Photos: Barbara Johnston.
Early morning is the best time to stand-up paddleboard (SUP) at Shire Hall Beach. There is likely little wind and only a few fishing boats and Iceberg swimmers. I pass another ‘supper’ in the bay. “Hello there,” I call out from my SUP. “I’ve seen you a few times.”
“Oh, I can’t recognise you; I have low vision,” she replies. “Shout out next time so I know you’re there.” So I sit with Claire Hogan and her seeing eye dog, Mimi, on the steps of her family boathouse.
Claire returned to Mornington seven years ago, after 30 years in Bellingen, to care for her late mother. She discovered supping a year ago, after her brother-in-law was given an inflatable board. In winter no one was using it, and she thought “I’ll get serious about this”.
“I was out there, it was cooler, and I thought this is perfect,” Claire says. “It’s an exercise I can do, it’s great for balance, and it’s so meditative. It’s just fabulous.”
Claire began losing her sight when she was eight. She was an avid reader and started having problems reading the blackboard. “It started with optometrists; by nine it was doctors, and 10 it was eye specialists. Then at 11 it was a neurosurgeon and, when I was 12, they did a craniotomy. They lifted the brain and had a look. There were haemorrhages afterwards, equivalent to three strokes, and I ended up with hemianopia. Then it was misdiagnosed as a brain tumour. At 46, I thought ‘this is ridiculous’. The prognosis for the aggressive glioma was six months, and this was 20 years later.”
A specialist has since diagnosed it as optic atrophy. The cause given was Claire’s Viking background, and the condition affects one in 12,000 of the Viking population.
Claire is legally blind, which means less than 10 per cent vision. So what can she see? We look out at the bay together, across the silver yachts to Mornington Pier.
“I can see the horizon, the cliff to the right, the rocks and sand on the shore,” Claire says. “The pier is a dark shape. It’s cloudy today so I can see more. And I can see things. I know they’re boats, so I make them into boats. My imagination likes to create the picture. Because I could see clearly until the age of eight, I have this belief that I can see. I have a way of perceiving the world. Often, it’s a good guess in context.”
Claire met her husband of 44 years, Martin, at university. They now live with Claire’s father, Ian. “I thought Martin was glorious, he thought I was glorious, and then we discovered we both thought each other were glorious,” she laughs. “I catch the 6am bus to the beach or Martin drives me. I go out early so there’s not as many people in the water. I can usually hear the swimmers, but I tend to sing with the joy of it all.”
Mimi has been with Claire for almost 10 years. She’s past retirement age, but “she is an extraordinary dog; she doesn’t want to retire yet”. Claire has worked out the perfect recipe for Mimi’s frozen Kong – a chew toy filled with food – to keep her occupied. “I have time to go around the bay three times while she’s eating it, and she’s so happy.” Clearly it’s not just Mimi who is extraordinary.
Now 64, Claire is completely colour-blind, according to tests. But she’s also a pastel artist and is holding an exhibition at the Gasworks Gallery in Albert Park throughout July. “My specialist said, ‘You’re doing pretty well, considering what they did to you’,” she laughs.
“People have an incredible fear about blindness. It has been made into this frightening black world, but it’s not. And there’s always a way to do anything you want to do.”
So if you’re at Mothers Beach early, Claire will be the one on the SUP in a pretty dress. Singing.