Posted by: mediapig | July 26, 2008

N.D.E. (Near Drowning Experience)

“Don’t drown.” Those were my wife’s last words to me as I left at 6:00am this morning to go surfing again.

I laughed, as I always do, and said something along the lines of “Don’t worry,” or “I won’t stay out long,” or some other reassurance.

Today, I came closer to drowning that I ever have in my life.

For the second weekend in a row, there was a southern swell coming in from an offshore storm. I am still enough of a kook to not know exactly what all the particulars mean, but even I know that a swell means bigger waves. And in fact, I experienced them a week or so ago, during the last swell, and felt that frankly, the surf was too big for me in those conditions.

That last time, I had come very close to catching a few waves, but found myself so exhausted from the battle to paddle out, that I felt my safety was compromised. My pop-up form was sloppy, and even when I caught a few waves, I would lose speed and sink once I stood up. When I reached the point where I felt too tired to safely get back in, I gave up and went home, even though I hadn’t been out as long as I would have liked. To paraphrase Dirty Harry, “A waterman’s got to know his limitations.”

Today, I ignored mine. When I arrived at the beach, the surf looked even bigger than last weekend. Rougher too, more current and chop. I should have taken one look and said “Maybe next time,” but I didn’t. A combination of addiction, pride, and determination pushed me forward, and I eagerly prepared to get wet.

To my credit, I didn’t waste me energy trying to fight my way out. I patiently waited on the beach till the sets stopped coming, then made my way out through the somewhat calmer water. Right off the bat it felt wrong.. I was tired from the paddling, way more tired than usual. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was probably due to fighting a stronger current. Or maybe I was just having a bad day. Either way, even in the calm water, I had to rest out in the line up, and when the waves started coming, I let them pass under me as I caught my breath.

Until the last one… Still catching my breath, I debated trying to catch it, but in the end decided to let this one go as well. As it flowed under me I bobbed up, but instead of gently settling back down, something went wrong. It carried me forward just far enough that I got dumped over the falls, and before I knew it, I was tumbling and spinning underwater on my way to the shore. Coughing and sputtering, I staggered to me feet, and tried to get back out.

Never let it be said that mother nature is deceitful. She gave me ample warning signs that the day was bigger than I could handle. As I waited for things to calm down again, I spotted a very skilled surfer, one whom I had seen every day at the beach. In a previous conversation, this surfer had had told me that he practiced every single morning before work. I watched as he caught a beautiful tube on a freaking huge wave. I also watched as he wiped out in a spectacular close out. The wave snapped his board in two. I’d never seen that happen in real life before, certainly not in the mushy waves this beach normally served up. I personally grabbed the nose of this guy’s board and handed it to him, and still I tried to paddle out.

Eventually I got back to the lineup, but the current was pulling me farther away from the other surfers. I spent some more energy trying to get back towards the crowd. Finally, the waves started getting bigger again. I waited for a a good one, and began paddling for the shore. The wave came, I caught it… but I felt like I was in slow motion, beaten and exhausted. I tried to back out, but it was too late… with a rumbling liquid explosion of noise and darkness, the wave took me under.

I came up, dazed and disoriented. The wave had dumped me in water that was still too deep to stand. I tried to make my way to my board, but the suction from the next wave was too strong. I held my breath, and again, I was smashed through the water like a rag doll. I felt my board smack my head, but luckily it was just a light hit. I reached underwater,r trying to find my leash to pull my board to me, but my arms felt like two strands of spaghetti. The next wave came, looming over me like a gray wall of stone. I covered my head with my hands as the board slammed down on top of me. I felt my body scrape against the sandy bottom, but I still couldn’t quite stand. The suction began again for the next one. It was getting harder to hold my breath.

I really can’t remember how many times I got slammed. The scary part was, I simply could not get out of it. The constant suction and then impact was keeping me trapped just far enough enough away from shore that I couldn’t get a solid footing. I began wheezing, and coughing, and found it harder and harder to hold my breath before making it to the surface. I gave up trying to get my board, and tried swimming for shore, but the board was still caught in the suction of the waves, tugging me the other way.

Finally, I made a decision. Even though the board was my flotation device, I was too tired to get to it, or even reel it in. And although I had been lucky so far, if it hit me again it could seriously injure me. I reached down and undid the leash that connected the board to me. You’re never supposed to do this, for a variety of reasons, but in my current condition, i felt like it was my best shot. Maybe this was a bad decision, I’m still not sure.

At any rate, the situation was serious enough that I was willing to lose my fairly new, beautiful funboard rather than drown. The board flew away from me, as the next wave crashed down. I did my best to body surf the waves in, gaining precious feet between pounding. Finally, I touched sand, and dug my feet in against the undertow. Even then, finally able to stand, it took every ounce of energy I had left to drag myself out of the water. I had been pushed beyond my limits… My body had nothing left to give, and I was completely out of breath, wheezing and coughing uncontrollably. As I stumbled out of the surf, I struggled to pull down the top of my wetsuit, to ease the pressure on my chest, and make it easier to breath. Please believe I am not exaggerating when I say I nearly collapsed on the beach right then and there.

Luckily, my board was right there waiting for me.

I was so beat, I didn’t even have the energy to take some pictures of the waves, which I had planned to add to my blog. I might take some tomorrow, as conditions are supposed to be similar then.

Which brings me to my lesson, what I learned from all this. I may not like it, but the fact is when a swell comes in, the surf is simply beyond my present capabilities. I need to either find another beach that is smaller on those days, or stay out of the water. Hopefully, by this time next year my skill level will have improved. But for right now, that’s just the way it is. Twice I have tried to battle my way out in swell conditions, and twice the ocean has slapped me down for my arrogance.

The ocean always wins. I don’t need a third lesson in this basic waterman’s law. I may be a kook, but I’m not stupid. If I had been stuck out there even a few minutes longer, things could have gone very, very bad.

Now, proactively, some steps I can take are:

1. Find a a beach that does not get as big when swells come in (if any readers have suggestions, I’d love to hear them.)

2. Continue my surf-focused workout, and pay particular attention to cardio and endurance exercises, to increase my overall strength level in the water.

3. Although it rarely used to bother me in California, the fact is my asthma is getting worse, and it contributed to my problems today. I don’t like to admit it, but I think I will need to go on regular preventative medication if I am going to continue engaging in strenuous activities like surfing.

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Responses

  1. I am really enjoying your exploits. Having just started surfing (at the age of 58), I too feel something really special about this sport, the people who are drawn to it, and the natural beauty that it takes place in. And, even after a bad day, after not even getting up on one wave, having conquered a small part of myself in some manner, I begin to understand the subtle meaning of the word “stoke.”

    Great beginners website! Onward!

  2. Wow… comments like that are exactly why I started this site! Thanks Jim, for keeping me stoked on a day I couldn’t go out! Good luck and keep on surfing!

  3. Great story. I had the exact same experience in Nicaragua when I felt I was good enough to take an international trip from my native break in FL. I had been surfing for about 2 years before Nicaragua.

    The week that we stayed there had a swell that pumping out clean offshore condition waves easily overhead with a few double overhead monsters that scared the hell out of me when I was on the outside break at a place called Popoyo. Overhead out here and overhead on the east coast where the waves arent nearly as heavy are like apples and oranges. Even the locals were surprised at how big it was.

    I finally decided I had to try and ride one if I was ever going to make it back to the beach in one piece and the longer I was waiting the worse my anxiety was getting. So, like an idiot, I pick the first wave of an overhead set, surprise myself that I was able to paddle in and ride it for a little bit, but instead of staying on as long as possible to make it far enough in so that the following waves would be the shit out of me, I kicked out too early and wound up on the inside.

    In no time, another one just beat me down right on my head, shoved me to the bottom and the darkness, flipping me around like a rag doll. Now here is why my lack of international/bigger wave experience killed me. More experienced guys would have just relaxed, taken the beaten, and held on to their board and made it in fairly easily.

    I on the other hand immediately began to panic, wasting valuable lactic acid and letting fear overtake me. Each time I was barely able to make it to the surface, the lip of another bomb would be right there waiting. I was able to get no where and thought for sure I was going to drown. There was no one on the beach to call for help to and my friends were too far out to see what was going on.

    Each time Id take as much air as I could, and then try and swim as far deep under the wave as I could because I didnt have time to reel my board in to get on it and use to help me float. By about the 5th wave, I could feel that I was starting to black out and was really freaking out. This is truly the difference too surviving in heavier waves aside from being a better surfer of course. I just lost it. Finally a lull in the swell came and I was able to get onto my board and paddle as hard as I could to the rocks where I knew I could make it in from there, even if I banged up me and my board. I got slammed against the rocks a few times and cut my feet and legs up but didnt care. I just sat there for about 10 minutes hugging the rock and thanking the powers that be that I didnt drown.

    Needless to say, I didnt surf much more after that on that trip. I was out of my league for sure in Nicaragua. It was pretty embarassing. I would paddle out, and immediately anxiety would just overwhelm me and Id freak out and paddle back in before getting beat down again.

    Its now almost been a year since the experience and, while it seems to be getting a little better, I still am not the same even at my local break. Its hard for me to go out on “big” days even on east coast standards and paddle past the outside break and leave the comfort of the sand bottom inside break where the waves are far inferior.

    I know there have been lots of you guys out there with similar experiences and I guess thats how you become a better and smarter surfer, but does anyone have any tips on how to get over this and get my courage back?

    Thx guys.

  4. Nice article. I almost felt the water choking me as I read.


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