SA author pulls no punches in his book "Little Boats & Big Fish And Big Snakes Too"
DURBAN - Fisherman-turned-fighter Johnny Vassilaros spent years waiting for the day Vetch’s Beach, “sacred” for its reef ecosystem and being Durban’s only launching area for craft to enter the sea, would be spared from being covered in concrete.
His battle against developers, politicians and even other boat clubs, is now partially won and he has written a detailed book about it.
Now, he eagerly awaits the end of the Covid-19 lockdown so he can return to the beach to launch his paddle ski and head through the surf for a day’s fishing.
However, he won’t be entering the sea from his old club from which he became the only honorary life member to resign - in disgust - but on the “Pirate’s Beach”.
“I’ve become a pirate,” the accidental author said.
In his book Little Boats & Big Fish And Big Snakes Too, Vassilaros looks to history to explain the pirate phenomenon: “Those days there were no launching facilities anywhere along the beachfront and most launches usually took place between Vetch’s Pier and the old sand pump jetty approximately 100m to the north.
“As these anglers were not regi-stered or controlled by any authority, that section of beach became known as ‘Pirate’s Beach’.”
Vassilaros, the Durban Paddle Ski Club that he chaired and the Save Vetch’s Beach campaign he spearheaded have partially won their battle in that Vetch’s Beach is not covered in concrete as it could have been had the property developers’ and politicians’ fantasies of a marina and 55-storey hotels come about, he said.
However, the ecosystem in which he snorkelled as a child with fish all around him that also served as a nursery for marine life, is now smothered in sand.
This, he said, is thanks to sand pumping with the goal of creating a bathing beach in front of the Point’s residential units that are hungry for tenants and buyers.
Above Vetch’s Beach, the new extension to the beachfront promenade is a beautiful feature, he said.
However, his big concern for the latest promenade extension - and for Durban’s ratepayers - is that it was built on the high-water mark and not at the highest point of the spring tides, so it stands the chance of taking a thumping by the waves once every 20 years.
However, that was better than what the developers once wanted to do, Vassilaros said
“They would have built an underground parking under the sea. The tenders were already out,” he said shaking his head.
“If they had done so, it would have been the biggest financial and environmental disaster in Durban. And they would have just walked away from this huge mess.
“Our actions saved the city billions as well as having egg on their faces.”
In his book he pulls no punches with his opinion on developers, politicians and some people at other craft clubs who had preferred to take the “negotiating” rather than his “confrontational” approach.
“The negotiations were nowhere near negotiations. They put a gun at our heads, saying they were going to build the marina and put you in a corner.”
Now, those clubs are enjoying the benefits of what he fought for.
“The apathy of some of their members astounds me. Lots of people with strong shoulders just walk away.
“I paid R750 for my first paddle ski, second hand, back in the day. What a pleasure it was. I wanted to save this lifestyle. But ski-boaters who pay R400000, a million, showed no interest.”
On the environmental front, Vassilaros believes the destruction of the marine ecology around Vetch’s Beach is tantamount to humans stealing from nature, for the sake of greed.
“Man has learned nothing. If there is a pot of gold in front of you and disaster on the other side, we go for the pot of gold. I can forgive my ancestors for catching fish in abundance because in those days there were many fish in the sea.
“Today we have all the knowledge in the world but we have so little wisdom. We know what we are doing.”
Vassilaros said he wrote his book to make people aware of the truth, “to let them know what happened. People may not like what I say. I don’t care. Love it, hate it. It’s up to you. I am very proud of what I have done. It’s been a long ride.”
The heavy stuff is sandwiched between lighter parts, outlining the history of the area including delightful bits of information such as early harbour engineer Edward Innes being so devoted to his job that, while ill and on his death bed, he supervised by telescope, “probably from somewhere around the present St Augustine’s or Entabeni hospitals”.
Then there are the tales of fishermen like Baracuda Bob who developed the habit of always “spotting” barracuda under his boat.
“On one occasion he was fishing with Phil Harding at The Wreck and was cursing at two scuba divers below who were chasing the shad away. They had just caught two massive moray eels simultaneously and Bobby paddled over The Wreck and dropped the two morays on top of the divers, hoping they would give them a nip in the backside. The trick worked like a charm and the bubbly blowers made a hasty retreat.”
And Ross Hitchens who once came face to face with a great white shark.
“A characteristic of these creatures is that they often raise their heads above the surface to make eye contact with their prey and that is exactly what this character was doing as it slowly circled Ross’s paddle ski, sizing him up Ross somehow managed to remain surprisingly calm and offered one of his cuda in a despairing attempt to get rid of the problem. This only acted as an attraction as the shark accepted the ‘bribe’ and continued its stalking and intimidating tactics.”
These delightful sections were all the book was meant to be, for distribution no further than the club community.
“I used to write for the fishing publication Tightlines and Lyn Cloete (the secretary) had asked me to write some stories about the history of our club, for members.
“We were the only club in the world with Crocker Skis” (paddle-skis that have evolved from a type of surfboard designed by Fred Crocker and became popular in Durban after World WarI I).
But things changed after the club was served the first of many eviction notices, followed by boardroom- and the paddle-ski club’s court battles, which prevented Vetch’s Beach from becoming a construction site for 15years.
How he managed to stay the distance, lasting years, he said, was by knowing that “our cause was bigger than theirs”.
“The experience taught me a lot about human nature. I was very naïve when I got involved. But what I saw was greed. This sense of ‘to hell with everyone else, as long as my pockets are full’.”
Vassilaros’s fundamental belief was that recreational boat people had a right to access the sea.
“The area was a government- designated launch site. And it was the world to us.
“I have no reason to live in Durban if you take that away from me.”
Little Boats & Big Fish And Big Snakes Too, Vassilaros sells for R395. Email [email protected], or call 0834586650 for further details.IOS