DROWNING OFF BIG SUR: A Tale of Stupidity and Survival

I’m not afraid of the water.  But perhaps I should be.  Let me explain why…

As a teenager I was really quite stupid.  Not ignorant—I knew a lot of stuff—just filled with the stupidity that makes teenagers do ridiculous things without a second thought for themselves or their loved ones, and gets them in deep trouble in the process.  Scientists say we can’t help this, that our brains aren’t yet formed enough until after age twenty to make truly rational decisions.  So we make big mistakes.

For me it was the Pacific Ocean.  I loved that ocean.  I still do.  And my boyhood buddy Louis, who was certified in scuba, showed me the ropes of diving with and without a tank in a high mountain lake (where both my legs cramped up and I barely made it back to shore, swimming in the icy waters of the Sierra Nevada in early spring).  Next Louis and I tested his equipment in a cove near Mendocino, north of San Francisco, where I donned my wetsuit and fins and headed out to check out the abalone fields, only to be tossed back upon the rocks by a wild wave.

The author about to do something very foolish

The author about to do something very foolish

And then came the day I drowned, off shore at the Big Sur.

Okay, truth be told, I didn’t actually drown, much to my own relief, but I came damned close.   And here’s how it happened…

I had just purchased a brand new neoprene wetsuit when everyone decided on a family road trip to the charming village of Carmel on the coast south of San Francisco, and then down toward San Simeon.  If you don’t know the Big Sur region, just take in the photo.  Drop-dead gorgeous scenery and a rugged coastline second to none.  We stopped at a public beach below Hearst Castle to stroll the tidal flats.  A nice big sign warned the public that no swimming was allowed due to treacherous currents and riptides.

Big Sur

So I in my teen-age wisdom decided that this was the place to test out the wetsuit.  You know, not actually go swimming, just put it on, slip on some flippers, and paddle out a few yards to see how well it insulated against the cold waters.

Don’t worry, I told my justifiably worried mother, I’ll just go in up to my chest.

And then stupidity harvested its reward.  I was grabbed by a relentless riptide, a sucking undertow that drew me inexorably out, ever farther from shore.  My parents and my younger brother and sisters diminished to mere spots of dark on the sands as I was carried hundreds of yards out to sea.

My God, I thought, what do I do?

Now I had read the book on ocean diving, and knew the advice:  swim parallel to shore until you are out of the tide’s pull and you can then return to land.  So I swam south, parallel to the shore…and found myself dragged relentlessly back to where I began.  Then the same attempt heading north, and again I was forced back to the same spot.  Beneath the tips of my swim fins I could occasionally sense a submarine gravel bar deposited at the confluence of these treacherous currents.

In desperation I turned to swim farther out to sea, hoping to escape the vortex and then attempt swimming parallel to shore once again.  But I was lifted by the incoming waves and returned to the one spot where I was destined to remain.

The tiny figures on shore  were certainly being wracked by worry and helplessness. I know I was.

And then the revelation.  The harder I struggled to save myself from imminent exhaustion and doom, the more I realized that perhaps, just perhaps, my survival into adulthood wasn’t destined to be.  A peace came over me, an all-embracing acceptance of my fate.  I no longer fought the inevitable, I no longer wanted to kick with those fins to keep my head above water, and I allowed the surf to wash over me.  I was becoming one with the water, and it no longer seemed so frightening, its embrace so unwanted.

A strange image filled my consciousness.  A colorful beach ball.  Yes, my mind pictured a child’s toy, bouncing along the top of the waves, and I turned in the water to look out to sea and watched for the next big comber to roll my way, and at the very moment it lifted me up in passing I curled myself into that giant beach ball.  And surrendered to the moment.

I had no memory of the long ride in on that wave.  I became conscious again only once on shore, exhausted, face in the sand, wracked with coughing as I forced the seawater from my sinuses and lungs and my anxious family hovered over me.

I survived to tell the tale, and do other equally stupid things before my teen years had passed.

But whenever I hear of a tragic ocean drowning, I wonder if the victim felt what I did in those final moments.  Did that poor soul reach a moment of remarkable peace, where panic subsides, the struggle loses its allure, the fear quiets, and the unity with the ocean takes over?  It’s comforting to think so.  Scientists say the chemical makeup of our blood is akin to seawater.  I’m sure some of the latter still flows through my veins.

As I said, I’m not afraid of the water.  No, not at all, and perhaps I should be.  But I do take shorter showers than many.

Copyright 2013 Patrick W. O’Bryon


About Patrick W. O'Bryon

Writer. Traveler. Europhile, especially Italy and France. Hobbies: rescuing animals from abuse, abandonment and mistreatment, and being sous chef around the kitchen to my chef de cuisine wife.
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7 Responses to DROWNING OFF BIG SUR: A Tale of Stupidity and Survival

  1. Ha! Were you inspired by my tweets about The Impossibe to post this? 😉

    I AM afraid of fast-moving/churning water (but fascinated too, I absolutely gravitate to water) from an experience in the Pacific Coast as a kid. I think I was around 8, and it was in Southern California on a school field trip. Got dragged out by an undertow, and held down while the waves, sand, and flotsam pummeled me. Came out of it finally and washed up very dazed, but I didn’t start crying until I saw my teacher’s face. She was absolutely terrified, and that’s what made me think, “Oh my God–I could have died!”

    But peaceful resignation or not, glad we’re both still here to tell the tale!

    • As am I, Angelica, as am I! I’m right there with you as you describe your close call. It does teach a healthy respect for the ocean, that’s for sure. I’d better hold off a few weeks before I relate my misbegotten whitewater rafting adventure…you’re sure to enjoy (?) that one.

      • Haha, back when I was a professional storyteller, I got a call from a friend who needed a last-minute substitute for a rafting trip. The storyteller traveled on the raft with the group during the day and then told stories around the campfire at night. I laughed and said, “Boy did you call the wrong person! Unless I can hike in and meet them at the campsites.”

  2. oliviaobryon says:

    Great post! Love the picture and the imagery of seawater flowing through your veins.

  3. Thanks, Olivia. I know from your posts just how special the ocean is to you, as well.

  4. Laura O'Bryon says:

    I remember that day. What a memory! A little sister watching from the shore…. knowing with confidence that my brother could handle that ocean! But… what a relief when you washed ashore!!

    • Perhaps it was your confidence and the family’s that put that beach ball image in my mind when all else had failed, Sister! Nora also shared her memory of watching my desperate struggle from shore that day.

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