A wave crashes over my head, pulling me under with tremendous force, I swallow some water, shake the hair out of my face, and turn back to the shore – to find it nearly one hundred yards away. It had only been 5 – 7 seconds since I last looked at the shore and was immediately too far to get back to it. I panicked. For about 5 seconds I tried to swim back to the shore, but quickly realized I was making no progress, maybe even being pulled further away from the beach. This was when all matters of pride subsided and gave way to self-preservation. I began yelling, “HELP!” at the top of my lungs and waving my arms as frantically as possible while trying to keep myself afloat – a strong undertow and waves trying to swallow me all the while.
It all began so innocently. On the beach in Reñaca, with two friends from Argentina – fellow Couchsurfers – we had been bathing in some overdue sun and jumping in the water from time to time. The beach was exceptionally crowded because the past week had been overcast and cool – not ideal beach weather. The beach with plenty of people on this lovely Saturday afternoon and not a cloud in the sky – the first three hours under the summer sun gave me a dark red burn.
My Argentine buddy, Seba, and I, went to watch a nearby professional beach soccer game – Chile vs. Spain – then walking down the shoreline back to his wife where our towels and things were, I decide to get in the water to cool off. I ask Seba to, “Hold my shades?” Almost my last words said to anybody.
I run out into the Pacific Ocean and jump into the 65 degree water – cold, yet, refreshing on my sunburned skin. I enjoy finding a wave coming at me and diving through it as to not get slammed against the water when the wave breaks. The waves in Reñaca are unlike anything that I am used to on the Texas coast – the Gulf of Mexico. The power of the water is tremendous. Wherever the current wants to go, is where it will take you. Even standing knee deep on the shore, when the water recedes making way for a new tide, the force with which it draws back into the ocean is incredible.
I swim through probably three breaking waves (whitewashes mostly) and then, “BAM!” A huge wave hits me and pushes me under water with a force of water I have never felt before, and don’t intend on experiencing again. I swallow a bit a water, come back to the surface, shake the hair out of my face – and this is where our story began. Only seconds of not checking my distance from the shore, I was inescapably separated from the nearest lifeguard by 100 yards of strong ocean current, determined to keep rescue at bay. Yelling and waving my arms as wildly and visibly as possible, I wasn’t even sure if anybody could see me so far away from the shore – waves playing a cruel game of peek-a-boo, hiding the shore from view with the rolling tide. My initial thought was to swim back to shore. This quickly proved to be impossible – the strong current paired with my subpar swimming abilities… scared me. At this moment, I panicked. I feared for my life. I remember thinking as waves were rolling over me, desperately trying to stay afloat, “I can’t die like this. My mom will be so upset.”
Now knowing that salvation wouldn’t come from the shore – I didn’t know if anybody had even noticed how far out I was taken – I start looking to my left and right to see if a surfer or bodyboarder was anywhere nearby. I saw a guy, about 18 years old, twenty-five’s yards away from me. This otherwise short distance felt like miles away, given my tiring body and strong current. I began yelling to him and waving my arms. At the start, I didn’t think he saw me and I was even more afraid. He never turned away and I saw him begin to swim towards me, and I towards him. I’m not exactly sure how long it took for us to reach each other, I know how long it felt – eternity – but once I put my first hand on his board, I knew I was safe.
In my moment of relief and bewilderment at what had happened, all I could say was, “Oh my God. You saved my life. Holy s***.” Over and over and over.
In spanish first, then in english, he asked me, “Where are you from?”
“Texas”, I tell my bodyboarding savior.
He gets off his bodyboard, puts it under me, and says “Relax, esta bien”, several times. We begin paddling towards the breaking waves back to the shore, catch two large waves that send us flying back to the beach. The feeling of putting my feet down into the knee deep water with the sensation of sand between my toes, reassuring my safety was nearly surreal. I stand right outside of the water, on the sand for a few moments, a slight tremor over my body, gathering myself, and walk towards where I last saw my buddy, Seba.
“I almost just drowned…” I say as I walk up to him.
“That was you?!” Seba replies.
“You mean you saw me out there?”
“Yeah, everybody was watching someone wayyy out there in the water with their arms waving. The lifeguards were trying to get out there but the waves were too strong for them to get through. I had no idea it was you. I thought you were close to the shore the whole time. The whole beach was temporarily captivated by it. Then we saw a bodyboarder swim over to the person – you – and knew that you were safe.”
I asked him if anybody could hear me screaming. He said not at all, the waves were way too loud and I was too far from the shore. One hundred yards happened so quickly.
We had made a joke earlier in the day about the lifeguards, that were entirely too old and severely out of shape to rescue anybody. Their main activity was blowing their whistle, motioning for people to get closer to the shore, because, as we joked, “they wouldn’t be able to save anyone if it really came down to it.” How, unfortunately, right we were.
I don’t know how long the entire ordeal lasted. Probably not more than ten minutes. I don’t know what would have happened if that bodyboarder had not been there and if he had not seen me. I don’t want to think about the other outcome.
Sitting back on my towel with my friends, I was silent, replaying the events that happened, having a nearly existential crisis over life and death – the fragile, momentous line that separates the two. The beach had quickly gone back to normal. My near drowning was merely a blip on the screen in the afternoon of the rest of the beachgoers, yet an event I will not soon forget.
Whenever a crucial, possibly disastrous event happens, I try to extract a take away principle. The only one I can from this is, “Things can happen quickly, usually only the bad ones. Undertow of an ocean’s current is absolutely a deadly force, one that you don’t think would happen to you, until it does. And life goes on. Every day is a fresh start – a fresh start to living your life the way you want, you never know when it could be your last.” [As true as it is cliché.]
A sunny, beautiful day at the beach in Chile, nearly was mine.
The important thing, for me, is to be a benefit on this little marble to as many people as possible. See yourself in others, realizing we are all one. Do good to all you can and we can independently make the world a better place to be. One day, one action at a time.
Thank you to that bodyboarder that saved me. His one action on that one day changed my life.