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In Conversation With Dougal Paterson & Bernie Shelley


When we heard of Dougal Paterson's next project, documenting the recovery of one of South Africa's surfing legends, Bernie Shelly, and her return into the water, we knew we wanted to get involved; we were lucky enough to play a small part in The Ghost Ship. We caught up with Dougal and Bernie to find out more about the making of the film.

How did you two end up coming together for The Ghost Ship?

Dougal: In 2014 a friend showed me this photo of a lady in her mid 60s charging a crazy point break in Mozambique. The water was so transparent, that you could clearly see the sand bottom. That lady's name was Bernie Shelly. I met her a few months later, whist standing around a bonfire. She told me then how she'd had to learn how to surf again after a double hip operation. When I heard that she was going in for a 3rd hip operation, I called and asked if I could record her journey in a short film.

Bernie: Dougal is a story teller and two years ago he invited me to tell mine at a gathering of surfer families. Perhaps because I was the oldest woman competitor in South Africa and not exactly of the twin set and pearls variety of grandmothers I was a bit of a curiosity. I was intrigued and went along. To my wonder and surprise, I found a warm and welcoming community who seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say. It struck me then that Dougal had a gift for recognising the wondrous drama of humanity in the mundane. And since then I have learnt that a big wave surfer is not necessarily a macho type - Dougal’s quiet-spoken humility has been a wondrous revelation.

Then in may this year he phoned me to say he'd like to video my story, which had taken a drastic turn - four days after we spoke I finished off shaping my new board and the next day I went into hospital.

Dougal, what compels you to visualise stories like that of Bernie’s?

Dougal: I love comeback stories - the gnarlier the better. Reflecting on my own life journey has shown me that I’ve learned more from my failures than I have from my successes. In this movie Bernie was forced to comes to terms with her own mortality. "The Ghost Ship" is the most unlikely of comeback stories, which is why I think it's so powerful.

Talk to us about the Ghost Ship itself. How important was watching the construction and the process of the board coming to life?

Dougal: To me it seemed that each stage of the board's completion closely paralleled a stage of Bernie's own healing process.

Bernie: Without my ghost ship urging me out of the mists of trepidation and doubt, without that simple yet profound carrot dangling before me, I could easily have succumbed to lethargy and melancholic acceptance of a sedentary fate befitting my mature years. But as this board took shape, the notion of Sisyphus' trials receded, and an achievable summit seemed within reach.

Bernie, do you seek different things as someone who has surfed for a while now? I’m sure the same sense of excitement and calm exists when you step in the ocean, but the act of surfing itself - does it bring something new to you? Going from being a competitor to not being able to surf - do you think the purpose of why you surf has changed?

Bernie: During the long days of convalescence, I had much time to reflect without the urge to charge out to surf anything that vaguely resembled a wave. My days became more measured and I thought about the reasons that people compete against each other and I shuddered as I wondered if I had been caught up in false values of a society that preyed on the need for the esteem of others. A deeper insight into the notion of self actualization settled on my shoulders and I appreciate, now, the simple joy and the excessive delight that simultaneously accompany my every ride. And I realise that that is all I need.

Dougal - following and documenting a journey like this, one can become very attached to a project. What have you learnt and taken from Bernie's story?

Dougal: Until recently, all the role models in my life were men. I realized how warped that was, and I hoped that by making a film about a brave and inspiring lady, it would help to reprogram my own thinking, as well as influencing other people's. Working with Bernie has changed the way that I see women athletes. Documenting Bernie's courage has had a profound effect on me.

The art of surfing requires a lot of patience, both in and out of the water. The two of you have had your fair share of waiting; Bernie, through recovery and a longing to return to the ocean; Dougal, waiting years to surf Jaws, Peahi. How do you manage expectations, anxiety and nerves as you approach these goals?

Bernie: In the weeks that I was incapacitated, the singularity of thought, the anticipation of lying on my ghost ship and slipping my hands through silky liquid, the hope that my new joint would cooperate in hoisting me to my feet on the deck of my virgin board - these images sustained me and encouraged my recovery.

Dougal: In the movie Bernie says: "patience is not one of my hidden virtues" (and chuckles). That really resonated with me because I too struggle to be patient. For me, surfing Jaws seemed like an impossible dream. It's one of the world's heaviest and most elusive waves. The timing and logistics involved in being there when it breaks - and not dying whilst surfing it - are daunting to say the least. I trained for years without knowing when that day would come. Thankfully though, when it did, I was ready and it was a life changing experience!

Surfing breeds community. How important is the community where you are and what role does it play in your everyday?

Dougal: I am part of a small community of men and women who's lives are oriented around being available to ride big waves when they come. Being a part of this community gives me a sense of belonging, value and purpose.

Bernie: Contradictory as this sounds, I am both gregarious and self sufficient. I enjoy being an individual amongst other individuals; I belong to the tribe and I hold dear my own space. I have great affection for the community of surfers, both here in South Africa and the whole world, and I feel both humility and pride in being accepted as a member. Every time I paddle out to the line-up and sit amongst the tribe I feel a sense of the surfing community to which I belong and I embrace the affirmation of self worth that this affords. Narrowed down to daily basics, my community of local loggers keeps me happy.

To quote Dougal, “stories like these have the power to shift culture”. Can you elaborate on this?

Dougal: "The Ghost Ship" is a testimony to the ageless beauty and courage of one woman's spirit. However, it was never meant to make a hero out of Bernie. Her story is meant to be a signpost directing the viewers towards appreciating the unique value of their own stories. My goal for this movie is that it be passed around for decades to come. My deepest desire is that this movie gives people HOPE. Hope is a lighthouse for our souls.

Bernie: I have to admit that I was sceptical when the project began - what crusty salty bunch of surfers was going to watch, let alone appreciate a movie about a 69-year-old woman dealing with both morbid and revelatory emotions?! But Dougal was right all along: it will go beyond just surfers, he said. Witness: almost every time I'm out in the water, at least one crusty surfer tells me that he watched the movie and was deeply moved. And that’s just the surface. A psychologist friend told me that he could use the movie as an aid in therapy.

As two people who have spent and continue to spend a lot of time in the water, what do you see as the biggest threat to our oceans at the moment? Is there anything specific in South Africa that you are confronted with?

Dougal: Shark cage diving. There's a lot of spin about how it educates people about the environment and the shark’s place in it, but I don't buy it. Putting humans in a cage, then chumming the ocean to attract sharks so that they associate us with food… how is that ok?

Bernie: Overpopulation and urbanisation, coupled with old infrastructure and systems and governance that cannot cope, resulting in environmental degradation and a suffering ocean. And then there is that filthy word: plastics.

Bernie - at the beginning of the film, you talk about facing your mortality and that fear of not being able to surf again. The final few minutes of the film you then refer to this not being a new chapter but a new book - what’s next for you and the Ghost Ship?

Bernie: My new found passion: logging. Seeking out small running rolling waves (diametrically opposite to Dougal's). Waves that show me the divine in nature; waves that befriend me and allow me to express my joy unconditionally and with euphoric hedonism. My new book is all about truth and beauty and the joyous freedom of surfing, untainted by competitiveness and grim determination. My new book is about allowing my spirit to soar - often.

Photography by Dougal Paterson.

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