Goodnight Irene

Thursday 17 August 2006

I was swimming in the ocean today, the highlight of my vacation days. After about 20 minutes, the lifeguard (and my frantic wife) waved me out of the water because there was a school of bluefish feeding nearby, unbeknownst to me. I was heading toward the frenzy, and I would have been, in the words of the lifeguard, “part of the food chain”. It was an exciting moment in an otherwise relaxed vacation week, but it made me think of something that happened on the same beach a year ago.

Last summer’s hurricane season was notable primarily for Katrina and Rita, but for me, Irene was a much bigger deal. Hurricanes don’t really affect Cape Cod much, except to roil up the ocean to make large rough waves. Even for hurricanes, Irene was a bit unusual in the degree of these effects. The waves were much larger than usual:

The waves on Nauset Light beach due to Irene

The lifeguard estimated the waves at six feet, and as the photo shows, they were breaking in a number of places. The beach was closed to swimmers; without a surfboard and fins, you were only allowed into the water up to your knees. I played on the sand with my family, and watched the surfers in the water. It was clear they were having a hard time making the fierce waves do what they wanted.

After a few hours of playing and watching, for some reason, I decided to swim. This, despite the lifeguards telling us not to go in the water. Despite watching the surfers trying unsuccessfully to deal with the larger-than-usual waves. I really don’t know what made me do it. Maybe the waves seemed calmer at one point. Maybe six-foot waves didn’t sound so large. Maybe I was just really stupid.

Whatever the reason, I went in. I had no flotation aid (board), no propelling aid (fins). I was equipped with just a swimsuit, a wet suit, and goggles. At first, the waves seemed tame, and I swam out. After being out there for five or ten minutes, though, it became clear that it was a bad idea. The waves seemed very threatening. What had been large swells were now breaking waves that were very, very large indeed. I turned back to shore, and started trying to make my way back.

The biggest challenge was to not be where the waves were breaking. It was obvious that if a wave broke right on top of me, I would have a very tough time with the crushing pressure. I didn’t want to think too hard about what that might be like. Even after the waves broke, their forceful turbulence washing over me made swimming very difficult. The chaotic foamy water provided nothing organized to push against, making progress difficult. At those times, it took all my energy just to keep my head above water.

It quickly became clear that I had two distinct tasks: swim as fast as I could to get back to land, and coordinate with the waves washing over me to avoid drowning in their churn. When a wave was over me, I had to focus on keeping above water, or timing my breathing if I was forced under water. When the wave passed, and before the next one arrived, I had to swim like hell.

While swimming, I had to keep an eye on the waves behind me so that I could gauge their approach, and switch from going fast to not drowning. The waves now seemed like relentless monsters, impossibly large and impossibly close together. When I wasn’t panicking about whether I would get back to shore or struggling to find the surface of the water that had been there just a moment before, I was kicking myself for being so incredibly stupid. What the hell was I thinking when I decided to step into this maelstrom?

Gradually, my two-phase strategy was working, though, and I got close enough to shore to see the lifeguard whistling me in. Believe me, I didn’t need the suggestion!

I eventually made it to the sand, and literally stumbled out of the water. I walked up onto the beach and just sat for ten minutes, exhausted. I caught my breath and collected my thoughts. After composing myself, I walked back to where Susan and the rest of my family were, and told them what had happened. They didn’t seem greatly concerned, maybe because it had passed, maybe because they know me as a strong swimmer, maybe they were just distracted with the larger-than-usual family gathering.

I have more respect now for the difference between how waves look and how they can feel. I certainly have more respect for the lifeguards’ judgement about the safety of the water. I haven’t had another chance to swim in hurricane-churned seas since then. When I do, I’ll be careful, and follow the rules.

I swim for exercise and pleasure, and being in the water often reminds me of Irene. I have thought of that afternoon a lot in the past year. It hasn’t made me reluctant to go in the water, and hasn’t made me unusually cautious in the ocean. I’m still often the farthest one out (as I was today when the bluefish were feeding).

But I wonder what I was thinking when I decided to go in the water that day. I don’t remember my thought process, how I reconciled my desire to be in the waves with the lifeguard’s explicit prohibition against swimming. I don’t know how I thought I would manage in the waves with no equipment while the surfers were having difficulty with fins and boards. I don’t understand the enormous gap in my judgement. More than the monstrous waves, or my successful effort to get out of trouble, it’s that I think back on.


Excellent story. There is something about the strength of the sea that draws me in too. It is unexplainable. Maybe we think that we will be the ones to tame it.

The last time that I was in a similar situation, I got a lot of mileage (literally) from swimming diagonally (tacking) towards the beach, try to stay in the troughs. It doesn't always work, but it seems to keep the frequency of the pounding down.

You need to do some SCUBA, methinks.
I found myself bodysurfing in some storm churned waters off a beach in Ocean City Maryland once. There wasn't any bad rip tide or anything like that and a lot of people were in the water but the waves were big; much bigger than anything I had seen previously or since. (The had chewed away the sand such that there was a vertical two foot drop to the high tide mark). It was a lot of fun and very exhilerating up until the point were one wave tumbled me and slammed me headfirst into the bottom - totally rang my bell - seeing stars, swallowing sea water, you get the picture. I was in my late twenties at the time and a big dude but pretty fit as well. It was the first time since I child I had been so effortlessly tossed around. It was a real eye opener on just how powerful water can be. I'll never forget it.
Thank goodness it turned out alright- I will be flying to Palau tomorrow and trying scuba diving for the first time, so I've kind of been having jitters about exactly this kind of thing happening, recently.
Years ago I was in vacation in Mexico. The beach was beautiful and the waves not so dangerously-looking. Far away surfers were trying the waves. We started approaching deep water when a surfer spot us and rushed towar my friends and me. He vigorously advised us to not swim there, it was too dangerous. At the time I was the only one of the group to understand english, and It take work to persuade my friend that these innocent looking waves could kill.
Isn't not knowing what your thought-process was normal in decision-making for experts? Brains are wired that way, you assess the situation, you decide, and you perform actions.

If you aren't expert enough, you don't assess your situation correctly, make a wrong decision, and do stupid things. Happens to young drivers, and apparently also to adults who sit at the ocean looking at the waves. :-) The swimming session made a big impact on you, so I'm sure your brains have re-arranged themselves to put wave-strength and swimability into another perspective.

Glad you made it back though, and that the fish didn't bite you this year!
Scary story! I'm so glad you made it back. I suspect your inexplicable desire to go in that day came from two things:

1) Man's natural desire to test his strength and courage and ingenuity against the elements. In general, often a good thing (we now have airplanes!), but sometimes fatal to the individual. This kind of behavior is most often seen in people who are of the testosterone persuasion. ;-)
2) If your lifeguards are anything like some of my local lifeguards, maybe you didn't put a lot of credence in the judgment of a bored, gum-snapping, high school kid!

Personally, I am terrified of the ocean and never venture in past my knees. I got grabbed by an undertow as a child and one experience of being powerless in the grip of a mighty and merciless force was enough for me!
Sounds like constructivist learning - having something told to you isn't the same as experiencing a vivid, personal, memorable instance (almost drowning!).

There's something else here - in so many ways in our culture these days, we overestimate risk...your story is the opposite.

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