Paddleout for George Bell

Wednesday 18 January 2023 Pioneering diver and surfer George Bell, whose life was celebrated at Kommetjie Inner on Friday 13th, was a gentle man of few words but behind many hair-raising deeds, writes Ant Heard.


Bell regularly showed unbelievable bravery in the churning waves above and the swirling depths under the water. He died last year in Spain, but his daughter Caroline could only get to South Africa this year to scatter his ashes at his beloved Kommetjie last week. The glassy, calm waters of the Atlantic gratefully accepted them off the Kom Inner slipway.

I first met George in the 1940s when he was slightly older than me. He was entrepreneurial even then. Off South Beach, Durban, he was a renowned diver for rock lobster that he would catch with a grain (a sharpened rod) for less than a pittance in today's currency. He was usually hard at work when the beach boys loafed or surfed.

George, like his beach boy "lightie" mates, was often a bare-handed surfboard bait-layer for big game anglers fishing from the Durban Pier, who wanted their bait cast far out in deeper water.


SURF VETS: Peter Wright joined for the paddleout, along with other compatriots. Photo Spike

Bait laying was a scary pursuit in a shark-aplenty place where we were shocked to lose two friends to sharks: Clive Dumayne and Brian van Berg.

The bait-laying involved a shad or other fish gorily speared with a huge hook gripped gingerly between the ankles. After hitting far out by surfboard, on hearing the angler's welcome whistle, the courier would The bait-laying involved a shad or other fish gorily speared with a huge hook gripped gingerly between the ankles.execute a rapid "drop and go", and vamoose to shore, with a beach boy "agent" collecting one shilling from the angler on the pier. Another money maker for the beachboys was to build or buy surfboards.

George, living in Newquay decades later, would regale my ageing mother Vida in a nearby seaside village with such diverting stories about her own sons' reckless pursuits in sharky waters. (Bless him for doing that.)

George later became famous around the Southern African coast and beyond, building up an enviably successful diving business with kid brother James, or Jimmy. At age 84, super-veteran James still surfs and has been honoured in the SA Surfing Walk of Fame at Muizenberg, as has George.


OLD FRIEND: Tich Paul spoke of the days George lived and surfed at the Kom. Photo Spike


George is also attributed to have aided surfboard design by adding skegs to a board in the 40s. The Bells seemed totally fearless when their Cape Diving concern dispatched them into the "dark unfathomed caves of ocean" to look for treasure and gems, in the words of poet Thomas Gray in his Elegy.

Diving was both fun and good business. The Bells scoured old and new wrecks looking for treasure and doing extensive salvaging and other underwater work.

A book George wrote on the subject called A Lifetime of Diving Adventures, which is a self published Hitchcock thriller: scary, proven fact, not psycho-fiction.

That book must be republished now since it captures not only the hair- raising dangers survived, but has crucial encyclopaedic information on wrecks, especially around our Cape of Storms.

George's mates shared countless thrills with him. He seemed to have nine lives. Yet he was always modest about it all, letting others do the boasting.


BOARD WALK: His daughter Caroline (white hat) brought the ashes from overseas. Photo Spike

A personal aside: Surfing with him on a wave beyond Sunrise Beach, Muizenberg, I saw his firm, resourceful, non-violent nature in play.

A young surfer had dropped in on him in a wave already carrying George and myself along. George did not rant, curse, rave or cuff the over-close nipper about to ruin his "slide". He simply reached out one arm and impounded the board after shaking the surfer off (no leashes in those days).

He nonchalantly tucked the board under his arm, and surfed with it to the beach, me beside him and wildly amused. He planted the board in the sand, leaving it to the dropper-in to swim all the way in and learn a useful lesson.

George Bell was a modest, highly successful diver and surfer. A mensch. He is missed.

"Ant" Heard, Durban beachboy 1945 to 1954, is an ex-Editor and Presidency special adviser in SA in Thabo Mbeki's time.