“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” - Helen Keller
Dougal Paterson | Death To Fear
4 min read
Written by Dougal Paterson
Photography from Kim Bouchier, Craig Kolesky, Michelle Douglas, Grant Scholtz, Sean Thompson, Daniel Grebe & Alan Van Gysen
My journey to becoming a big wave rider has not been an easy one. It is a road that has been marked by many trials, long periods of injury and deep frustration. My ascent has been neither glamorous nor quick, but since I was a small boy, I longed to be able to stand on water. I longed to stand with reverence amongst waves both tall and fierce. At age 37, having spent the first half of my life building a career, I chose to walk away from it. I had decided that the legacy I wanted to leave for my children and grandchildren, was not that of a successful photographer. No, the legacy I wanted to leave, was that of a ‘Dragon Slayer.’
Having severed my lifeline to the market place by cutting ties with my agents, our income stream was slowly drying up. We were living off of our life savings. The fire of career ambition that had once burned so brightly, now dwindled to a few glowing coals.
The seed of fear that had been growing in my heart since I was a young boy, was now a tree. That tree had sunk its roots down deep into the bedrock of my character, throwing a long shadow across my heart.
The shadow was the fear, that I would never become the man that my name was calling me out to be.
“To me, it seemed that there were no more dragons left to slay. I felt displaced, as if I’d been born too late.”
My dad named me after the Scottish mountaineer, Dougal Haston. Haston made some of the most daring first ascents in alpine climbing history. He was the wild man of his generation who died at 37 trying to out-ski an avalanche. My dad had been an explorer too, leading a team of men who had mapped out uncharted Antarctica in the early 70’s. His dad (my grandfather) had flown for the RAF during the second world war. On April 4, 1942, one of the Catalina flying boats in his squadron, spotted the Japanese fleet off the coast of Ceylon. They alerted the Allied Forces. Winston Churchill later called it "the most dangerous moment" of World War II, as the Japanese had been steaming towards Ceylon for a surprise attack on the British Fleet. The sighting averted what could have become, “another Pearl Harbour.”
I was born into a family of ‘Dragon Slayers’ and prophetically named after a third. I grew up with a deep longing to be tested and found true of courage and character, however I grew up in a landlocked city. There were no wastelands to pioneer, nor any ice clad peaks to scale. To me, it seemed that there were no more dragons left to slay. I felt displaced, as if I’d been born too late. My teenage years were marked with a profound sense of disconnection and a deep longing for danger and adventure.
“The proximity of possible death, most affirmed the life within me.”
Then, in my last year of school, our family moved to Cape Town. It was there, on the blunt tip of Africa, that I first saw my dragons. Untamed, wild and raw, huge swells strode out of the Arctic circle and hurled themselves against the rugged African coast. I finally began to feel a connection with my father's legacy. Those great tumbling cathedrals of salt and water had travelled thousands of miles from the very region that he had once helped to map. It was out amongst these lands of the rolling wet hills that I first began to experience what I now call, the 'thin-places'; those places in the physical realm where the envelope between this world and the next, thins. In those 'thin-places', I found that the proximity of possible death, most affirmed the life within me.
Having only started to surf in my late teens, I found myself behind the learning curve. Sorely lacking in skill, I quickly became a student in the school of hard knocks. My learning seemed to come in reverse. I had to learn how to survive a ferocious flogging by 20ft waves before I was able to start riding them. What I lacked in skill, I made up for in true grit and desire.
“No longer ‘dreaming’ of the impossible….but now actually ‘living’ the impossible, with my eyes wide open.”
As my photographic career came to a slow grinding halt, I looked closely at the the values that motivated me to ride big waves. I spent 3 years in that “work wilderness.” In many ways they were the hardest years of my life, but they were also the most fruitful.
With the help of my wife, my daughters and some wise friends, I finally began to understand what it was that gave me my unique value, purpose and meaning. No longer happy to be defined by what made me money, I had begun to follow in the steps of my dad and grandfather.
I began to cross the bridge from sleeping to wakefulness. I was taking up my inheritance as a ‘dragon slayer.’ I slowly realised, that until I became the kind of person who I most admired in others, I would somehow, always be living below my best.
So I went after big waves and seeking that illusive transition from being a ‘good’ big wave rider into being a ‘world class’ big wave rider. I went after it with everything in me. I applied myself to fully understanding the water-crafts that I was riding and how they moved through the waves.
Then, I began to innovate, working with master shapers to construct boards that matched my unique approach. All the while, I trained my mind and body whilst riding bigger and bigger waves in all kinds of conditions. As my skill as a surfer increased, I saw a larger transformation beginning to happen in my life.
I was learning to slay dragons at sea, but I found that I was also translating my courage and confidence back into my roles as a husband, father, friend and mentor. At the end of 3 years, my drive and ambition to excel as a commercial photographer had also returned.
The fire that had almost burned out, was once again, a blazing furnace.
Last year I set myself an impossible goal. My career had re-calibrated and I was consistently riding some of the biggest waves at my home breaks.
I confided in my wife that I felt ready to surf the world's most infamous big wave. Just saying it terrified me, but she looked at me and said, “Go, do it, you’ve got what it takes!”
Dougal Haston was a deeply flawed man. He was just as infamous for his self loathing, drunken brawling, egotism and marital failures, as he was for his elite alpinist abilities. He even served time in jail. My namesake serves as a reminder that true courage lies in depth of character, personal integrity and selfless acts of service. Feats of athleticism will never be enough.
Like Haston, we are all fallen. We are all ‘broke down melodies’, and surfing alone can never change that. But, for me, surfing kick started a process of redemption in my life. I now believe that we all have an inheritance, an inheritance that is uniquely our own. My hope is that this story encourages you to go after yours, no matter the cost.
Words by Dougal Paterson | Photography from Kim Bouchier, Craig Kolesky, Michelle Douglas, Grant Scholtz, Sean Thompson, Daniel Grebe & Alan Van Gysen
Follow Dougal's journey on Instagram @dougalpaterson