For those of us whose kids play in the Pacific Ocean (or any ocean for that matter)…
The last week in California was a good one. Work has still been slow with folks getting back into their routines after the holiday, and the drought-producing high pressure which has been routing storms to our north is sending us a continuous run of beautiful blue bird days and solid overhead surf. Big surf. Not the kind of surf most would associate with surfing in California – big, cold, dark water, a cascading chorus of explosions, one after another.
It was on one of these late afternoons- the third in a row- we three friends jog along the Great Highway promenade at sunset, our breath puffing little clouds of anticipation as we hurry to catch the last few minutes of daylight surfing after work. It gets cold quickly this time of year in San Francisco at sunset. The water was a frothing mess of foam and white water, thundering, with no surfers apparent in the far off line-up. We pass several returning surfers.
“How was it?”
“Don’t know. We paddled for 45 minutes and couldn’t get out”
“Is the current pulling North”
We continue on, knowing that this bid could be the least favorite of workouts- a treadmill of sinus clearing, cold water beat-downs- one pounding after another, in a sequence of failed contests with an infinitely stronger foe; like battling a 2-ton, club-wielding Tolkien cave troll with Bilbo’s glowing dagger. Just yesterday, the troll snapped my favorite 8 foot gun like a toothpick. What doesn’t kill you makes you very strong.
We reach our launching point- a lonely spot on the beach where the sand has accumulated like an alluvial fan. We perform our final stretches and then venture forth, quickly separating- pulled in different directions by rivers of water. I managed to find a series of rip currents which shepherded me relatively quickly (7-10 minute paddling thru 10-20 foot waves) thru the churning impact zone; arriving alone 250 yards out at from the beach. Huge, thundering masses of water exploding continuously around me. It was overcast and getting dark- hard to tell what was wave and what was horizon. Intimidating. I surfed alone for an hour until almost dark and then came in to find my two friends dressed and waiting – they never made it out. Like every successful surf session in those conditions- each one is both a lesson in mortality and a confidence booster. No matter who you paddle out with you are always alone when its big. There is no one to save you.
The next day I took my kids body boarding to Carmel.
The main beach at Carmel is protected by rocky points on either side of the bay so the strong 12 foot surf was dissipated to 3-6 feet with very occasional 8 foots sets. Too big for the kids to do anything but boogie board the white water on the inside- which they did for an hour or so. Many kids were playing in the water around us.
And then my kids decided they wanted to body surf, and put their boogie boards up the beach.
Four of us (me and three kids) were standing – all of us in wet suits- together in a little pack in thigh-high water – my daughter 8, my son 11 and another a boy 7. A large 8 foot set of waves broke 50 yards out- like many others that day- on the outer sand bar- with many surfers vying to catch them. We were all standing together watching. The set pushed a mass of water into the inside – it pooled up around us and before my very eyes ripped all three kids into the impact zone where 8 foot waves were breaking. The rip was probably 10 feet wide.
We were in exactly the wrong spot at the wrong time.
I immediately realized what was happening and tried, and failed, to pull my daughter back to the beach- I had her by the arm, but the rip was too strong to get her to the beach and back in time to help the others. So all four us were swept out close together into the impact zone. The 7 year old boy was screaming bloody murder at each large wave that was crashing on top of us. I had a firm grip on Mina and was coaxing the kids to relax and swim under the waves – like they had been taught- but it was fairly shallow so the energy of each breaking wave rolled us, one after another. As I swam under each wave, I had no idea if the kids were drowning- even my daughter, whose arm I was holding- and if she was drowning there would have been nothing I could have done. As soon as we came up for air, I had hardly enough time to encourage the kids to relax and swim with the rip before the next wave was upon us. And then just as fast as it started- it was “over” we were outside the break.
My kids have been taught about this – not to resist the current- swim under the waves. But in the heat of the moment the younger kids, the 7 and 8 year olds- froze.
It was the dicey’est 50 seconds perhaps of my life.
I then found myself treading water with my daughter on my back. She was silent, confused, terrified; and the 7 year old boy was in a state of shock- he is a strong swimmer, but was panicking and climbing on top of me, making it difficult to keep all three of us above water. While my 11 year old son was totally calm and swimming next to me, I couldn’t get the 7 year old to swim; trying to coax him off my back; he was grabbing my arms and legs. I started getting winded. Roughly two minutes of this before two adult surfers came to our aid and the situation was diffused- 60 yards off the beach. We swam side shore out of the rip and then each of us adults brought one of the kids back to the beach thru a number of 6 foot waves. The whole episode took no more than 10 minutes.
The point is this- I have been into water sports my entire life since I was very young; I have surfed in Mexico, Hawaii, California etc. for 30 years. In the past, I have saved a 13 year old boy at Ocean Beach who had been sucked out in a rip current and was hypothermic. 20 times a year I inform parents with kids who are playing in the water at Ocean Beach of the dangers and to keep them very, very close.
If I wasn’t standing RIGHT THERE with my kids at Carmel on Saturday- with my wet suit on- I would have likely lost my daughter, maybe the 7 year old boy, and possibly my son, Coleman as well.
If I was “watching” from a beach chair 20 yards away- I wouldn’t have been remotely close enough. My window to meaningfully help was measured in a few seconds, 5 at the very most.
If there weren’t surfers to help calm the 7 year old and to help us get back to shore, it would have been much harder.
If I wasn’t wearing a wet suit it would have harder to keep my breathing under control in the cold water and stay afloat without the extra buoyance of the wet suit.
Many obvious takeaways: never turn your back on the ocean; keep your kids close; don’t overestimate your ability; if you are too far away- there are no contingency plans …etc.
Less obvious takeaway: a boogie board or surf board is more than a toy- it is a life saver. Don’t ever let kids in the (Pacific) Ocean without one and make sure the leash is snug tight. If the Velcro on the leash is frayed so it might not hold under intense conditions, buy a new leash.