The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever

Jacques Cousteau

Getting Caught in the Rip by Hamza Idrissi

casablanca-beach-danny-lau Casablanca, Morocco. Photo: Danny Lau

Fear and panic can turn a pleasant wild swim into a nightmare when suddenly things go wrong in the sea. Many people who spend time around the ocean swimming or boating will probably have a story to tell about a brush with death either about themselves or someone else. Fortunately, most people live to tell their stories such as Hamza from Casablanca, Morocco who recently started swimming at dawn in the wild Atlantic Ocean and unexpectedly found himself in a rip current, a major cause of drowning around the world every year. I'm grateful that he shares this story to remind us all of how important it is to know how to read the sea, to swim safely in wild, open waters and to know what to do if you do get caught in a rip current. Please read and share.

Getting Caught in the Rip

by Hamza Idrissi 

I was very ready to swim this morning. Very excited. I'd been imagining and anticipating with eagerness my next dawn swim since I had gotten out of the ocean yesterday. I live in Casablanca a coastal city in Morocco set on the Atlantic Ocean (think Bogart and Bacall). Casablanca has many beaches where you can enjoy swimming and it's popular with tourists. I go to a beach (nicknamed Madame Lolla because a Spanish woman once had a bar here) because it's close to where I live, about 20 minutes walking and three minutes driving. Unfortunately, there is no protected harbour, it's just you and the open, often rough, sea. Almost no one is there at dawn.

The idea of swimming at dawn excites and appeals to me. Dawn is very special and magical. To experience dawn you must wake up earlier that everybody else, while the world still sleeps. I find it to be the best time to wake up. I feel healthier, the air is cleaner with less pollution, and the water is cold (17-22 C/ 63-72F). Your body is still warm after a night's sleep. It's a good opportunity to shock your body with cold water which I have learned is a very good thing for me.

Casablanca, Morocco Photo: Aziz Acharki

I reached the beach at 5:56am. Strong waves smashed onto the shore. It was still dark, just before dawn commenced. I took a few pictures of the beach and the surrounding area. Dawn began at 5:59am and sunrise at 6:24am. I jumped into the water at 5:59am. I wanted to feel the cold water. It felt quite cold especially for someone who had just gotten out of his warm bed.

In April 2020 when the Covid-19 pandemic got very serious, I started doing cold water shower therapy (based on the Wim Hof method) to boost my immune system to fight the flu. Other benefits of exposure to cold water that also interested me included:

1. Excellent for my cardiovascular system
2. Good for my veins. It's like exercising all the 120 km of veins in my body.
3. It acts like a cleanser. It flushes out the entire waist from liver, stomach, intestines….
4. The brain releases many 'feel-good' hormones
5. Helps fight inflammation
6. Stimulates the vagus nerve to promote rest and digestion thereby increasing relaxation and calmness
7. Helps fight depression and improves mood
8. Burns fat and increases brown (good) vs. white (bad) fat in the body

At 6am I started swimming as usual out into the open ocean. I felt great. The cold water was exactly what I was looking for. Even though my body resisted the cold, I knew that my cardiovascular system would thank me after I finished the swim. I kept swimming out into the sea and I suddenly realized that I was swimming very fast. How bizarre! I turned back to the shore to find a familiar visual spot.

Starting to feel a little desperate, I spotted the "Gold Man," this guy with a metal detector who is always there on the beach hoping to get lucky in his search for gold, jewelry and money lost by swimmers and beach-goers. When I looked back toward the shore, I wondered why he seemed much further away than usual. At first I didn't take my disorientation seriously. I turned back and kept swimming forward. Then, a few seconds later, I decided to stop and look back again. This time, when I looked back, he was much further away. Very far away from where he should be. I started to think hard about this and what it meant. I stopped and tried to touch the ground with my feet. When I reached down with my toes, I could not touch the sandy bottom. My head moaned, "Ohhh no….. I have to get back to where it is safer."

Gold Man, Morocco. Photo: Shutterstock

I started swimming back straight towards shore. I could still see the Gold Man, digging into the sand in case he heard a buzz of success. Surreal. I kept swimming but I realized that I did not move an inch closer to the beach. I tried again to touch the ground but no success. I thought, "Maybe I'm not trying hard enough." I tried swimmer harder this time and stopped. Again I tried to touch the ground but with no luck. The third time I tried harder than the two previous trials but again I didn't move forward. Instead, I found myself exactly in the same place. Then I realized, "I'm in a rip current** and it's pulling me back out to sea. If I keep swimming like this, I will never get out." I was breathing very hard. A bit of panic set in as I realized what was going on. It was very tough. I decided to swim this time against this rip current from my left side because I remember the wise words of my father and mother who told me what to do if stuck in a rip current: swim parallel to shore, not against the current.

I began to swim very hard and fast, with great effort, to the left. I stopped and tried to touch the ground but, again, no success. My mind wailed, "Ohhh man, this is crazy! Is this really happening to me or is this simply a very bad dream?" I tried again for the second time swimming to the left. I swam hard and fast towards the shore. Once again, I tried to touch the ground to see where I was but could not touch the ground. Then I realized that I was in a big trouble. It's funny the things that come to mind when nearing panic. I started to hear the great Australian rock band AC/DC's song Thunderstruck roaring through my head as "I was thunderstruck."Caught in a plane in a violent thunderstorm, the band's lead singer Angus Young felt near-death and this song came to him like a lightning bolt. Thunderstruck pounded in my ears to the rhythm of my quick breath as I struggled through the waves, the shore so close and yet so far.

The sea appeared very angry, grey with fog and strong waves.
Photos: Dawn Swimmer

I remembered my friend who was supposed to be with me here swimming this morning. He could not make it because he was tired and didn't like to wake up early. I thought that he was lucky. I found myself wishing I had stayed at home too. But I realized that type of thinking wasn't going to get me out of my current mess.

I began to look again for the Gold Man. In that moment, I wished that I were him, too. He seemed so lucky, safe on shore. I thought about yelling and screaming to get his attention but realized that was useless. I feared that, 1) he wouldn't hear me, 2) I would waste energy and strength by shouting and waving my arms, and 3) if he did hear me, he wouldn't be able to help. I was on my own. So, I said to myself, "Let him search for his gold. I don't want to bother him with my problem."

I looked again at the sea, in a desperate way, to my right, to my left and to the front where death waited for me. It was a bad moment. I started to accept the idea of death with sportsmanship. Here I was. I did this to myself. I was alone with nobody to help me. The sea appeared very angry, grey with fog and strong waves. I realized I was breathing very heavily, almost hyperventilating. I found myself nearly out of breath. Nerves and panic began to take over. Then I began to talk to myself: "Stay calm and relax or else you're going to die here. Let's find a way out of here!"

Panic started to take over, death a possibility. Photo: Dawn Swimmer

Two options occurred to me: Plan A) to swim from the right against the rip current to break through it, or, in case that doesn't work, Plan B) which entailed floating on my back so that I could rest and try to catch my breath. Plan B had a major drawback though: And if I'm pulled further from shore by the rip current while floating? I wondered. I also thought I might end up drinking a lot of water in the process because the waves crashed over my head which would weaken me further.

I knew Plan A must succeed. I felt very tired and out of breath after all this crazy, high intensity swimming. Nonetheless, I started swimming to my right, very hard. I knew I had only about one minute of hard swimming and I knew I could do it even if I was dead tired. In a flash I thought of Dawn Swimmer (who I'd contacted about my wish to swim at dawn) and I thought how would she get herself out of this mess? I knew there must be a way. I kept swimming to my right side like crazy. Then, I asked the LORD to help me and save me. I kept swimming to my right side like crazy. I asked the LORD to help me and save me. Then a wave came and pushed me towards the shore. I kept swimming. Another wave came and I felt it push me where I wanted to go and I kept swimming with it. I tried to touch the ground again. Finally, I could feel the sand on my toes. Relief washed over me. I was saved!

I crawled out onto the shore and stood up. Turning back, I put my hand on my hips and stared at the sea. I implored internally, "Why did you do this to me?" My shoulders, biceps, triceps, and pecs were very, very hot. I could feel blood pounding like crazy through them. The rest of my body was cold. It was like when a 4X4 -wheel drive vehicle is stuck in sand. To try and get out, you keep accelerating but with no success. As you futilely accelerate, steam rises from the engine creating another problem. That was me.

With this drama over, I looked at my watch. I couldn't believe it. It was only 6:04am. I thought it must be 6:10 or 6:15. Five minutes of torment by the sea seemed like eternity. I felt exhausted. How could it only be five minutes?

I learned a lot from this mishap, and I realized I need to learn more about the sea by asking local professionals and researching more on the Internet about waves and tides to help me understand better. I always respected and feared the sea but today, I went swimming before paying attention to some small but important details that could have made a big difference. Next time I will be more careful and better trained in case I face something similar. I love doing what I am doing and will never give up swimming in the sea at dawn because I feel better and I know the benefits. I am exercising my body and mind inside the cold salty water, breathing heavily oxygen. It's much more powerful than the cold shower. At dawn I feel stronger inside. It gives me a psychological boost after swimming, a sense of being proud of myself. 

I would like to start a wild swimming group here in Casablanca and share this knowledge with others. While I was writing this article I found out that the beach I go to takes many lives per year because of the strong rip currents!

I once felt brainwashed by ideas that limited my understanding of the world but now I start to understand myself and the world better. I have found my healing in the water and through meditation. The rip current, ripped me from my comfort zone, shook me up, forced me to look inside as well as up to find my solutions and faith to bring me through the waves. It felt like a gift, a second chance, an opportunity to renew myself. Despite the fear I felt, I will not stop going to the sea at dawn. As Bono intones in the classic U2 song, Where the Streets Have No Name:

"I want to run, I want to hide
I wanna tear down the walls that hold me inside
I wanna reach out and touch the flame
Where the streets have no name, ah, ah, ah"

For me the ocean at dawn is the place where the streets have no name.
"Figure 2 - (A) The best way to avoid rip currents is to swim in an area with lifeguards, such as between the pair of red and yellow flags on this New Zealand beach (photo: Jodie Wilson). (B) You should always check for warning signs like this one on a beach in the United States and read them if present (courtesy: NOAA)."
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Comments 1

Guest - Jane on Tuesday, 03 August 2021 14:44
Beware the Riptide

During a dawn swim a man from Casablanca writes of his terrifying experience caught in a riptide. His personal story is gripping. The accompanying photos taken by the author show not only the beauty of the area, but also the potential for disaster as the tides become treacherous to unsuspecting souls. A warning at the end of the article complements his words perfectly.

During a dawn swim a man from Casablanca writes of his terrifying experience caught in a riptide. His personal story is gripping. The accompanying photos taken by the author show not only the beauty of the area, but also the potential for disaster as the tides become treacherous to unsuspecting souls. A warning at the end of the article complements his words perfectly.
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