A series of stupid mistakes, combined with a stronger current than I have ever felt, resulted in the worst and most terrifying experience of my life!
I really don’t want to write this.
For one, I feel so ashamed. Two, it’s not pleasant to think back on what happened, to relive the emotions and to think of what could have happened.
Saturday, we went for a drive to the east end of the island, further than we had gone before, to a village called Alao. We found a beach that was made for postcards; beautiful white, sand and waves lapping gently onto shore.
Kip and I played in the sand, while we watched Nate take Hadley and Holden to play in the water. I watched them playing in the waves and learning to body-surf. Hadley and Holden are strong swimmers and I was surprised by how close Nate was keeping them to him and how shallow they were staying. I thought that the waves looked a little more fun further out.
Once they came back on shore, I figured it was my turn to have some fun in those perfect waves. Holden wanted to come with me, so I grabbed him and we headed out into the water. We were having fun bobbing above and diving into the waves. Holden wanted to show me his newly developing skill of body-surfing and so we focused on searching for the right wave for him to ride on.
The waves were strong but the water was only just about chest-height and I felt solidly in control. As I bobbed above a wave, one of my flip-flops was swept off my foot. I looked for it to come floating up to the surface and once I spotted it, I reached out and grabbed it.
I realized we were drifting deeper and the waves were getting bigger than I wanted. So with my flip-flop safely in one hand and my other arm wrapped around Holden, I tried to make our way back to shallower water. Just then, another wave swept my other flip-flop off and I paused our forward momentum to look around again. I felt the current pulling us out and decided to abandon the shoe and keep moving.
By now, we had been pulled out far enough that I could no longer touch and the big waves were relentlessly crashing down on us. Holden was still smiling and enjoying this crazy roller coaster ride but I knew that I had lost control. In that moment, I forgot everything I had ever learned about what to do in a situation like this. I was panicking and seeing no way out of the waves. No matter how hard I swam, the beach wan’t getting any closer. The waves never gave up and we were both starting to inhale water. Even though the sun was still shining, it felt like dark clouds had descended upon us, to help the waves push us under.
In between the waves, I could see the other two kids playing happily up the beach and Nate looking out at us, trying to judge the situation. I started screaming, “NATE! NAAAATE!” hoping that he could hear me over the roar of the waves and come to our aid. Nate’s a stronger swimmer than myself and I was pretty confident that if he could get Holden in, that I could take care of myself.
As I was losing hope that we were going to make it back, something clicked. I moved Holden onto my back and told him to hold on tight. I used both arms to swim as hard as I could, in spite of the current trying to pull us back out, it felt like we might finally be making some progress. Just then, a wave came down on us and tore Holden from off my back, carrying him a few feet from me. Thankfully, Holden is an amazingly strong swimmer for a six-year-old and was able to keep his head above the water enough to get breaths between the waves, while I made my way back to him.
With him safely on my back again, holding on for dear life, I started to swim back toward shore, which was now even further away. Somehow, I felt stronger and more capable of combating the waves. I could no longer see Nate on the beach, so he must have been in the water trying to make his way to us. I thought, if nothing else, as long as we could minimize the water we were swallowing and keep moving in a generally forward direction, then he would get to us eventually.
Suddenly, my knee bumped something hard and I realized that I had run into some coral, sitting higher in the water. I scrambled on top, where I could stand up and give us both a chance to catch our breath, trying to cough the ocean water out. I saw Nate and he saw us. He was farther out and he started making his way back in.
After catching my breath for just a moment, I was able to get us both the rest of the way to shore.
We were scratched up, I had lost my flip-flop and sunglasses, Holden was crying and scared, but we were safe.
As I think back, I’m terrified at the idea that my stupid and careless mistakes could have cost my precious boy his life and that I could have left the rest of my family without a mother and wife! I am so grateful to my Father in Heaven, who was watching over us and gave me the strength and determination to get us both to safety!
I learned a very important lesson that day! I want to share some of what I learned, in hopes that anyone else who might find themselves in a similar situation, might be able to avoid my mistakes.
- The ocean deserves caution and respect. The ocean is powerful and chaotic. I have played in waves before, well past where I could touch, and never lost control. Just because the ocean behaves one way, in one place, does not mean that it will always be the same.
- Never take a developing swimmer into unfamiliar water. I am a pretty strong swimmer on my own but with the extra weight and awkwardness of another body, I was much less capable.
- When you are going to be around open water, its a good idea to refresh your knowledge of what to do in case of emergencies. It turns out that we got caught in a strong riptide. I have learned what to do before but in that moment, it was hard to recognize and think straight.
- If you find yourself caught in a riptide you should swim parallel to shore. Riptides are typically only 20-100 feet wide. Once you feel the release of the pull, you should swim at an angle away from the riptide, toward the shore.
- Panic and adrenaline are both very real. When I realized I had lost control, I panicked and lost all my knowledge and common sense. All I could think about was the chance that we could die. In the moment that I was finally able to overcome the fear and think straight, I know I had more energy and power than I’d had just moments before.
The memory of that day will haunt me for the rest of my life but Nate keeps reminding me that even though I made some really stupid mistakes that put us in that situation, I was the one who got us back out alive. All the time I was just trying to keep us alive until Nate could get to us. Instead, I was able to save our lives without any help from him. I’m more capable than I gave myself credit for.
I can’t change what happened. I can’t erase that memory. Going forward, all I can do is be smarter with my newfound knowledge and understanding, regularly teach my children the same lessons and hold my babies a little closer, thanking God for everyday that we get to be together.