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When There’s Nothing to Breathe But Water

December 14, 2011

I can count on two fingers the times I have truly been afraid for my life. They’ve both been in water. And one was yesterday.

Now, for my mother, who I know is reading this, don’t forget I am writing this, so it all turned out okay.

We had surfed all morning and the remaining swell from the previous day was still lingering. The sun blazed overhead as rogue outside sets came in every 15 minutes or so. For those who don’t surf, let me explain what this means… When you are in the lineup waiting for waves, they generally break in the same place allowing you to be patient and wait for a good one. There are however ‘outside sets’ that break well beyond the lineup, and on a shortboard, this is not too big of a deal since you can duck yourself and your board under the wave as it crashes overhead. I have always been a shortboarder but have opted for a longer board this trip because it’s been a while since I have been in the water. So for myself, and anyone else on a longer board, we must make a quick decision on whether to try and paddle over the wave, or turtle roll; this is where you turn the board upside down on top of you, laying face up and letting the wave crash over you. It’s kind of a pain, but is a necessity since trying to paddle over a wave and misjudging can easily pile drive you backwards into the water. At this point you may be able to guess where this story is going.

I have only been on the verge of drowning once before, and that day was a heavy hint as to why I have so much respect for the ocean, and every body of water. So yesterday was just another reminder of how powerful this force is, how short life is, and how every day needs to be the best day ever.

I was set up on the outside trying to decide which wave I was going to take. See, if you take of on one of the firsts in a set, you risk being caught in the inside whitewater until the set passes; which could take 10 minutes. If you wait, you risk missing the set completely. So, I was playing it safe and paddled for the third wave of the set. I was sure I had it, but for one reason or another couldn’t get the speed to be picked up. As I turned around to paddle back out to my spot, I noticed the wave behind mine. A big peak rolling in fast with lots of power. I paddled as hard as I could, hoping I could make it over the top of the wave so I didn’t have to turtle roll. As I neared the top and became nearly vertical, I realized instantly, this was the wrong decision.

What happens next during a moment like this comes with the force and speed of a freight train. As I hit the top of the wave, it breaks, forcing me down backwards with it. This was the last chance I would have to breathe for what seemed like an eternity. Falling, falling, and then being crushed. With the wave crashing on top of me I can feel my thigh get tangled in my surfboard leash, all I can do is hope the board doesn’t come back and hit me in the face. I feel like I am in the worst washing machine on the planet. The water doesn’t go up or down, it just swirls in every direction and is filled with air bubbles making it impossible to swim. I am kicking furiously at this point and I’ve exhaled all of my air trying to keep water out out of my nose. My eyes are closed tight and I don’t actually know if I’m swimming up or down. This is the scariest feeling I’ve experienced, but it’s not the first time and I know it won’t be the last.

I finally go limp hoping the remaining oxygen in my lungs will float me upright and I open my eyes to look for light. Sweet, white, foamy light on the top of the surface. I’m going the right direction. I kick furiously again and paddle upwards finally breaking the surface. I gasp in the biggest breath I can and clear my now very knotted hair out of my eyes. I’m surrounded by whitewater and can see another wave coming in. The last thing I want to do is hold my breath and go underwater again, but I have no choice. I breathe in deep and dive down and far as I can letting the wave wash over me like it has done a thousand times before.

I have to do this a few more times before the set finishes and get my board back under me to paddle out to the lineup again. I am breathing hard, and besides a head full of water and some ringing in my ears there are no signs I’ve just come in contact with drowning; for the second time. I paddle out to my dad and give him a big smile. There’s no reason to mention this, he worries about me as it is.

I let my arms, abs and legs relax a little, and let my breathing come back to normal before I paddle for another wave. I am cautious no doubt, and it takes me a few tries to get my sea legs back. I look out into the open expanse of the Pacific Ocean; so blue and seemingly so calm all the way out there. You almost forget how powerful it is until it reminds you, and then you never forget.

We finish our surf an hour later and walk back to the house for a smoothie. I tell my dad how I got worked going over the falls, leaving out the details. I rinse off in the shower and hang my head, letting the water spill out of my nose and ears, go outside, and curl up in the hammock. Moments like these simply remind me that I’m living, and that being alive makes it the best day ever.

Pura Vida!


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  1. shelley kleinman permalink

    not much in my life turns my stomach…i see, hear and smell a lot of gross things in my line of work. that story made my stomach turn. why don’t you go on a nice walk tomorrow dear…

  2. Jama permalink

    Have to tell you that the entire time I was reading this my heart was pounding and my breathing increased to the point that I thought I was going to hyperventilate….glad you surfaced in the story when you did because I think I might have had to call 911! Love you – surf safe!!!

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