I have always considered myself a good swimmer. I’m not entirely sure at what age I was actually able to ditch the floaties, but I know I’ve always felt very comfortable in the water. Only once in my life have I ever felt afraid, if for only a moment, that I might drown.
I was in high school tubing with some friends on a lake, and there weren’t enough life vests for everyone. So, confident in my swimming abilities and not at all intimidated by the large, flat body of water, I handed my vest over to a friend feeling less-assured. Eventually I was thrown off the tube – hard.
Without a life vest I fell deep into the water. I don’t really know how long I was down or how far I went, I just remember opening my eyes to darkness, and thinking to myself that I had no idea which way was down and which way was up. That was the scary part.
But I could feel my body moving through the water, and just sort of hoped I was headed back to the surface. Eventually I, literally, saw the light, and started swimming towards it. I emerged out of breath and slightly shaken, but otherwise just fine.
The experience didn’t really affect my confidence in my swimming abilities. The way I saw it, the only reason I got in trouble was because of the speed at which I was thrown off the tube and my lack of life vest. My ability to swim quickly to the surface is what ultimately led to the non-situation. The water wasn’t scary, the speed was, and as far as I was concerned, I was still pretty awesome.
Fast forward to a few weeks ago – my first day entering these Oaxacan waters and really, swimming in the Pacific Ocean as well. Sure, the waves were a bit bigger than I’d seen before, but it was still water. I was still a good swimmer. All would be fine.
After a little bit of splashing around, we noticed a big swell was moving in, and I was tired from the long trip and not up for a challenge, so I decided to get out. I swam calmly towards the shore until I found myself about waist deep. I turned to see the wave coming, but still didn’t feel too bothered. I could walk now, I’ll be at the shore in no time, I thought to myself.
I totally underestimated the strength of the pull of that wave. Even though I was in shallow water, I couldn’t move forward, not even by running towards the shore with all of my strength. What I didn’t know was that by trying to move away from the wave I had put myself in the most dangerous part of the beach, what I’ve started to call in my head *cue scary music* The Crash Zone.
Struggling in the opposite direction of the moving water paralyzed me so that I had inadvertently positioned myself right at the point where the wave would curl and crash. At the yellow-flag swimming beach at our Secret Place, the waves crash close to shore. And on this day they were crashing big and hard. The wave pounded all the air out of me while simultaneously sending salt water rushing up my nose, into my ears, down my throat – you name it. I found myself being pressed down against the sand, and then dragged towards the beach, my feet flying through the water over my head.
I try to have a sense of humor with myself, and my honest thought when resurfacing and examining my situation was ‘well, at least I’m closer to shore.’ The water I was sitting in now may have been knee-deep, probably shallower, and although I saw the next wave coming, I didn’t believe it would hit me with the same sort of power now that I was further away.
Had I stood up and moved immediately I probably would have been okay, but I just needed a few moments to readjust my bathing suit as not to offend the Mexican mothers on the beach. So I lingered. And just as I got everything, ahem, back into place, I felt the pull.
Even though the water was shallow, the wave was demanding. It was sucking every last ounce of ocean (and the dummies trapped in it) back towards The Crash Zone. I clawed at the sand in desperation, like screaming ladies do in low-budget horror movies. But just like the movies, the monster ate me right up. Again. And again. And again.
Eventually, the waves calmed down and I was able to gather my pride and skulk away. But I didn’t learn my lesson. This has happened to me at least two other times since that first encounter. For a while my bum was covered in little black welts. One time, I emerged from the water with so much sand in my bathing suit bottom that my butt really looked more like a Kardashian’s than my own. The worst part was that the mud immediately started dropping out so I looked like I had a horrible case of diarrhea. I wanted to scream so that everyone on the beach could hear me – ‘I’m not pooping myself! I’ve just got sand in my pants!’ Though, after the beating I had just incurred, my guess is that few people would have held emptying bowels against me.
Every body of water I have experienced up to this point – pools and lakes, the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic on hot summer days in New England, the Mediterranean around the Greek Isles, spring-fed Florida rivers – they’ve all been relatively calm. The beach at Macao in the Dominican Republic, and the white water of the red rivers in the southwestern US, those are the closest I have ever come to waves like this. But never once had I met a body of water I didn’t feel master of. Never once had water really ever scared me. And that was my problem.
Since my first few violent experiences in big Pacific waves, I’ve come up with a set of rules I abide by to keep safe:
Rule #1 – Don’t run away. If it looks like a wave is going to crash in your general vicinity, you don’t want to be there when it happens. But the water is stronger and faster than you are, so running away like I did isn’t going to cut it. You actually want to move towards the wave. And as it approaches dive into it. It seems counter-intuitive and to be honest, I’m not familiar with the physics of why this works (**side-note: if you can explain it better, feel free to leave a note in the comments!**), but it does. Just trust me on this one.
Rule #2 – Position yourself behind the break. Where a wave breaks depends on the geography of the beach, which is subject to change on even a daily basis. But as far as a single set goes, those waves are likely to curl around the same spot, and you don’t have to be an expert to figure out where it is. Once you dive into the wave, swim out a bit further. The waves will still pass by your position, but instead of being caught in the violent crash zone, you’ll simply bob up and down with the movement of the water. It’s the same reason a boat at sea can survive a tsunami without a problem, but the shore is destroyed. Just don’t swim deeper than you’re comfortable with.
Rule #3 – Be patient. Survey the scene before you get out. If it looks like there are some waves coming, let them pass. My most common mistake was deciding I was done, and not taking into consideration what the ocean wanted to do. Waves tend to come in sets – often of three or more – but if the beach was calm when you got in, it will probably be calm again. Just suck it up and hang out a little longer. Save your journey through The Crash Zone for when the waves are smaller.
And then, there’s The Golden Rule – Don’t Be A F***ing @**. Remember, the ocean is bigger than you in every way. If it wants to drown you, it will. If it wants to throw you into the air, it will. If it wants to eat you whole and spit out your bones… you’re getting the picture right? My previous motto of ‘No worries, I’m a really good swimmer’ just doesn’t always cut it. Treat the water with the respect it deserves. There will be times when you’ll want to go for a swim but the ocean just doesn’t want you there. There will be times when you’ll want to finish your swim and the ocean isn’t quite ready to let you go. Don’t think you can outsmart it, or outswim it, or out-anything it. Just pay attention to what the water is telling you, and act accordingly.
What I have learned from my weeks on the Oaxacan coast is that in order to enjoy this ocean, you have to respect it.