Last week, at the tail end of my OCD news cycle, I happened upon an article on People about the tragic death of a Tennessee, father, Rick Brown, who drowned in the waters off the coast of North Carolina, while attempting to save his three children who were caught in a riptide. (His children and wife, who also jumped in to help, were all rescued.)
In the past, I would read a story like this, feet great compassion, and then think to myself, “Why do people take such risks, do stupid things like this?” assuming they’d purposefully been where they shouldn’t be. Until, it happened to me.
In April, we took a Cuban vacation, and on the afternoon of our second day threw on our swimsuits, grabbed our towels and hit the beach. It was exquisite: powdered white sand, palm trees, endless blue sky, bright sunshine, salty breeze, gentle waves of the Caribbean Sea lapping at the beach. Paradise found.
We dropped our towels and waded in and by the time we were waist deep, marveled at the absence of a riptide, like we sometimes find in Mexico: We could safely go out further and ride the waves back to the beach.
My husband dove in and swam out, while, despite the bathtub temperature of the water, I continued to wade in, bits-by-bits, until I was nearly shoulder deep.
Life really can change in a heartbeat
And then a wave hit. And then I couldn’t touch bottom. And then I felt it—the riptide, pulling at my legs, drawing me further away from shore.
By now the waves had grown, and when they hit me I was tossed around and both my sight of the shoreline and the horizon were gobbled up by the now-murky sea. I tried to swim back towards the beach but couldn’t—for every bit of distance gained with the crest of a wave, the current of the rip would grab on, tug me down and pull me further out. One step forward, four steps back. Repeat.
Still, I had this, I knew I did. There was no reason to panic, in fact it didn’t cross my mind.
Until I saw a man on the beach excitedly waving his arms and yelling something towards me, something I couldn’t hear, to which I tried to force a smile and wave back, trying to communicate, “No worries. All is good. I actually meant to swim out here like this.”
Because my first thought was mortification: “Please don’t make a big scene, I don’t like attention, I’ll be so very, very embarrassed if this is made a big deal.” However, my immediate next thought, when hurled about by the next wave, then sucked even further out to sea was, “Oh, my God, he’s right. I’m in big, big, BIG trouble here.”
By now, only minutes in, I was exhausted and becoming short of breath, with a growing sense of debilitating panic beginning to take its grip.
With the crest of the next wave, I was able to surface and see the man again, with his hands frantic in the air, looking side to side, then back at me. I threw my arms above my head as best I could to signal back and yelled, “Help me, help, HELP,” as loud as I could.
Finally, he caught the attention of the lifeguard, who’d been somewhere down the beach, and, without any lifesaving paraphernalia, he dove in and swam out to rescue me. He grabbed my arm and pulled me in until I could touch bottom and he could pass me off to someone else.
I hadn’t seen my husband since he left me to dive in and knew, for sure, he was gone, or, at the very least, way further out and in serious, serious trouble.
“My husband. Save my husband,” I screamed.
He was fine, struggling to make headway back to the beach, but managing on his own steam, totally oblivious to the fact I had been a certain goner.
Safely back on land, we collapsed on our chairs and stared in silence at the water. Scary, scary stuff. But the scariest part, the hard slap of reality, was yet to come.
A woman with a German accent, who described herself as a frequent visitor to Cuba, approached us and said, “You need to respect the ocean. It’s dangerous.”
We agreed. “One died this morning a few blocks down, and two died Sunday (two days before)”, she added. “They just pull them onto the beach and put a towel over their faces, if they can get them at all.” With that, she shrugged her shoulders and walked away.
About ten minutes after I was ‘saved,’ the lifeguard blew his whistle and called all of the swimmers in. Looking out at the water, you could clearly see where the riptide was (a series of breaks in the waves, the water darker than the rest.) He took a small triangular red marker on a stick—no bigger than a small plate, a saucer—and plunked it in the sand, to move the swimmers about 50 feet down the beach.
And that was that.
“White is nice, green is mean.”
Statistics are hard to find, and despite my best efforts to track them down there is little to no information about deaths in Cuba by drowning: advertised, these seemingly frequent tragedies would be bad for tourism in a country that depends upon it. There are some news stories from abroad, but no warnings or information on most tourist sites.
According to the US Livesaving Association, in the US alone more than 100 people die each year after getting caught in a rip.
I did the worst thing: I tried to swim against it which is likely a fruitless, exhaustive effort for even the best swimmers.
What I should have done, according to Surfer Today, is this:
- Floated on top of the water and rode the crests of the waves in towards shore.
- Swam parallel to the beach. Rips aren’t very wide and in only a few minutes I would have likely been out of its path.
- Looked for whitewater and breaking waves and headed in that direction. Whitewater usually means the water is shallower and I may have been able to stand up. Regardless, it would have carried me back to shore. “White is nice, green is mean.”
- If all else had failed, I could have just relaxed and let the rip carry me further out until it stopped, and then swam back to shore.
I am not a strong swimmer. In truth, I’m not a swimmer at all. I can do the breast stroke and dog paddle. I can float on my back and do my interpretation of what the back stroke is meant to be. I can’t freestyle, as I lack the grace and coordination required to execute all four required movements simultaneously—kick, crawl, turn head, breathe. I also can’t tread water for long periods of time.
But I’m doing something about that. As soon as we got home, I bought a pool pass and have been making it a practice to swim laps a few times each week. It’s not easy, it’s actually quite hard. And judging by all the walkie-talkie action when I burst out of the change room and hit the deck, the lifeguards aren’t all that comfortable with it yet, either.
Still, I’m up to a kilometer a session and can manage about 300 meters without stopping to catch my breath. Which is kind of a big deal for me. I have a ways to go before I’m a stronger, more enduring swimmer, but I’m committed.
I’m not averse to taking risks and I will go back and swim in the ocean. In fact, I did the very next day when the tide was slack, in waist deep water where I could firmly plant my feet.
I know at the moment the lifeguard grabbed me in Cuba, I did not have minutes left. I was exhausted, and fear and panic had overcome me. He saved my life.
The lesson I learned is that of a great respect: For all its beauty and charm, its beckoning and temptation, its symbolism of something much bigger than me, the ocean, or sea, any water for that matter, is also a ferocious beast. And while I am capable of many, many things, I am not capable of taming the fact that “Eternity begins and ends with the ocean’s tides.” (Author Unknown)
I escaped it this time—I am the lucky one.