Angry waves

Adventures at Sea: The Open Boat

Are adventures at sea a good idea? Well, sure, why not? I’m all for adventure. But ought one risk one’s life? It may depend upon how you look at it. Were we reckless kids short on common sense? Or were we just plain brave?

You be the judge!

Youth Camp at the Beach

Our youth group was staying at a retreat center, just across the street from the Pacific Ocean. I loved the sea, the sand, the sun, the salty aroma. And body surfing? Count me in! The ocean felt like my best playground, ever.

I knew there is always some danger present, playing with the power of the sea. I had been warned of “rogue waves”, and been repeatedly instructed to never turn my back to the unpredictable sea.

Armed with this knowledge and my teenage assuredness of my awesome swimming prowess, I was confident that I would be safe. Safe and sound. That’s the way of mishaps, isn’t it? We are going along just fine, until we aren’t.

Out to Sea!

One afternoon our group walked to the ocean to play in the waves, catch up on our tans, play Frisbee and volleyball, and generally have a blast.

One of our group’s young men had brought a blow-up canoe, and after inflating the thing, he set out for the open sea. But try as he might, he couldn’t make it alone. He could not get past the enormous waves that keep pushing him back to shore. He needed a ballast—the weight of another person—just another body, any ole body would do.

If he could only find someone adventurous (silly) enough to sit in the front to hold the thing down, he might make it. He’d fight his way over the large breakers, and eventually make it out to the open sea.

Or, that was the plan.

He went to all of his buddies; no go. Finally he approached me with his plan.

I thought it sounded fun. He was two years older than I was. All of 15. Clearly, he knew what he was doing.

I was game for most adventures, and so, why not? Soon, I’d be on the open sea in an inflatable canoe! The surf is fun and all, but the wide ocean, itself?! Let’s go!

It never occurred to me that there might be an element of danger in this plan. I didn’t think about whether the tide was going out, or coming in. I never thought about the risk.

And We’re Off!

The boy and I ran through the shallows. When we were about waist deep, we plunked ourselves into the canoe. We paddled furiously with our small, inefficient plastic paddles.

And those breakers? Gulp. They were enormous — curiously much larger when your right up close.

We rode the breakers, one after the other, tipping crazily up, into the air, as we’d hit each new wave. Then, we’d plunge down again, staring at the trough between waves for the briefest of seconds before rising again on the next. Greeted by bigger and bigger breakers, we finally were born aloft on the biggest wave of all.

The last one! Riding on the crest of that last wave, I could see it — the open sea!

We needed only clear that breaker, and we’re there! I was thrilled.

This is unbelievable! I thought. We’ve made it!

Or, not.

Nearly Dead

Then it happened. Just as we crested that last wave, with the wide open sea just a few feet away, the wave thought better of it. It decided that (tiny flotsam that we were) we could get lost. It easily overturned our canoe, forcing us down, dragging us under the deep ocean swell.

I hadn’t thought to gulp a last breath of air before we capsized. My tiny, screaming voice had only uttered my panicked cry, but it was no match for the boom of the breakers. Had anyone heard us? Was rescue coming? Did anybody even see our plight, so far out from the shore?

The sea toyed with me, turning me over like a little fabric hand puppet, only without the hand. The powerful sea mocked my “swimming prowess” as it rolled me over and over into itself.

I hadn’t guessed that it would end this way. I was running out of air. I would die, drowned, at youth camp one summer on the beach of the Pacific Ocean.

I needed air, and certainly fathoms deep by this time, I couldn’t wait much longer. Just as I felt like I would explode, the sea pushed me landward, churning me mercilessly against the sand.

Apparently the tide was coming in.

I felt the beautiful Terra Firma under my scratched and sore body, and jerking my head up out of the water into the blessed air, I greedily gulped in loads of the stuff. I was safe. And just like that, it was over.

Anybody But Me?

And, because I was all of 13, my first thought was how foolish I must look, desparately gasping for air in 6 inches of water. Was anybody looking?

I carefully peered around me, hoping my narrow squeak, my close call, my dash with death hadn’t been noticed. I washed the sand off of my scoured body, shaking, unsettled, stunned..

I’m alive. It’s OK. Apparently, no one saw me.

Narrow squeaks are kind of surreal. You’ve only just evaded death, and everybody else is just doing their day. *YAWN*

I stared at the movements of my friends. It was like they were in slow motion or something. Their nonchalance was alarming; after all, I had nearly perished! Hadn’t they noticed my near miss?

Nope. Nobody had.

I made it to my beach towel, spread out on the sand right where I had left it. Like nothing had happened at all.

I sat there in the sun, breathing hard, terrified, grateful, alive. The warm sun enveloped me with an extra long hug.

Had God sent an angel to push me landward? I don’t know. But…did the angel have to push so hard? I had a nasty sand-rash for days.

Canoe boy was deposited some little way from me. I watched him emerge from the sea, looking in vain for his lost canoe. He walked up to my beach towel, and looking down at me, he caught my eye. And glared.

He made some comment about how I was a poor sailor, how I hadn’t followed his commands, lost as they were amid the deafening roar of the surf. If only I had blah-blah-blah…

The nerve! I had helped him get far enough to at least get a glimpse of the open sea, and here he is blaming me!

Silly boy. Hadn’t he known I couldn’t hear him? Hadn’t he known my strength was nothing anyway, compared to the vast power of the sea?

“Stay Safe”

Now that it’s over, now that I’m grown, I recognize how easily I could have drowned. I mean, what were we thinking? It makes me wonder how many narrow squeaks we just survive, down here on the planet. And yet, adventures are part of life, if we’re bold enough to live them.

So many folks, post-pandemic, worry out loud. Have you noticed how “good-bye” or “see-ya later” have been replaced with “stay safe”?

I get the concern, I really do. I mean, we did go through a long time, a hard time, a tragic time. And some of lost ones we loved. Ones we needed. Ones who are now sorely missed.

And yet, is not life an adventure? Might it do us all some good to relax a little on the safety thing? Is not life to be embraced?

Do we not take risks, crazy humans, we? And are we not the better for it?

I have a niece who, on vacation, climbed a large sign in some small town. She lost her footing and plunged to the ground. I’m happy to report that she survived her fall. Airlifted to a large hospital, undergoing emergency surgery, she lived to tell the tale. She has a nice long scar where they fixed her up. She healed up just fine. In fact, she healed up in more ways than one.

The next summer saw her returning to that large sign in that small town. And do you know what she did? She climbed it.

Her pluck is inspiring. Her crazy, daring embrace of risks emboldens me. And her courage makes me smile, large and long.