A day at the beach.
It has been very difficult times for my family and I for the past two years. Recession, the complete stoppage of work, financial burdens, health issues, you name it and times have been tough. Significant losses of income, Lyme disease, Rheumatoid Arthritis and Swine Flu all have taken their toll on my family. It has been difficult times, indeed.
However, three Saturdays ago brought greater focus on what life is about and what matters most. It was the first day of August and it was one of the few nice days of summer, so my wife, I, two younger sons and my oldest son and his girlfriend went to the beach.
Because money is so tight we went later in the day to avoid paying for parking. This way we could also avoid crowds (which didn't happen) and limit the direct sun exposure for my wife who is on antibiotics for Lyme Disease, which makes her sensitive to the sun. I’ve had Lyme disease several times, most recently earlier this spring; I know the medicine makes the sun feel really strong and you can get sunburned very easily.
The beach was fun, the ocean wasn't too cold and the waves were large. The waves were, however, crashing a little farther out than in the past and not very good for body-surfing, a favorite pastime with my clan. Late in the day while my wife and I where swimming, shortly after the lifeguards went off duty, I heard shouting from two swimmers far from shore and far to the west. Were they just having fun, calling for friends on shore, or were they in distress? Then I heard a guy directly opposite me, far from shore, yelling and waiving his hands. I quickly realized that the first two swimmers were in distress but I wasn't sure if the swimmer nearest to me was also in distress or if he was trying to tell people on the beach that the other two swimmers needed help.
To be sure I started to swim closer to this guy and quickly realized that he was struggling to keep his head above water and had, like the other two swimmers, been dragged out to sea by the undertow. My wife, who happened to be a little closer to the shore said she never heard him yelling, nor would've anybody else. I swam out to him, surprised at how quickly the current carried me and was soon swimming farther from shore than I had ever been, or wanted to be, in my life.
Concerned that he might latch on to me and drown me too, as I swam towards him I talked to him trying to calm him down. As I got near him he went under and I grabbed his arm bringing him to the surface. He wasn't small, was weak from swimming against the undertow, was clearly terrified, and was very slippery from sunscreen (curse you sunscreen). I swam towards shore, pulling him along, all the time trying to keep his head above water and reassuring him that we were going to make it. He kept begging me not to let him drown, not to leave him, and at some point, about halfway to shore, I wasn't sure that we would make it.
We were finally close enough to shore, though, that we could more easily see people on the beach and I started to yell for help (I’m good at loud). Luckily, there was an off-duty lifeguard (I didn’t realize this until later) down the beach, enjoying the end of his day with a large boogie board/small surfboard, who came to help. Even with extra help this swimmer was weak and kept slipping off of the board.
Getting him over the crashing waves was very difficult and the undertow was really strong there. Up till this point I was strangely calm, but then I saw my wife and oldest son coming to help. They hadn’t gotten out far enough and did not understand how strong the undertow was, so I screamed at them to turn back; I am very proud that they jumped in to help but I was so scared that they would get sucked in, too. Finally, I pulled on the board’s rope while the lifeguard held the swimmer on top of the board and together we all got him safely on shore.
A short time later, the first two struggling swimmers were rescued and at least two others swam down the beach and out of the undertow area, and got to shore. One of the original two struggling swimmers then passed out on shore. He and another rescuer were treated by emergency personnel and were taken by rescue to the hospital.
A few observations and things I learned from this incident:
- I will never forget the look on that guys face. It’s been a little over two weeks now and every time I close my eyes I still see him out in the water. Beyond the terror, which was palpable, he had an unforgettable perplexed look on his face. You could tell he was very confused about dying; that his life changed so quickly and that he could see the shore and everybody on it, and yet, he was going to die so close to the living and those who could help him. A helpless, how could this be, sort of a look.
- It took a team of people to help these swimmers out. A few, like me, who were in the right place at the right time, the off-duty lifeguard trained for these situations, my wife and son, the woman that called 911 (I’m sure more than one call was made), and all of the emergency personnel who showed up. The world is full of great people willing to lend a hand when needed.
- I quickly came to terms that I might not see my family again and while that created a dead calm within me, I didn’t want that to happen. At one point I wasn’t sure that I could save this guy and thought we would both die trying. I honestly don’t know how to convey to you in words what I was feeling but I can tell you it wasn’t good. Let’s just say that it brought on a certain amount of focus and clarity of mind. Survival does that.
Combine the last three thoughts into one and you get this: Most of what we worry about in our daily lives and think is important, isn’t. It’s just the noise and fiction filling the voids in our brain when we’re too idle to know the difference, contributing unneeded and unnecessary stress into our lives.
Thanks and be brilliant!
Eric D. Colburn, Professional Land Surveyor