Bill’s Waves

Bill's Waves

The day before yesterday, when Hurricane Bill’s first big waves arrived here at Ocean Park, Maine, I decided to go down to the beach for some bodysurfing.

It was early Sunday morning, well before the Old Orchard Beach Fire Department would close the ocean that afternoon.  It was low tide.  I could feel a strong undertow tugging on my legs as I walked out to wait for a good ride.  The sea was wild with power.  I’ve been riding the waves at Ocean Park for decades, and I thought I knew what I was doing.

I had a couple of fantastic rides, catching curling tumblers at just the right moment.  My wife and her sister watched me from the low tide flat, watchful and worried.  I gave them two thumbs up after jumping up from the shallow water at the end of a long zoom in the foam.  I was feeling an extra dose of the boyish exuberance I always feel when riding the waves.  At low tide, the waves usually break close enough to the shore that you’re always on your feet, able to touch the sand and make a good leap into the wave as it reaches you. But Bill’s waves were cresting further out.

After ducking my head into one wave that crested too soon, I put my feet down to the sand. With sudden panic, I realized I could not touch bottom. I was in over my head.  I knew immediately that the undertow was pulling me away from shore.

I am a strong swimmer, so I began the Australian crawl toward the shore and set my feet down after a few strokes.  Nothing.  More strokes. Still nothing.  I bobbed briefly in the water and knew I was in a very bad situation.  I waved my hand at Darlene and Deb and yelled a single cry of “Help!”  Since I doubted they could hear me, my shout was more of a prayer than anything else. She and her sister waved back.

I knew the prescribed response to getting caught in a rip current is to swim with the current and angle toward the shore, but everything in me said, “Screw that.” I lit out again toward the beach, swimming as hard as I could.  What I am describing here took probably a total of three minutes.  Finally, one toe of one foot felt the sand.  I swam some more and was able to put both feet on the bottom and walk in to the beach. I told Darlene and Deb what had happened, and we all walked back to the cottage without saying much.

That night, lying in bed at the cottage as Hurricane Bill headed off toward Nova Scotia, the sound of the waves did not delight me the way it always had before.  The crashing and thumping were ominous, and I had difficulty getting to sleep. I got up and closed the windows.

I am profoundly grateful to have survived my bone-headed adventure. My heightened level of respect for the sea will protect me and anyone who will listen to me (I’m thinking of you, my soon-to-be-bodysurfing grandson) for the rest of my life.  As of today, my plan is to limit my surfing to anemic waves that I can catch in water that’s about knee-deep.

Today the waves are friendly again–safe for boys and men to ride. I promise to be very careful with my life, and I hope you will be, too.

Note: If you click on the photo of the boy, you’ll come to a video which I shot with my iPhone at Sunday high tide, just after the beach had been closed to swimming.

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5 Responses to Bill’s Waves

  1. william vandegrift says:

    Wow— that sounds like a very scary experience! You are one lucky dude!

  2. Betsy Johnson-Miller says:

    What a frightening moment. You captured it beautifully–or maybe I should say it captured you beautifully.

  3. Hi Len

    Very glad to see that your well told story ended well! It took me back to when I was 18 and went to live in Australia for a couple of years. Being from the Midwest, I knew nothing of the ocean. I decided I wanted to learn to surf, so after being in Sydney for a few days I went to Bondai Beach and bought a used surfboard at a beach side shop. Seeing that I was a Yank who didn’t want to spend a lot of money on a first board just to learn on, the clerk took the opportunity to offload a leaky junk “surfboard”. It was a dark stormy day and there were no other surfers at the beach. If I hadn’t been such a clueless newbie that would have scared me off, but I thought it was good as I would not have an audience of locals to witness my ineptitude. Before I knew what was happening, I was about a quarter of a mile off shore on a waterlogged surfboard that was barely keeping me afloat. The water was a very ugly and scary gray black and very choppy; almost washing me off of the board. I was exhausted and my arms were so sore I could barely move them. A couple of lifeguards appeared on the beach, and their tiny far away bodies were waving at me frantically (they told me later that they were afraid to come after me). I seriously thought that I was going to die. I finally made it back to shore by paddling in the direction that the lifeguards were waving me to. They were pretty mad at me, but when they realized that I was an American they just shrugged and rolled their eyes.

    That was my last time on a surfboard, but I body surfed my way along Aussie’s eastern coast and throughout SE Asia. I did have to be rescued once more in Australia while body surfing in pretty large punishing waves. After that I finally learned the lesson: When in trouble in the ocean, the first thing to do is – Don’t Panic! Take a deep breath (hopefully of air), calm down, and assess the situation. Think about what you have to do and then do it. After I finally learned this I was ok even when I was being rolled along the bottom and ground into the sand by large waves.

  4. Dr Dave says:

    Have you re-read “The Awakening” any time lately, Mrs. P?

  5. Mike says:

    Are you really that strong a swimmer? If so, why did you only swim a few strokes before touching down? Or maybe you’re a strong pool swimmer, but not an ocean water swimmer? The way you panicked sounds like you’re not such a strong swimmer.

    As you said, you should swim diagonally or parallel to the shore when you’re in a rip current. In open water you don’t swim \strong,\ you swim in a way that you don’t tire yourself out. This means you don’t kick except to keep your body aligned. You recover your arms with your deltoids and not you small muscles. You \rest\ on every single stroke, by not stroking until your other arm returns (a sort of aborted \catch-up\ style). You keep your head down and only sight forward on every third stroke or so, keeping your head down even when sighting, which means in choppy water you may only see beyond the waves every 9 or 12 strokes. You swim like this and realize you may be in the water for 20 minutes or more. Which if you actually are a \strong swimmer\ is not a problem.

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