Have you ever gotten yourself into a situation which rapidly becomes, as the saying goes, something “way over your head?” Admit it, we all have. It’s a part of life. Although we like to think we’re rational beings able to assess all contingencies and invariably make the “right” choice, the reality is we’re fallible creatures who frequently make poor choices that often carry heavy consequences.
About two years ago, I decided to surf a reef break north of town during a big northwest swell. Had I consulted a tidal chart I might have thought twice about the whole endeavor. But the fact that I’d had a great session the previous day with the rising swell – and was hoping for a repeat performance – undoubtedly influenced my decision.
It wasn’t until I got there that morning and was able to witness firsthand the big waves thundering against the reef that I had an inkling – maybe even a premonition – that perhaps my decision to surf that day was not one of my better ideas. The fact that no one was out should have clued me in as well. Indeed, had I known what I was getting myself into I probably wouldn’t have paddled out. But one rarely finds oneself in a position to foresee future events with any degree of clarity. Most of the time we simply fly by the seats of our collective pants – and hope for the best.
So, oblivious to all these signals, I suited up, grabbed my board, and trotted across the beach to the “jump off” spot – a reef that projected out into the water.
Placing my board fins up on the reef, I hastily attached my leash, then tugged on my wetsuit cap for a final adjustment. I picked up my board and stood for a moment, assessing conditions one final time.
Surfers of a certain generation used to use the term “Victory at Sea” to describe wild, out-of-control surfing conditions. Taken from a 1950s television documentary about naval warfare in World War II, the opening, iconic scene depicts the deck of a naval destroyer rising up and over monstrous swells. While the current conditions certainly weren’t anything near what was depicted in that program, the big swell was peaking and the tide was high. Combined, these two factors – in conjunction with an immediate coastline composed of jagged rocks and sheer cliffs – should have given me pause.
Dismissing all thoughts of possible catastrophe, I hopped off the end of the reef. Immediately I was caught in a strong side-shore current that endeavored to push me south. Putting my head down and gritting my teeth, I paddled hard, hoping to reach the lineup. But it was difficult going. For every two strokes forward I was pushed south several feet. Consequently, by the time I made the lineup, or what I believed to be the lineup, not only was I exhausted but I noticed I had drifted pretty far south. In fact, when I glanced back over my shoulder, I didn’t recognize the shoreline; all I saw were steep cliff faces and exploding columns of whitewater.
But I didn’t have long to ponder my predicament. An outside set morphed on the horizon and I soon realized that I was not, in fact, in the proper position. The waves were breaking much farther out than I had anticipated. Flattening myself on the board, I paddled like mad, but the first wave of the set loomed over me, a solid wall of dark gray water. There was no way I was going to clear it. It exploded in front of me, sending a mass of whitewater careening forward. I grabbed the rails of my board and thrust the nose underwater. In normal circumstances, I’m not a bad duck-diver. But this time, exhausted from all the paddling I’d done, my duck-dive was ill-timed and half-assed. I wasn’t nearly deep enough, and the wave hit me like a Mack truck, spinning me ass-over-teakettle underwater.
I popped up, dazed and confused, as another wave approached. It wasn’t as big as the first, but it nonetheless sent me spinning all over again.
This time when I surfaced I realized I was being swept dangerously close toward shore – toward jagged, mussel-encrusted rocks. I grabbed my board, which amazingly was still attached to my leash, and tried to paddle against the current. But it was pointless; the current and surge were too strong. I felt like the proverbial cork afloat at sea – at the mercy of an angry ocean.
Somehow – through all the whitewater and churning chaos – I managed to spot a pocket beach. It was small and tucked in between two rocky promontories. I turned the board around and caught a wave, belly-riding it to shore.
I heaved a sigh of relief as my feet touched bottom and I dragged myself onto dry land. But as I took my first steps, a sneaker wave hit me in the back and I was sent sprawling forward on my hands and knees. Crawling to my feet, I grabbed my board by its leash and dragged it up the sand. A succession of waves exploded against the beach, sending sheets of water racing up the sand, each one crashing against the base of a very high cliff and then surging back to sea.
For a moment I stood quietly, gathering my wits, allowing the water to rush back and forth against my ankles, trying to decide what on earth I should do. My predicament was this: I was basically stranded – trapped was probably a better word – on a small pocket beach with a sheer, un-climbable cliff in front of me, an angry ocean behind me, and sandwiched on two sides by jagged rocks. Complicating this – if anything else could possibly complicate this already dire scenario – was a rapidly rising tide. If I lingered too long here, I’d undoubtedly be swept out to sea, whether I wanted to go or not.
Immediately my stomach roiled with an anxiety-induced nausea. Still, I knew I had to be rational. There was simply no time to freak out. I mentally clamped down on this rising anxiety and forced myself to think clearly. I told myself I’d be okay. I’d been in some tricky situations in the past and had always managed to land on my feet. Right? I swallowed…right?