By SR Staley
I now know why people die in riptides. And the experience was my first confrontation with sheer terror. I have known for a while that I am not a strong swimmer, but I thought I had taken all the appropriate measures to protect myself in the surf. In fact, I had swum safely in similar waves numerous times that day (and the day before) under the same conditions. What made this experience different was a wrong step–literally about twelve inches–where I unexpectedly found myself in water over my head.
The swimming in the ocean–just 30 feet from shore–seemed so normal. I didn’t realize I was caught in the riptide until several minutes later when I tried to swim back to the beach. After several minutes, I realized I wasn’t making any progress. This riptide had the effect of keeping me in place. All those tips about letting the current take you out to sea until it releases you, and then swimming toward shore? No help here.
That’s when I panicked. The waves were breaking over my head and I couldn’t touch the sand below. I was tired because I hadn’t recognized I was caught in the riptide until after several minutes of vigorous swimming. My wife was less than 10 feet away, but I couldn’t call to her thinking at the moment that I would just pull her into the same quandary. The lifeguard was easily a football field away–watching the busier parts of the beach. In these moments, I suddenly realized one poorly timed gasp of air, or one unexpected break of a wave, would send saltwater gushing into my lungs. I wouldn’t be able to cough it out. I would go under, and there was nothing I could do. I would drown. I was going to die.
Obviously, I survived. Why am I here? It’s not because I became a miraculous swimmer, or experienced a surge of adrenalin that gave me super human powers. And it’s not because others recognized I was in severe trouble, or I was saved by a lifeguard. I did not experience the direct hand of God, or an angel. In the moment, I foolishly thought no one could help me.
No, I’m here for other, more mundane reasons far more relevant for a life that is not so terror stricken:
1) I recognized that I was trouble and resolved to do something about it,
2) I recognized that I was panicking, and took mental steps to calm myself. I owned my mental state, accepted it for what it was, and resolved to move forward. I was quite surprised at how simply acknowledging that I was in a panic actually helped calm me down and settle my mind. Acknowledging and embracing my emotional state gave me clarity and rationality because I could compartmentalize it.
3) I stopped using the strategy that didn’t work–swimming toward shore. Instead, in a move that probably saved my life, I decided to go nowhere by treading water. This bought myself time and allowed me to physically regroup.
4) I remembered what all that life saving advice from the educational flyers about riptides. Even though it would have been a lot easier to be in a riptide they described–one that was taking me out to sea rather than the one I faced that kept me in a perpetual state of high water–I understood the principle. I stopped fighting the tide. I paid attention to the waves and the direction of the surf. I used this knowledge to rise with the breakers and claim inches that seemed like millimeters toward the shore and safety.
The entire episode probably didn’t take more than five or ten minutes, but I have never felt the level of intense, overriding fear that I experienced in those moments. I believed Death was literally coming from underneath to grab me and pull me from this life. I have experienced extreme, even life threatening physical trauma in the past, but I have few memories and no feelings from it because my brain shut down. I have learned that this is normal for trauma survivors and it’s part of the defensive mechanism of the human body.
Terror is different, I have now discovered. It’s so visceral, so overwhelming, that it sticks to your insides in a way that reshapes your body and mind. I doubt that feeling of being overwhelmed by nature, of helplessness, will ever leave completely. But having survived this trial gives me a confidence, self-awareness, and personal strength that makes me stronger and, with a little luck, wiser. (Note to self and others: No more swimming when the red warning flags are up, no matter how many people are in the surf!)