Memorial Day weekend threatened rain, but on Oak Island, a barrier island of North Carolina, the days were gorgeous. I had spent Saturday with girlfriends on the beach and on Sunday McCrae came down to join me. It had rained torrentially the night before - the remnants of a tropical storm moving landward - and the post-storm swells beat hard against the beach at high tide in the afternoon. It looked like great body-surfing conditions, and McCrae and I grinned at each other and took off into the breakers.

We bobbed in water that swirled around our necks as waves receded and surged, battering our bodies and crashing over our heads relentlessly, and we exhilarated in our small bodies against the whole Atlantic Ocean. We braced ourselves firm in the shifting sand against slapping surf that raged across our torsos. We leaped directly into whitecaps and surfed along their bubbles. We gasped lungfuls of air and tucked our heads under the biggest, angriest waves.

But somehow in the middle of all the fun I drifted out a little too far, into water a little too deep and rough. I couldn't touch the ocean floor at all and it seemed wave after wave battered over my head and filled my mouth and nose with saltwater. My first instinct was to be strong and self-reliant and just work my way out of the predicament, but I tried to swim and found myself going nowhere. No matter my effort or my direction, I couldn't seem to escape the pocket of deep, smashing ocean.

It wasn't long before I started to tire and my mouth kept coughing out saltwater and that's when I felt the panic creep in: fast heart rate, fast breathing, and all the while my arms and legs burned with effort against the waves.

"Don't panic, don't panic," I tried to tell myself, but my words were drowned by the ocean and my fear. This is it. This is how I'm going to die: drowning in the surf on vacation. I hope McCrae is okay.

“Don’t panic, don’t panic,” I tried to tell myself, but my words were drowned by the ocean and my fear.

It was everything I could do to keep struggling, to not panic, to try to keep my shit together and still make it to shore. McCrae! I didn't want him to come out and help me - it wasn't safe! - but I was so viscerally afraid that I called out for him, and in a few seconds that felt like hours he was there.

"Can you stand?" he asked me as he approached.

"No," I choked and gargled, ashamed of my panic but fighting hard for air from a crazed, animal part of my being. McCrae tried to encourage me to swim but he saw my futile efforts and, with one big breath, he picked me up from the water and pushed me forward. I struggled toward shore, suddenly more afraid as I could no longer see McCrae, but I felt him push me forward one more time into a cresting wave and I finally - finally! - inched forward with the breaker. 

It felt like ages before I could finally feel sand beneath my feet and there, thank God, just a little ways behind me, was McCrae following me in towards the shallows.

I was still shaky and panic-stricken as I pushed my way up the beach, my legs unsteady from all the lactic acid and fear. I had almost drowned, but McCrae saved me.

I had almost drowned, but McCrae saved me.

I sat on a beach towel for a while, waiting for the limp jelly sensation to leave my legs and for my body to stop shaking. I watched anxiously as McCrae played in the surf and eyed the treacherous deep spot warily, so worried that McCrae might be the one to venture too far and I might have to run in and save him. He's a stronger swimmer than me, but I still dreaded the thought.

When McCrae finally came out of the water like Poseidon himself emerging from the surf he asked me how I was doing and I admitted to still being shaky and anxious.

"That won't do," McCrae said. "We need to get you back in the water or else the fear will set."

I wasn't sure of his argument, but at the same time I knew I had to get back in the water at some point, so I agreed and we walked out into the water. The breakers were so strong that we had to be careful that our legs wouldn't be swept out from under us, even in waist-deep water. But it felt good to be back in the water and diving into the waves. My confidence back, I stood strong against the ocean's onslaught, proud to be standing on my own while a little ways down the beach a young woman in a tangerine bikini clung to her boyfriend's hands as he coaxed her into water above her shins.

McCrae and I splashed in the water for quite some time, even as some of the strongest waves ripped us off our feet and sent us tumbling haphazardly towards shore. I didn't mind that, or being flipped head over heels and dragging my shoulder along the sandy floor; I was just happy to be close to shore and in a place where I knew I could touch ground and air simultaneously at any time.

The high point of the afternoon was definitely that McCrae was there and saved my life from drowning, even if the low point was, well, I almost drowned and McCrae had to save me. Either way I'm still alive and the ocean is still there, railing nonstop as the waves break against the shifting sand. My perspective on waves has changed though. That was definitely a rip current I was caught in, and now, having survived a rip current, I've realized a few things:

  1. Rip currents aren't fast. Well, they're fast in terms of fat chance you or I could swim against them and make progress, but they're not like the dramatic movies showing a swimmer 5 feet offshore one second and then a second later they're dragged a mile away to some intense soundtrack. You know the adage about a boiling frog? If you stick a frog directly into boiling water it will hop right out, but if you put a frog in cold water and slowly heat it, the frog will boil to death. It was like that with the rip current. I just sort of floated out there and then I realized too late that I had floated too far.
  2. Rip currents don't necessarily pull you under. Also thanks to dramatic TV, I expected rip currents to be some crazy force that grabs you and pulls you underwater and keeps you there until you drown, much like an alligator or crocodile does to large prey. However, undertow is usually the result of "swash uprush" (or just "uprush") - water that moves up the beach face after a wave breaks. The swash backwash is the force that drags back out to the ocean, and if big waves are crashing over the backwash then it can feel like you're being dragged under the wave instead of the reality that you're just being dragged through the wave. There's nothing that actively pulls you down; it just feels like you're being dragged under because of the incoming waves.
  3. It's actually kinda hard to swim out of the rip current. I knew the gist of what to do when caught in a rip: swim perpendicular to the current to get out of it. Sure, that's a simple enough concept, but when you're being slowly dragged out to sea it's actually hard to figure out just where exactly is perpendicular. Also, you have no idea how big the rip current is. Rip currents can be 10-100 feet wide. Yep. Ten to one hundred feet. That's a whole order of magnitude we're talking about in range. Plus consider this: when you're out in deep ocean, how easily can you measure feet on the fly? I struggled to figure out direction and when I tried swimming one direction and then another you can sure bet I wasn't easily measuring how many feet I swam. I couldn't have swam 10 feet, I could have barely made it 2 feet for all I knew. For one thing, it's all similar-looking water with no landmarks. Have you ever seen a wave that lasted long enough to judge a distance? Yeah, unless you live on the North Shore of Hawaii I didn't think so.
  4. Rip currents won't take you completely out to sea. Rip currents start with a feeder zone from waves breaking on the shore. Without getting too technical, you get a pressure gradient with the displaced water and the water converges and you get a current flowing back out to sea. Water takes the easiest route downhill so it most likely passes through a low area or a channel between sand bars. Eventually the rip current burns out as it moves offshore, but that can still be hundreds of feet beyond the surf zone. If it's not crazy choppy you could just float with the current until it dies and then swim back to shore, but you need some serious kahunas to try that in my opinion.
  5. The biggest danger of rip currents is fatigue and panic. You're not getting dragged under, you're not actually drowning, but that primordial panic sets in and you're toast. Panic. Fatigue. Drown. It's that simple, and it almost happened to me.

On Monday the beach was far less crowded and the ocean was less angry. A potbellied man and his son attended fishing poles with lines cast far into the surf. The boy moved with the familiarity of years beach fishing though he hardly looked old enough for that sort of experience. He adjusted the line, set the rod in the PVC pipe buried in the sand, and returned to his beach chair with a CapriSun on the arm rest. Ready, set, relax. He did this so expertly I half expected the CapriSun to be a Bud Light and his round boyish face to transform before my eyes into an old weathered beach bum.

A grey-haired couple with dark tan skin that sagged from their bones walked slowly along the beach, hand in hand as the wind blew salt spray against their cheeks. It was all so gentle and calm compared to the day before, and so McCrae and I waded together into the sea.

Resources about rip currents: 

  1. NOAA Rip Currents page: http://www.ripcurrents.noaa.gov/ 
  2. NOAA Rip Currents survivor stories (hint, they're a lot like mine): http://www.ripcurrents.noaa.gov/real_life.shtml
  3. Rip Currents 101: http://www.ripcurrents.com/ripcurrents101.html 
  4. National Geographic encyclopedia: http://nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/rip-current/
  5. Break the Grip of the Rip! NWS/NOAA/etc. eLearning on rip currents: http://www.nws.noaa.gov/training/BreaktheGripoftheRip/player.html
  6. Art of Manliness (great graphic showing a rip current): http://www.artofmanliness.com/2010/08/19/how-to-escape-a-riptide/

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