Rip Current Truths

I grew up in North Carolina, and while I didn’t live on the coast, my parents had a boat and a trailer at the beach for as long as I can remember. (Actually, they had to sell the trailer to be able to afford their first “real” house in Raleigh, so for several years we actually camped at Emerald Isle in a tent, or in the lucky years, in my aunt’s 1970’s era motorhome. Still kept the boat, though. When I got older and we moved from “lower-middle-class” to “blue-collar slightly above average middle-class”, they bought a home with a pool. I’m pretty sure I learned to swim before I could walk. I’m pretty sure I learned to swim by being thrown off the boat into a lake or sound, but it was before my earliest memories so that’s unverifiable. For two years, I was a Camp Waterfront Director, teaching swimming and canoeing to 60 campers. At one point my career was lifeguarding, teaching Infant/Parent swim classes, teaching adult swim classes, teaching group kid swim classes, and teaching private lessons. To get the certifications to do this was about 1/10th of the rigorous water training Marines have to do. (Not really, but I did have to demonstrate that I could swim all 4 strokes, a minimum of 200 meters without stopping, and tread water with my hands holding a brick for somewhere between 2-5 minutes.) And I grew up swimming in any body of water I was near, including the Atlantic Ocean.

So yeah, I’m an experienced swimmer. It’s been a while so my endurance isn’t where it used to be, but I’ve still got the goods. (And true story: extra fat means I can float. No one is winning any treading water contests to me. I could literally go all night.) I still swim frequently in the summer, and pretty much have to find an indoor pool at least a few times in cold weather, too, because it’s the best stress reliever for me. Most exciting, my kids are learning how to swim. My oldest son swam a beautiful, face in the water freestyle last night and can do front and back flips off the diving board. My 3-year-old thinks he can swim, and he actually can move himself forward underwater, but can’t quite get his head back up to breathe. We’re working on it, though. As a lifelong swimmer, this is one of my proudest parenting moments.

We also work frequently (ie: at least once every trip to the beach) on how to escape a rip current, something my parents ingrained in me from birth even though I always thought the likelihood of actually having to use that knowledge was slim. Incorrect. It took nearly 39 years, but it finally happened a few weeks ago. Obviously I’m still here, and I didn’t have to be rescued, but let me fill you in one some of the most terrifying moments of my life.

First step: don’t panic. For the first time in my life, I see how people freak the heck out when they realize what’s happening. As mentioned above, I have years of experience and consider myself a pretty strong swimmer, and my first thought when I realized I couldn’t make any progress to shore was “Oh, shit, this is how I’m going to die. My family is going to look over from the shore and I won’t be here anymore.” I first realized I was in serious trouble when I looked at people to my left and right, each about 50 yds away and parallel to me (so, the same distance from shore, only about 25 yds) and they were in waist deep water.

I. Was. Not.

Second step: stay calm. After experiencing fight mode for about 30 seconds where I would swim 5m and be in the exact same spot, I stopped swimming. I floated as high on the swells as I could, knowing that the current is strongest at the bottom. I collected myself, took some deep breaths, and let the childhood training set it.

Step three: Swim parallel or diagonally to shore. If there is nothing else you remember about rip currents, remember to swim parallel. I would rest between swells and then swim like hell with each wave, kind of positioning myself on a diagonal track. The rest periods are important, because this is still a slow process. I was only making up a few feet at a time, and I would imagine this part took me about 3-5 minutes before I could safely put my feet on the ground.

Step four: exit the water immediately. No explanation needed. First, you are just ready to get the hell out of the water. Second, no matter how strong a swimmer you are, the adrenaline will make you realize a sudden exhaustion.

When I collapsed safely in my beach chair, I was a little shook up. On the one hand, only about 20 people die each year from being caught in a current. And there were several boats out a few hundred yards from shore, so worst case scenario I would have probably opted to just swim to them and motion for help (and hope they weren’t sex traffickers). On the other hand, if I didn’t know how to save myself, I would have probably been a goner. The lifeguard stand at EI is about 400 yds away from where we were, and at that moment I realized that every lifeguard as well as police in a 5-mile radius were gathered around an ambulance on the beach. I thought maybe it was just other people getting into currents, but it turns out someone got stung by a stingray barb.

So yeah, someone had a worse day than me.

Moral of the story: I can now call myself a survivor and badass, right? Instead of making me fear the ocean, this experience has emboldened me, and I plan to spend my 39th birthday in a few weeks in the exact same spot, swimming alone in the deep water, and being thankful to be alive.

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