By Kathleen Bradean
A wave, translucent and gray, stippled with foam, curled above my head. I ducked and went through it. With my back to the beach, I could pretend that I was alone in the world, if I ignored the white triangular sails of sailboats or the deep gray hulls of tankers lurking off the coast.
When I finally tired of swimming, I looked back at the beach. The blue lifeguard hut was tiny and people were small blobs of color and motion. I hadn't planned to swim out that far. I didn't think I had.
That was my first inkling that something wasn't right.
So I headed back to the beach with my less-than-perfect Australian crawl. My swimming instructors always mentioned my lazy left arm, how I never got the most out of a stroke, how it made me drift in lane so I wasted energy correcting my line rather than on forward motion. I didn't care that much. I wasn't built for speed and would never be on a swim team. Besides, I was aiming for the edge of an entire continent now. Accuracy wasn't an issue.
When my arms got tired, I treaded water. It didn't worry me since I'd been swimming for a while and I wasn't in the best shape for a twelve-year old. I could tread water forever in a swimming pool, but in the ocean, it takes a lot more energy. When you get tired, you can't float on your back because waves crash over your face and water surges up your nose. So I figured my energy was better used moving toward shore rather than holding in place and I began swimming again.
My crawl might not have been perfect form, but I never lifted my head to spot the beach. It was right in front of me. Or so I thought. When my arms got rubbery-numb again, I paused to tread water again.
That's when the fear hit me. I was further away from shore than before. It wasn't that I'd headed out for sea by mistake. No. I was still facing shore. I was just really far from it.
A couple years before, at science camp (yes, geek girl) I studied oceanography. During the unit on currents and tides, we discussed something called a riptide. The instructor drew pictures, showing how the water returning from the shore caused a current that could quickly drag you out to sea. And he told us to swim parallel to the beach if we ever found ourselves caught in one since they usually weren't that wide.
Yes, I was deeply worried, but I knew what was happening and how to deal with it, so I didn't panic. I turned and started swimming parallel to the sand.
Now I was lifting my head every four strokes to check my progress. I kept my eye on a cliff at the curve of a beach. I was still getting pushed further out the sea. My arms felt like rubbery, useless things now, so I tried to make my legs take up the slack. Then they got tired. Treading water wasn't an option, so I had to keep on. At some point, utterly worn out, I realized that I was still headed true to the cliffs and not moving further from shore. I'd fought my way out of the current. Now all I had to do was get back to shore.
I didn't think I could. I was past my endurance. At that point, death looked like the easy option. That's when I decided to get truly scared, like down to the dusty basement of my soul. And that's when I realized I had no faith. But that's another story. In this story, that's when I resigned myself to swimming for shore one tortured, half-assed, weak stroke at a time. I had all eternity to get there. The rest of my life.
The breath stroke doesn’t work in the ocean. The waves toss you around too much. So no matter what, you have to try a power stroke. And even though near the beach the water is half churned-up sand, you have to keep your eyes open and let the salt water sting them. And even when you've breathed in almost as much water as air, you have to keep drawing into your searing lungs because that's what will keep you afloat. Stroke. Pause. Stroke. Pause. Like you're climbing Everest. The entire world narrows down to the next stroke.
And wouldn't it be lovely if I would just drop dead right this instant?
I'm not that lucky.
A long time later, a gravelly-voiced man shouted "Hey! Are you okay?"
A wave trough opened between us. From their haircuts, I knew they were military. On the speaker's shoulder, a fuzzy old greenish tattoo gave him away as a marine. I chuckled to my half-delirious self. Of course he had to be a marine.
He swam over to me from his friends, lifting muscular arms out of the water in flawless crawl form. He probably would have bit a shark if one were foolish enough to attack him, but one close-up look at my face, and his face blanched white under the tanned crinkles around his eyes and gray and black beard stubble. Great. Twelve-year old girl scares the crap out of a hardened marine.
"Rip tide," I told him. It was all I could say.
"She says it's a rip tide," he shouted to his friends.
He hugged me to his massive chest, which is no way to save someone from drowning. He'd once been a prime physical specimen, but now his chest hair was turning gray and his skin had that crepe-paper look. Still, the warmth of his body felt good and he had strength to spare for me.
"The lifeguard hasn't raised the flag," someone said.
"The lifeguard has been hitting on that girl for the past hour."
And they realized that they, too were being pulled out to sea, but we were in shallower water, and he was tall, so he was able to fight his way step by step to shore, with me in his arms. His friends splashed ahead of us. By the time we waded out of the surf, we were both too spent to talk. I had been shifted into the more classic damsel in distress pose, draped over his arms and across his chest.
The lifeguard looked up as his friends charged the hut, shouting and pointing out to sea. He looked over their heads at the water and jumped to his feet.
"Riptide! Everyone out of the water!"
My marine and I burst out laughing. We laughed so hard that tears trickled down our cheeks. And slowly, oh so slowly, he let my feet touch the sand, but he didn't completely let go of me for a long, long time.