Respect for the Sea
They say that the bodies of drowning victims float to the surface on the 9th day. Yesterday was day 9 for the two 20-year-olds missing somewhere in the waters just off the coast where I swim. They lost a paddle while kayaking on a very windy day with cold, heavy, choppy wave action. A day even the local fisherman stayed in port. Attempting to retrieve the paddle, the kayak flipped over launching the occupants into the water. Apparently, one of the young men didn't know how to swim. The other young man slipped into panic and shock and sank like a lead weight. They weren't wearing life vests. One vest was retrieved later. We know the details because a third person on the kayak, designed for two, was an 18-year-old young woman who kept her wits about her. Against the odds, she survived.
Nine days ago I awoke to the sound of a helicopter flying nearby. I looked out the window and the sea did not appear particularly agitated but nonetheless there was a search and rescue chopper flying slowly down the coast in the first light of dawn. In the sea, I could see the maritime rescue vessel, the Don Inda, just off shore. Ut oh, I thought, what's happened? I set off as usual but with an intense sense of foreboding and a somber mood. From my window I can see the coastline in front of me, nicknamed The Death Coast due to the large number of sea tragedies these still desolate spaces have witnessed over the ages. Heavy winds, strong, unpredictable currents that can change rapidly, as well as rough, rocky shoals just below the surface far out to sea, have often been the death bane to many poor vessels and sailors.
One must respect the sea, surrender to its power and face it with humility.
At the time I didn't know who or what they were looking for but I knew some tragedy had occurred. It gave me pause and forced me to reflect on my own mortality and what I do immersing myself in the unpredictable, potentially highly dangerous medium that is the sea. The surface reveals many clues about the state of the ocean but very little about what lies underneath - currents, cold, ever changing conditions, rip tides. And, if hubris or ignorance, lead you to either ignore or not recognize signs of danger or you simply overestimate your capabilities, it can lead to very tragic consequences. Every year we lose people on this coast due to imprudence, ignorance, lack of respect for the power of the sea or simply bad luck when conditions rapidly and unpredictably change.
As I watched the helicopter move down the coast and the rescue boat park itself just offshore from me (I found out they had located a life jacket there adrift in the sea), I observed the sea that morning. The bay was calmer than the day before. When I looked out the window from my house, I had thought, Oh, the sea is the calmest it's been in a long time. But, once up close, I could feel the ocean's power as usual. The steep precipice of sand at the bay was pronounced, gouged out by the sea's incessant fury and wave action. And cold. Very cold. I went to the cove, which is almost always calmer than the bay, and with some additional trepidation due to the circumstances, began my immersion. Jaw-freezing cold today! I couldn't even keep my head in as long as I normally do. My body began to feel hot with the cold sting. The young men would have succumbed to hypothermia very quickly in this water and the fact the young woman survived is a testament to a very strong, inner-will. In this video I show the state of the bay the morning after the accident, apparently calm, and the steep sand precipice that the sea has carved out over the last weeks. The powerful strength of the tidal action is evident.
And this is the way things are. Life goes on. The sun keeps rising, the moon keeps setting despite the stupid things we do. We are insignificant and there is a very thin line between life and death. Only sometimes, there are moments when we are confronted more directly with this inevitable reality. I kept this thought very present in my mind as I immersed myself in this cold, cold unfriendly water. I use 'unfriendly' now because it had just taken the lives of two young men but of course to anthropomorphize the water is silly, the ocean is indifferent to us. It just is what it is in its magnificent variety of states. Yet despite the initial chill and my morbid thoughts of my own death and perhaps even seeing one of the young men (close to the age of my eldest son) floating below me trapped in the kelp, I aligned myself with the sun rising in the eastern sky along that thin line of life and death. And then I rotated myself in the water and aligned myself with the moon which was setting in the western sky. Sun and the moon in the same morning in the same sky. After I emerged from the water the chopper flew high over my head. Back and forth on its futile search.
In the nine days since the accident, the young men and their fate have been constant companions in my morning ritual and in the newspapers. Will they wash up on this shore? How are their families coping with this tragedy? How could you get into a kayak on a sea known for its unpredictability on a very windy, rough afternoon and not know how to swim? How many times have I done dumb things myself and been lucky? I contemplated the many times that I have assessed the risks, dangers, pushed down the fear to immerse myself in the water that was often wild, powerful, scary. I also thought about the times I chose to not go in certain places based on that fear and acquired knowledge. Humility is the primary sentiment. One must respect the sea, surrender to its power and face it with humility.
Bits and pieces of the story revealed themselves over the following days. The day before the accident, three friends of the young men used the same kayak to attempt to circumnavigate a nearby island and had to be rescued by emergency services because they were unable to make the return as they fought the incessant, battering NE wind waves that July has brought to the coast. Perhaps the young men thought to prove they could do what their friends could not. Who knows? They set out in the afternoon with the young woman, reached another beach, far from their goal of the island due to the heavy winds and waves. On the beach they were advised not to set off again but they did anyway. Three hours later, around 9:30pm, emergency services were notified because they did not return. A rescue helicopter spotted the young woman on some rocks 4 km away from the accident. Suffering hypothermia and abrasions from the rocks, she was rescued and taken to the hospital. Her friends were lost.
Six days after the tragedy I reached the beach and felt surprised to see a huge colony of seagulls - one part in the ocean and one part on the beach further down the shore. I saw a person on the other side of the colony in the distance slowly coming towards me. I wondered what the gulls would be doing out at sea. My morbid thinking led to thoughts of ghastly feasting.
Again, another choppy, rough day. I avoided the bay, passed by Mermaid Cove and went to my cove. It was rough. It's true. Big, choppy waves, poor visibility in the water. Cold. I took my camera. I watched the waves hit the back of the rocks with strength and power, the spray flying up into the air. I thought I heard a voice shout to me. Anyone who saw me might think I'm absolute crazy, I know. Out in the sea like this. I didn't see anyone but started to head back to shore. In the video, notice the incessant wind and velocity of the waves event though I captured a calm period here.
A couple of very large sets buffeted me around uncomfortably and I felt a momentary fear rise inside but I breathed and pushed it down, calmed the mind, stroking smoothly and firmly to work through the black, gray mass of chopping liquid around me. I started to think about the dead young men again and wondering what the hell I was doing out in the middle of the sea. Useless thought does not get you through the waves and current. I refocused and kept going, avoiding the rocks where the waves crash violently. I then flipped onto my back and did double arm backstroke with dolphin kick which I find very soothing and calming and pulled towards the shore.
In the calm, now relaxed again, I once again notice the way the air bubbles make beautiful patterns on my feet and legs in the clear surface water. Then, I see a man on the shore. It must be the same man I saw before. He's not a fisherman. Instead, he carries a camera with a huge lens. He pays no attention to me at all. In later photos I see him and realize he had been watching me but he acts as if he hasn't seen me.
Useless thought does not get you through the waves and current.
Fate is a strange thing. I finally emerged from the water and slowly dressed. Shivering as usual from the cold. I return to the boardwalk to commence my journey home. At the boardwalk junction, I run into the man with the camera again. Unbelievable synchronicity. We start chatting. I ask him about his photography. He's interested in the seagull colony. I mention the accident and my morbid thought about their feasting at sea. He says it's possible. Then he tells me, They were my students. I'm a teacher where they went to high school.
He's the one who told me one of the young men didn't know how to swim. He described him as an impulsive, hyperactive (diagnosed) boy. A good kid. Both good kids. He explained, They lost a paddle in the middle of the crossing. One young man jumped out to retrieve it and the kayak flipped over. All three were thrown into the water. He told me the young woman had nerves of steel. First she watched the boy who didn't know how to swim struggle and sink to the bottom. Then, she watched her friend, who went to get the oar, go into a state of total panic and shock. He simply collapsed, going white in the eyes, and sank into the depths like a lead weight. Meanwhile, she kept hold in the frigid waters to the kayak set adrift on the sea guided by the currents and the heavy NE wind battering the coast. She had the presence of mind, will and strength to hold on for several kilometers until the drifting kayak got close enough to the shore and she thought she could swim for it. She braved all the odds and let the kayak go, her one object of safety in the mass of open, unfriendly water, and swam for the rocky shore. She made it. Pulling herself up onto the rocks and getting battered in the process as well as suffering hypothermia and intense anxiety, she was thankfully rescued soon thereafter.
The search goes on. Yesterday, Day 9, when bodies typically refloat, the search was intensified. Today, Day 10. The search goes on and on. The parents desperate, devastated and sad. Mariners say that this heavy NE wind cools the water often delaying the resurfacing process. The wait could go on for days and days. Respect the sea. Always respect the sea.
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The Dawn Swimmer demonstrates through words and photos the remarkable power and changeability of the sea. With the tragic story of two fatalities of young men in turbulent and unpredictable seas, it becomes clear how essential is respect for the sea. The Dawn Swimmer lets us know she has had her own challenges in becoming one with the sea when she is tossed into huge troughs not sure where the she is. Keeping calm and renewing focus keep her going, but ultimately respect for the sea is essential.