Have you ever been to the Oregon Coast? The shoreline is generally rugged, the water is frigid and the ocean named Peace can be angry and violent. Swells roll in from storms or seismic events thousands of miles away, pitching into waves as they encounter shallow water and exploding in spectacular collisions with jagged, rocky sea stacks and cliffs. There are “sneaker” waves – monsters compared to others in their group – that can engulf an entire beach in an instant and sweep away in their backwash virtually anything not anchored in place. Though there are relatively safe places to swim and surf, relatively is the operative word, for the entire coast abounds with rip currents, undertows and assorted other dangers.
For all its dangers and violence, the Oregon Coast is also stunningly beautiful, and of the hundreds of gorgeous viewpoints along the coast, one of the most accessible and picturesque is at Ecola State Park, just north of the quaint town of Cannon Beach. A long, winding road through a thick evergreen forest heavy with moss and ferns brings you first to the big parking lot and access to Crescent Beach. Surfers go a couple miles farther to where the road ends at Indian Beach. No one surfs Crescent. I decided to surf Crescent.
In his thoroughly engaging book Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why, Laurance Gonzales, who has studied hundreds of tragedies around the world, writes: “I found otherwise rational people doing inexplicable things to get themselves killed – against all advice, against all reason.” He could have been writing specifically about me. I had no business paddling out at Ecola’s Crescent Beach. None. It was absolutely absurd. Worse than absurd, actually. It was asinine. A three-quarter mile stretch of almost deserted beach, no one else in the water (not just that day, ever), massive fifteen foot waves breaking a few hundred yards from shore, gorgeous spindrift blowing back over their crests. I don’t recall having a death wish, but I can’t think of any other explanation. Oh, except sheer stupidity. Yes, that’s what it was: sheer stupidity. If I got into trouble out there, as I necessarily would under the circumstances, I would deserve it. And if I died, as was likely, people reading about my death would have been justified in joking about the efficiency of natural selection and how my death surely improved the gene pool going forward – one less idiot reproducing. Did I mention it was asinine? That’s a good word for it, though not nearly strong enough.
I was so tired by the time I was halfway to the break, and so beat up from fighting through wall after punishing wall of whitewater, that I came to my senses and realized that I really needed to turn around and get back to shore without delay. I'd be lying if I said that I came to that realization “just in the nick of time.” The truth is, I had missed the nick of time. It was too late for getting back to shore without delay. If I made it back at all, it would involve a life-and-death struggle, because I was in trouble, and the trouble was at least two-fold.
First, there was a rip that was pulling me out faster than any of the waves were pushing me in. A wall of white would push me in the right direction for a few seconds, which was a good thing in spite of the violence it entailed, but it would eventually engulf me and when I popped up behind it, the rip stream would carry me out until the next wall assaulted me. If you’ve ever been to the ocean, you’ve probably seen the uprush of water onto the beach followed by the backwash of that same water returning to sea, and if you’ve ever tried to stand against the backwash, you’ve noticed how fast and powerful it is. Well, a rip current is sort of like that in speed and power – it’s like a river flowing on the surface of the ocean away from the shore, and paddling against it is impossible. Though I knew that the general rule about being caught in a rip was to ride it out while paddling at an angle to eventually escape its clutches, I believed it would be certain death if I let that current take me out. I mean, if that happened, I’d be just as tired as I already was – probably even more so – but I’d be tired a mile out in the ocean, being tossed, turned, thrown and swept this way and that. I was already in a bad place, but a mile farther out? Too scary to contemplate. I needed to get out of the rip no matter what.
I paddled sideways with all my might, aided by panic-generated adrenaline and, with the help of a few broken waves that pushed me and supplemented my paddling, I managed to escape the rip in about 20 minutes without being pulled too far out. Unfortunately, my escape from the rip positioned me for trouble #2. I was now in line to meet up with the collection of sentinel rocks – jagged sea stacks – off the south end of the beach. The icy water was churning wildly around those stacks, boiling and swirling, with foam and spray bursting into the air as wave after wave pummeled them. I was about 100 yards west of them and heading in a generally eastward direction.
My arms already felt like lead, totally spent from the frantic paddling I’d put into escaping the rip. I was physically almost helpless, and mentally close to despair, realizing I had nothing to offer the situation in the way of remedy. It occurred to me that I could very easily die out there. Not just that it was theoretically possible but that it was actually likely and, barring a miracle, almost inevitable. No one was coming to save me; help wasn’t on its way – the ocean would do whatever it wanted, completely indifferent to my plight. It was weird to think about the ocean’s indifference to my dying. I loved the ocean, but now that I was about to die in it, I wasn’t loving it so much. Now it seemed an enemy; a cold, deep, dark, powerful enemy. A surfer gets a notion that he or she has a personal relationship with the ocean – and I think there’s something to that – but it's a one-sided thing. The ocean isn’t a person; you can’t reason with it; it is indifferent to humans; it just does its thing. The ocean didn’t owe me any favors and wouldn’t extend me any grace; it wasn't going to behave in some special way for me; it wasn’t going to let me off the hook for my stupidity. Rather, it would just keep coming, swell after swell, wave after wave, and I was very likely going to die in it. I had great clarity about that at the time – it was something I was thinking about even as I was assessing my options and directing my arms and legs to maneuver to give me a chance at survival. I was only a little sad about the idea of dying – somehow, I took that idea sort of matter-of-factly and thought about it stoically – but what fascinated me was knowing it in advance. It seemed special, like a rare privilege, to both know I was going to die and also have a little time to think about. The day of my death had arrived. I even said to myself, "This is the day I'm going to die. Right here today at Ecola. How weird to think about." It was just another weekend on the coast with Maria; entirely like all the others except for my death.
As I rolled, spun and drifted ever closer to the unforgiving mountains of rock, I would glance to the beach from time to time to see if Maria was panicking or anything. The beach was so close yet impossibly far; I could see her looking my way, but I had no idea what she was thinking. This was in 1981, so Maria didn’t have a cell phone to call 911. Also, she and I hadn’t come up with a signal system for me to indicate desperate need for help, so even if she was concerned, she didn’t know if her concern was valid. Maybe it wasn’t as bad as it looked; maybe I was making progress on a plan I’d come up with for getting to the beach safely. She didn’t want to jump the gun; she didn’t want to ask anyone for help if it wasn’t really needed. Even if she had decided that the situation was deathly serious, there would have been that little bit of lag time between decision and action – that minute of indecisive panic when no alternative seems right. If I was dying out in the ocean, how could she leave? But on the other hand, if I was dying there, how could she not go for help? If she decided to go for help, she would be leaving me to die alone, not even watched. And she would have had to run the entire length of the beach – well over half a mile – and then climb the steep embankment/cliff to its top, and then across to the parking lot. It would likely have been a 20 minute adrenaline-fueled venture just to reach the car. And then what? Maybe she’d first waste several minutes frantically looking for a park ranger (the ranger station wasn’t manned when we got there). Eventually, she’d take off to Cannon Beach – a 10 minute drive at least – all the while freaking out about my situation: maybe I was already dead, maybe dying on the rocks, maybe pulled out to sea, or maybe on the beach and needing help and she wasn’t there! These were thoughts I actually had while being pitched this way and that in the waves.
I tried to paddle toward shore and away from the rocks, but my arms just splashed the water. I was so tired, I couldn’t angle my arms to paddle – I could only lift and drop them. Lift, drop, lift, drop; splash, splash. With a foot, I was able to push off the wall of a stack, forestalling impact but putting no real distance between us. I had arrived at the stacks between sets of waves, fortunate that I was dealing with more of an ebb and flow rather than wall after wall of whitewater. But the broken waves would come soon enough; it was only a matter of time. I pushed off another wall of rock, or maybe it was the same one, and this time, I actually shot away from it a fair distance - ten feet or more. Gliding on the water following that push-off felt like soaring through the air after all my useless dead-armed flailing and splashing. It was wonderful. I was still dangerously close to the rocks, but that little glide was my first moment of progress since escaping the rip current, and it gave me hope.
Buoyed in spirit by that tiny victory, I decided a final attempt at survival was in order and pointed my seven foot six inch canary yellow Jacobs toward the beach. Adrenalin gone, I spent my last bit of physical strength lifting and dropping my arms in the most paddle-like motion I could muster - basically, more splashing - but what happened next was one of the greatest thrills of my life. In spite of sensing no shoreward thrust from my sorry attempts at paddling, I suddenly felt The Lift – that magical hydraulic board-grab – that tells a surfer he has caught, or been caught by, a wave. It's a phenomenal sensation; like you've just been plugged into the ocean and there is a oneness between you and it. Now, being caught by that wall of white was not my own doing – I can take no credit for it – but apparently I was in perfect position to have my board caught by an incoming mountain of surf and I was lifted, shot and pushed shoreward effortlessly, and it was even angling left, taking me away from, rather than into, the rocks. And this time, I wasn’t engulfed in the turbulent nightmare but was carried along for 50 yards or more and then thrown forward as the wall collapsed and turned into uprushing swash. I rode that baby until the skeg of my board dug into the sand and brought me to a sudden stop. As the uprush flowed past me and swept onto the beach, I knelt and lifted my board out of the water so that it and I wouldn’t be dragged out by the backwash to come.
I stood up and stumbled toward the beach, making it to the upper wet hardpack just short of the dry sand. I dropped to the ground in utter exhaustion where Maria met me, elated to be alive but too physically and emotionally spent to say so. I guess I was in shock. I just sat there shivering and mumbling about how stupid I'd been. Maria peeled off my wetsuit and wrapped a towel around me. I’d been in the water for a full hour, but it seemed like a lifetime. Being on the beach seemed like a dream, but I was wide awake – awake and feeling more alive than ever for having come so close to death.
As I think about it now, I realize that maybe the ocean did behave in a special way that day; maybe the ocean's indifference wasn't the only thing at work. Maybe the Man of Easter intervened, rescuing me from Death by commanding a wave to take me to shore. I'd like to think so. "What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him." (Matthew 8:27).
35 years later, Easter 2016