The Coast News Group
Photo by Chris Ahrens

My worst wipeout

I have never ridden a huge wave. Even so, there were times when I felt that the entire weight of the Pacific was bearing down on my puny frame, and that I would never see the surface again.

The first time I nearly drowned was on a big north swell at the Santa Ana River Jetties. It had rained the night before and the river was spewing mud, making the waves twice as heavy as they normally would have been.

After being pinned to the bottom for what seemed an eternity, I breathed in a lung full of dirty water and watched my short life (I was 14 years old at the time) pass before my eyes.

I surfaced in time to see another set march in, dove for the bottom again and, surfacing again, was breathless, finding myself caught in a riptide, moving further from precious shore. I obviously did make it to shore but am still not certain how.

After long minutes of struggling I lay in the sand, exhausted and thankful to be alive.

Most other near misses occurred in Hawaii, a place that has caused even the toughest among us to bargain with God.

My worst wipeout, however, was in surf not much bigger than what is made by a child belly flopping in a swimming pool.

It was nearly flat on the summer day I paddled out to Swami’s to find reprieve from the harsh summer sun. It was one of those playful, longboard days that nobody takes seriously. The water was warm, causing the kelp to die by the truckload and stack up on the sand like the great wall surrounding SRF.

I had caught a few waves and thought to ride the last one to the beach. Everything was peaceful as I wove my way through the little crowd before kicking out on the inside.

I was leashless, as I always am on a longboard, and as I kicked my board away, I slid a few feet under water. When I attempted to surface, however, I was met with resistance from a thick clump of seaweed, floating inches above my head.

I pushed on it and quickly realized that it weighed more than I did and would win any battle to overpower it. I looked for a hole in the seaweed and saw none. I didn’t have much air in my lungs but realized that I had to keep calm and wait for the next wave to, hopefully, push the organic coffin lid off me.

In my peripheral vision I could see someone paddling out, completely unaware that I was just an arm’s length away from living or dying. What if someone else doesn’t see me and steps on me, I wondered.

No wave came and I attempted moving backward, but upon doing so became hopelessly tangled in the kelp. I was lightheaded and struggling to breathe when a tiny swell gave the kelp a gentle push and freed me.

I surfaced like one of those shark videos with a seal caught in its mighty jaws. I was now standing triumphant  in 2 feet of water, inhaling deeply, thankful for the sun and the sand, which were never more beautiful.

I haven’t written about that experience until now and have only told the most sympathetic of my friends about it. It wouldn’t be glorious to drown in waves no bigger than what a rubber ducky makes when dropped in the deep end of a bathtub.

We inhabit a dangerous and beautiful body of water where the only guarantee we have is that nothing is guaranteed. Enjoy every wave my friends.