea) Vixens and (Sea) Wolves. Various people were added and removed but the core of the group consists mainly of a handful of particularly cunning vixens and the odd wolf.
Apart from being a female fox a vixen can also be a bad-tempered women. The vixens on the group are a bit of both, simply meaning they’re female (and therefore foxy) and each endowed with a fair sprinkle of bad. Of their tempers I cannot speak (yet), I haven’t seen it in action nor did I bear witness to any outbursts that might suggest an underlying bad mood. At best I can only guess. But bad-ass, definitely. That much I’ve seen for myself.
Early last year I posted about the challenges I’ve set for myself. One of which was completing a full Ironman distance triathlon. Of the three disciplines, swimming presented the biggest challenge. Prior to 14 January 2019 I’ve never swam the length of a pool. Ever. If I was going to do a triathlon I’d have to learn to swim from scratch.
Swakopmund’s mole is the product of a sea wall designed by a Mr Ortloff way back when. He intended to create a mooring place for large cargo vessels but ended up with a nothing more than a launch site for rather small recreational fishing vessels. Today, it’s where the Vixens and Wolves gather for their open-water swims. Prior to being added to the group I rarely ventured into the waters of the mole, preferring the heated swimming pool in the Dome to the cold waters of the Atlantic. All the time acutely aware that sooner or later I will have to brave the ocean if I am ever going to be ready for the triathlon’s open water swim.
Fact: There are 37 species called foxes of which only 12 are true foxes. Same with the group, only a handful of true vixens. Same with friends. Only a handful of true friends. The best known true foxes are the red fox, gray fox, fennec fox, swift fox, kit fox and arctic fox. The core of our group consists of two gray foxes, two red foxes and two swift foxes, oh, and a couple of wolves.
To fully appreciate the dynamics of such a mixed bag you need to know something about the temperament of each of the three represented species of foxes. Like humans, although belonging to the same species and even the same cultural orientation, no two foxes are the same. That’s important to understand. There are however some common traits…
The gray fox is a fairly secretive creature, preferring only certain hunting areas. A gray fox is also the only fox that can climb trees. She blends in well, nearly goes unnoticed if you will, but underestimate her at your own peril. She’s a master at bringing calm to chaos.
Red foxes are particularly cunning and smart. In fairy tales they’re the ones always getting away with the prize. It requires an entire pack of dogs and a herd of men on horseback to have any chance of tracking her down. They’re fiercely loyal, extremely caring and wise beyond measure. And the odd one has an Ironman medal somewhere in her den.
Swift foxes are as the name suggests, quick. Deceptively quick. They do things quickly. They move quickly, they smile quickly, they’re quick to encourage and I bet if you piss one off they’ll be quick to anger. We have two swift foxes. Both of them game for pretty much whatever is suggested. One of them runs like there’s no tomorrow…
I was added to the group by a gray fox. Upon adding me she inquired who was going for a swim that afternoon and at what time. The response came immediately. It was one of the red foxes who replied ‘awesome’ upon hearing that I joined the group – not knowing me from a bar of soap. And that pretty much summed up the collective attitude of the group. Eager to welcome almost anyone who wants to swim along – that is people with the same mindset, heartset, soulset and healthset. Since that day I haven’t been back to the pool in the Dome.
With each passing day I became more and more confident swimming in the sea. And then came the 8th of December. Most people on the group were preparing for an event called ‘The Jetty Mile’. It’s an open water swim starting at the mouth of the Swakop River and ending in the mole. With that in mind the group resolved to swim part of the course. This entailed an entry south of the Jetty, swimming around it and into the mole itself. Like always, we gathered at the mole. I was dressed in shorts and a t-shirt. I nervously patrolled the rocks on the outskirts of the mole. I did not like what I saw. To my mind the sea was in a foul mood (I now realize that on that particular day, conditions were close to ideal!). I was looking for an excuse to bail. One by one the vixens arrived, all neatly wrapped in their black swimsuits, making them look slightly more intimidating than they really are.
First to arrive was a gray fox. She gave the ocean one look, approved of the conditions and offered to make her vehicle available for taking us to the starting point. Next to arrive was a swift fox. Upon spotting me still nervously pacing up and down in my shorts and t-shirt she promptly yelled at me to get into my swimsuit and to do it swiftly!
I was beyond nervous. I gingerly made my way to my Landrover and opened the rear door. There lay my swimsuit and an orange safety buoy. A flotation device that makes you more visible in the water with the added advantage of doubling up as waterproof storage for things like car keys and a cell phone. For me however, it was something I could cling onto to keep my head above the water. It was my plan B should I become paralyzed with fear. Nothing to do with visibility nor storage!
I got into my swimsuit, my orange Plan B strapped around my waste. We got into the Cruiser and drove off. The talk was to enter at the Sea Rescue offices. To my utter dismay we drove straight past it and came to a stop at the Aquarium, adding another couple of hundred meters to the swim.
Very slowly I got out of the car and started walking towards the beach. I did not like what I saw. Waves broke straight onto the beach, the kind of conditions my parents used to warn me against when I was little, oblivious to the fact that what they were actually achieving was instilling a fear of the ocean deep into my psyche. It was this fear that was hardest to overcome and on that day there was no other choice but to confront it.
One by one the vixens entered the sea and made their way beyond the first line of breakers. One of the gray foxes kept an eye on me. Next to me a red fox was ready to assist should it be required (and like always the swift foxes were way ahead…). I waited for what I thought to be the perfect moment and made my move. Out of nowhere a wave hit me straight in the face. My goggles were gone. Excellent excuse to get the hell out of here I thought. Then came the calming influence of the gray fox. ‘Hey Johan! Relax, your goggles are around your neck. Forget about them for a moment and just swim.’ I obliged and gave a few flimsy strokes. After a couple of strokes I dared to look up and nervously felt around my neck for my goggles. I managed to put them on, swallowing half the ocean in the process. By then a red fox appeared next to me and asked me if I’m ok. I nodded – big lie. We started swimming towards the end of the peer.
I was breathing heavy. My heart was ready to jump straight out of my chest. I struggled to keep calm. I was thinking of everything except making an effective stroke. All my you tube videos’ advice blown out the window. All I was concerned with was not drowning. When I was a young boy we used to take walks on the Jetty. I would look down into the dark waters at the peer’s end thinking that falling into the ocean there would surely mean the end of me. Now I was swimming (or doing something that resembled swimming) in that very waters I so dreaded.
We took a breather just past the peer. We were now roughly halfway to the safety of the mole. I calmed down a bit and tried to remember my you tube teachers’ advice. I kept my head down and swam. My breathing calmed and for the first time I got a sense that I was actually making progress in the desired direction. Before I knew it I was rounding the rocks of the mole, the end was insight.
Reaching the beach that day was a big thing for me. It wasn’t pretty and it was by no means quick but I made it. My dream was still alive. I started preparing for the Ironman on the 14th of January. My first workout was in a pool. I logged 325 meters. It took me 47 minutes. On that day I swam 1800 meters in 42 minutes. I was extremely happy and I owed it to this group of amazing people.
It didn’t end there. The next major milestone was the event itself. It came on the 27th of December. Conditions were truly horrible. The weather gods did not smile upon us. The sea was rough, the swell high. But when the gun went the vixens ran into the ocean and I followed because if they can, so can I, and yet again them just being there, them just being who they are, gave me the courage to face my fear and get my ass into the sea and swim. I took the long way around the peer that day and clocked 2300 meters in 40 minutes. To say I was stoked would be an understatement. I found my tribe. These were people that inspired me.
Then on the 9th of February this year, I set off from the mole and swam to the mall. A swim of 3700 meters. The vixens did not join me on that swim. For company I had my wife following in a kayak. I felt at ease, I appreciated where I was and what I was doing. I completed the distance in 71 minutes. Only a few months prior to that swim the thought of doing something like that would not have occurred to me. I credit the vixens and the wolf for my progress.
The most amazing thing about all of this is that not a single one of them coached me on swimming technique. Not a single word of advice on how to swim. Just encouragement. Just ‘get your swimsuit on Johan!’ and ‘come on, you can do this!’ Just showing up and getting into the water and dragging me with them. They taught me to swim by being supportive. Next time you face a challenge or want to accomplish something that scares you, surround yourself with people that encourages. People that believes in you. People that pulls you up, who delights in your progress because life’s simply too short to keep company with doubters and naysayers.
Beware the vixen for she’s not quite what she seems to be…