The long swim out of the darkness

I wuv you
I wuv you
Said the little blue man
I wuv you
I wuv you
I wuv you to bits

It is October 27, 1985. It is dark, and the waters of Western Port Bay are rough. Fifteen-year-old Susan Berg is in the water and has been swimming for hours. She is exhausted. She is alone. She has no idea what has happened to her dad, her mum, her brother. She has no choice but to force herself to keep swimming.

I wuv you
I wuv you
Said the little blue man
I wuv you
I wuv you
I wuv you to bits

Susan Berg grew up in a loving family. Her dad, Edwin, was a doctor. Her mum, Valerie, was a nurse.

Edwin and Valerie had been married for 20 years and were devoted to each other. They were a religious family, and maintained values based on faith and goodness.

Earlier in the day, the Berg family set out for a fishing trip on Western Port Bay. It was only the second time they’d taken their boat out. The first time they took it out, the boat broke down, resulting in the family having to be towed back to shore, much to the annoyance of Edwin.

The last photo of Susan (far left) and her family.

This time, they were prepared. The boat had been repaired and was, they were assured, seaworthy.

When launching the boat, Edwin pulled on his “waders”, much to the amusement of Susan and her 16-year-old brother William, who everybody called Bill.

Valerie had her camera in hand, as she always did, and captured the moment. She never went anywhere without her camera. It was her prized possession.

After an enjoyable day of fishing, it was getting dark and rough. It was time to head to shore.

“Sossy, do you want to drive the boat back to the ramp?” said Edwin. ‘Sossy’ was the pet name her Dad used for Susan.

Susan and brother William amused by dad (Edwin) in his waders.

Susan was steering the boat back towards shore when suddenly it lost power. Moments of confusion ensued when Bill yelled out that the boat was filling with water; a huge hole had opened up in the hull of the boat and it was sinking fast.

The family jumped out of the boat and flipped it over.

It was now nearly dark, and there was nobody around. They were clinging to the upturned hull of their stricken boat and were neck-deep in the freezing waters of Western Port Bay.

Susan’s mum was as calm as ever as they discussed what was to be done. Should they swim for shore, knowing that it would take hours in the choppy swell? Or wait and hope they would be discovered by a passing boat?

Waiting seemed futile. Their only hope was to swim.

The enormity of the situation began to take hold. Valerie loosened the strap on her beloved camera, and allowed it to sink to the bottom of Western Port Bay.

The family said a prayer and set off into the darkness.

***

Very soon after starting out, Edwin got into trouble. Bill insisted on going back to help, even though mum Valerie insisted that he keep swimming. “No, Mum. Dad needs my help.”

Susan and Valerie kept swimming. Susan was out front. For the next hour, they kept in contact by yelling out to each other.

“Sossy. Are you okay?”

“Yes, Mum, I’m okay”.

“Mum….” Susan yelled out, wanting to tell her how much she loved her.

“Just keep going Susan”. She didn’t need to hear the words. She already knew.

Susan battled on for what seemed like hours. At one point, she realised she hadn’t heard her mum for a while. She yelled out to her but got no reply.

Susan swam on in the darkness. She kept swimming. She sang songs to herself that came into her head…. “I wuv you, I wuv you….”. She prayed to God to help her and her family in this time of need.

Eventually Susan felt something under her feet. Solid ground? No, mud. Sticky, deep mud. It was no help to her. She had to force herself on, and eventually when the water became shallow enough, she was dragging herself through it.

On her hands and knees, she would drag herself through, counting to one hundred. Then she would turn over and sit and drag herself backwards and count to one hundred. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

Eventually, the mud gave way to solid ground. Although she thought she had found land, it turned out to just be a sandbank. She could have stopped there, but she needed to push on. Her family were still out there.

“Mum! Dad! Bill”, she yelled. “I’m on a sandbank. Keep going. You can rest here!”

Back into the water she went again, dragging herself through the mud that sucked at her exhausted body like quicksand. One, two, three….. one-hundred. One, two three….. one-hundred.

Eventually she could swim again, and land was only a few hundred metres ahead. She soon came to mud again, and eventually dragged herself onto dry land.

***

Susan tore through the bushes, with nothing but moonlight to guide her. She had no idea where she was, or where to go. She found a track, and hesitated. Turn left, or turn right? She had no idea that turning left would plunge her into the National Park with no chance of finding help. She turned right.

She wanted to stop and rest, but she knew she had to keep running. The 15-year-old girl, wet and cold, dressed in shorts and T-shirt and covered in mud, ran through the darkness in hope of finding help.

Eventually she saw a farmhouse with a light on. She ran towards it. She pounded on the door of the farmhouse where Doctor Forbes and his wife were peacefully reading. When they opened the door, they ushered Susan inside. It was clear what had happened to her.

Doctor Forbes examined Susan and rang the local ranger to begin the search. Mrs Forbes put the freezing, mud-covered girl in the shower to warm her.

Resting her head against the tiles, Susan sobbed. “I’m sorry Mum. I’m so sorry”.

***

Within hours, boats were scouring Western Port Bay, and helicopters were circling overhead.

It wasn’t until the next morning that the bodies of Valerie, then Edwin, and then Bill were found.

Susan was the sole survivor.

***

The media coverage was intense. Susan was “The girl that lived.” But Susan and her surviving family (two older sisters) also had to endure the unforgettable experience of witnessing television footage of Valerie’s body being recovered from Crawfish Rock; being dragged by the ankles across the rocks.

The networks couldn’t get enough of the story, and neither could the glossy magazines or newspapers.

Susan received letters of support, but also letters of hate from people who blamed her. After all, she was the one driving the boat when it was damaged. After all, she was the one that left her family and swam on. She was possessed with guilt.

***

The sudden loss of most of your family is an unfathomable thing. Susan had been through an overwhelming trauma, and now had to go and live with another family and pretend everything was ok.

But it wasn’t. Every time Susan closed her eyes, she had nightmares. She ended up staying awake all night. She couldn’t concentrate at school, and her grades slipped.

There was no way to continue with the happy life of a 15-year-old girl in a loving and secure family. Susan’s life was torn apart, and her life went “off the rails”.

***

Susan and her son William, named after her brother.

The next few years of Susan’s life were ones of partying, drinking, and drugs. She was racked with guilt and was unable to reset to normality.

She was miserable and didn’t care if she lived or died.

It was the birth of her son, when she was aged 20, that eventually gave her purpose again.

She named him William, after her brother. But he’d be known as Will.

But still, the battles continued. How does someone recover from this? How can it end up not defining you for the rest of your life?

Susan had lost her foundation. She grappled with finding her purpose in life, and felt she always fell short. She battled through fraught relationships, was a victim of domestic violence, and struggled to find happiness for herself and her son Will.

***

Susan Berg prepares for another swimming event

Eventually, healing came.

Susan began a slow process of recovery.

Will found ice-hockey. It was an opportunity for Susan to meet new people. She became the Secretary of the club and began to rebuild her reputation with new people.

“Beyond fear there is freedom”.

It was a mantra of one of Susan’s partners. He was a risk-taker, and had Susan sky-diving, climbing mountains and introduced Susan to motorbike riding.

Susan found great joy and comfort from riding motorbikes, and she embraced it, letting it become her catharsis in life. Her road to redemption and healing. She could do anything now. Anything except water. Susan couldn’t do water….

***

Swimming the English channel

“I don’t think about it every day,” said Susan.

“It wasn’t until my late 30’s, when I was involved in a motorcycle accident, and one of my friends died in front of me, that I realised you have to be grateful for what you have.

“And while I am sad about everything that happened, I am grateful for the path it put me on in life”.

Susan’s mother always said “happiness is a choice”, and Susan came to believe that we all allow our thoughts to decide if we are going to be happy in life or not.

“It took decades. I realised over time that not only did I have to give myself permission to grieve, but I had to give myself permission to be happy again,” said Susan.

“When happiness creeps in, you come to accept that the people that died would love that you found it.”

Susan has come to do public speaking, and her talks focus on surviving and coping with loss. It was not just surviving in the water on that fateful day, but surviving over the decades to come.

“Public speaking was one of my greatest fears, and I struggled to overcome it. It was right up there with sharks, boats and, of course, water”.

***

Photo courtesy of Jason Edwards Herald Sun.

It happened in 2015. A challenge from a friend. “I challenge you to swim the Lorne Pier to Pub”.

“Water is my biggest fear. I didn’t own bathers. I didn’t own goggles. I didn’t own a towel,” said Susan.

“But I had given my word, and I was going to do my best.”

Water was incredibly confronting for Susan. In the beginning, she could hardly do two laps of the pool without succumbing to the anxiety and having to clamber out.

For months she trained, only swimming side-stroke and back-stroke. The idea of putting her head underwater by swimming freestyle was just too much to bear.

Then Susan met Peter Hendriks who offered to train her free of charge. They would swim together daily and over time she got stronger and stronger.

“I had this fear of water because it claimed my family. In the end water made me feel closer to them. Almost like I was being reunited with them when I was in the water”.

After 14 months of training, Susan successfully completed the Pier to Pub in January 2017.

Next came the “Rip Swim” in February 2017.

“I would stand on the shore and reflect on how far I had come, but I felt I needed more,” said Susan.

After another 18 months of training Susan was part of a relay team that swam the English Channel in August 2018.

“I was actually the one to reach France,” said Susan.

“Once we got close, the waves picked up. My old fears came back, and I had to reach deep down to get there. I finally made it to the rocks. I was spent.”

Susan has no plans to stop there. The Rottnest Island swim beckons; a 19.7 kilometre open water swim.

She also hopes to swim the Strait of Gibraltar and has plans to swim the English Channel solo.

“I feel my family are with me. I feel they have been with me with all the things I have done. I push myself for them; for their memory. And I can feel them cheering me on”.

Peninsula Essence – February 2020

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