A couple of years ago, I had the good fortune to live in paradise. I lived on the island of Kauai — part of the Hawaiian Archipelago. It really does feel like paradise. There aren’t any roads that permit you to go faster than 50mph. The beaches aren’t usually very crowded. The temperature, on average, doesn’t get any higher than the mid-80s and doesn’t dip below the mid-60s. It’s wonderful.
Just about everyday, I got into the routine of going to the beach. I was living in Hawai’i and I knew that it likely wouldn’t be a long-term thing (though I certainly considered it!), so I wanted to squeeze out as much paradise time as I could. It helped that I had a dog who needed exercise. At some point, I wanted to learn how to surf, but I never quite got around to it. Although, I did enjoy boogie-boarding and playing in the surf. I would usually exercise my dog and then I would go and get my exercise (by boogie-boarding).
Anyhow, there was this one day where the waves weren’t particularly high, so I was just relaxing close to the shore (in the water). In fact, it was on my favorite beach in Hawai’i — Hanalei Bay. Depending on who’s rankings you’re reading, it’s often rated as one of the best beaches in the US. After having spent many afternoons, evenings, and even a Christmas morning (!) there, it’s easy to see why it’s been rated as one of the best in the US. I haven’t seen many beaches outside of the US, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see it on a top 25 (maybe even a top 10?) list of the best beaches in the world.
So, on this world-class beach, I was enjoying the water near the shore. I was experimenting with the undertow, which wasn’t particularly strong that day (but which I would eventually learn that it was stronger than I realized). I would face the horizon and plant my feet in the water and lie back, while still keeping my feet planted. By doing this, the undertow would then rake against my calves and sometimes, it would pull the feet out from under me. When the undertow would pull my feet out, I would sometimes float on the water for a bit before I’d then stand up and go back to the spot that I started.
Well, one of these times that I was floating on the water, probably lost in thought, I went to put my feet down on the ground, but there wasn’t a ground. That’s alright, I thought. I can just swim back into a place where I can stand. So, I started swimming towards the shore. As I was doing this, I noticed that the waves had started to pick up a little bit. In addition, by being out away from the shore, the waves were stronger than the undertow that I was standing in. At first, I thought this was to my advantage. I thought I could just catch one of the waves with my body and have it carry me in.
I would watch the waves and try to catch one as it was picking up speed. No matter what I tried, I never seemed to catch the wave with my body. I later learned that this was probably because I wasn’t doing it right, but at the time I thought I was doing it right. By this time, the rhythm of the waves had taken me out even farther from the shore than when I started trying to bodysurf into safety.
I don’t consider myself a very strong swimmer (which is why I was trying to catch one of the waves back into the shore), but I was out of options — I had to swim. So, I turned on my stomach and started to swim (albeit, a bit panicked) back to the shore. There was one slight problem. I had to watch out for the waves, which had now grew to 3- to 4-feet. By surfing standards, still rather small, but for a not so strong swimmer trying to get back to shore, seemingly insurmountable. Watching for the waves, which were crashing down on me at times and trying to swim back to the shore, I could feel my panic rising. I would swim 5 or 10 feet and then would have to duck under the water because of the wave crashing. When I would reemerge from the water, I’d be right back where I started swimming or sometimes, even farther out!
I was in trouble.
A poor swimmer who was already fatigued was now caught in between the waves and the undertow. I had given up. I wasn’t going to be able to swim back to the safety. Thoughts of drowning started to flood my head. I’m not going to make it. I’m going to be a statistic! I’m going to die in paradise! All I had left to do was to try and wave someone down. My eyes caught the shore which seemed like it was 200 feet away. The beach was sparse. More panic. It was a lazy weekday prevening. I started to wave one of my hands towards the shore trying to get someone’s attention. In order to wave one hand towards the shore, I lost one of my four limbs to keeping my head above water. More panic. I could feel the water getting shallower, so I turned my head to notice — at the last second — that a 5-foot wave was about to crash down on me. I ducked under the water just before the wave crashed on me above the water, but that didn’t stop it from hitting me once under the water.
The force from the wave spun me. When I reemerged from under the water, I was facing the horizon. I turned again to face the shore and began waving an arm again. More panic. The beach was so sparse that I was sure no one saw me.
It looked like someone was taking a boogie board into the water. Was he coming for me or was he just coming to play in the water? He didn’t seem to be moving with much urgency, so I waved my hand a bit more vigorously. I wanted him to know that I was in trouble. It looked like he was coming for me. Crash. I wasn’t paying attention and the wave crashed down on me. Luckily, it wasn’t like the 5-footer that spun me under the water, but it still knocked me under and forced me to swallow a bit of salt water.
I turned again to face the shore and noticed that the boogie-boarder was only 20 feet or so from me. He was coming to save me. I’m going to live!
When he reached me, he told me to put a hand on the boogie board and we began swimming towards the shore together. With the boogie board, it didn’t take us very long to get into the shore. One of the waves caught us and helped us forward a bit. Soon enough, I was standing again in the water. I was standing! It never felt so good to have the ground under my feet. Even walking through the water back to the beach, I could feel the adrenaline coursing through my veins to the point that I was almost shaking.
When we got the shore, I thanked the Hawaiian man — profusely — and he explained to me that, at first, he thought I was waving at a friend to come out into the water. I’m glad that he eventually realized that was not the case. He also told me what to do in those situations, if it ever happened again (while I was thinking to myself, “yeah right, I’m never going in the water again!”). He instructed me to swim parallel to the shore rather than perpendicular. By swimming parallel to the shore (or on an angle that’s more parallel than perpendicular), I’d eventually get to a place where I could stand. If I continued to swim perpendicular, I’d be stuck in-between the wave and the undertow for hours.
I profusely thanked him again and then walked with my wobbly legs to the car. When I got to my car, there was a surfer there who asked me if I was alright. I said that I was still shaking a bit, but that I was embarrassed and grateful that the Hawaiian man came to save me. He said not to worry about it and that it had happened to him before, too. I thought to myself, really? I was watching him surf and he certainly knew what he was doing. He continued by explaining that sometimes, the waves can get stronger when you’re not expecting it and by the time you realize it, you’re stuck. He said that someone had to come and get him. Wow, I thought to myself. If it can happen to a skilled surfer, I guess it can happen to anyone. I thanked him for telling me. Again, he told me not to worry about it and that it could happen to anyone. I got in my car and drove home.
I didn’t go to the beach the next day, but I did eventually go back to the beach (I mean, I was still living in Hawai’i, how could I not go to the beach, right?) When I did build up enough confidence to get back to the beach, you can be sure that I was vigilant in my ability to stand while I was in the water.
I thought I’d share this story with you for a couple of reasons.
1. You never know when you’re going to be humbled by nature. I didn’t go to the beach that day expecting to nearly drown. Water makes up 99% of the Earth! The sheer size and force of water is awe-inspiring. As a result, it’s necessary to respect the water. If you don’t, it’s sure to humble you.
2. The kindest of strangers is infinite. The Hawaiian man could have easily ignored my waving hand assuming I was waving to a friend. Luckily for me, he thought I might be in trouble to come check it out. To him, and to strangers, I am forever grateful.