In the Wake of Surviving a Rip Current

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Last week, my family went to one of our favorite haunts: The Outer Banks of North Carolina, or “OBX” as it is known to the anointed.

The OBX is a geographic miracle: at points it is less than 1/4 mile wide with sound on one side and the mighty Atlantic on the other. The fact that the area is still above sea water (i.e., dry) astounds me every time we visit.

The scenery is beautiful from Pea Island, with dunes 20’ high on either side of the road. As far as “pull over” areas go, there aren’t any, as just a few breezes will begin to reposition the dunes onto the travel lanes of NC 12, the road to and from OBX.

It rained the first four days. Wednesday to Friday, we had clear skies. On Thursday, my husband and I hit our 26th wedding anniversary. We were thrilled to celebrate with our sons, their friends and my beloved eldest niece. I didn’t care if it rained. The rental house had plenty of covered deck space to watch the sea and the storms. Just the fact of being away home, in quarantine, was tonic.

We arrived when a storm was clearing and we left when one was beginning. I had to rush to close up my car. The drops were as big as quarters.

Because the storms had been hanging over the OBX for a few days, the water was turbid and the waves were huge; at least 8’ above my son’s head as he and his girlfriend played in the sea and destroyed my nerves from waiting for them to come in frolicked. The water coming in had at least three breakers before finally crashing at its final destination.

Those are two 5’7” people from my beach team.

These multiple wave breakpoints created troughs in the ocean floor, likely several inches to a foot deeper than the other areas where there were no breakers.

I am a Great Lakes girl. Waves are something that I’m familiar with, and there’s sometimes an undertow, but nothing like a rip current. Undertows are below the surface. Rip currents are ON the surface. Because giant waves are exclusive to the sea, I have always considered myself to be respectful and wary of the sea. I trust it, but always verify. Never turn my back to it.

On Thursday, because the sea had settled somewhat, I decided to join my niece in leisurely wave bobbing. My mostly grown children and their friends were still in the house putting on various degrees of anti-sun goo.

She is a tall and very strong young woman. She is experienced with the sea. She is savvy to the sea as she has likely swum in maybe four of the seven.

I am not as tall as she. I have an app on my watch that tells me the tides. The main rule of rip currents, other than stay the hell away from them, is to not go into the water within an hour of low tide, on either side of the clock, but especially close to the lowest point, because that’s when a rip current is the strongest.

For some reason, I said the hell with that and went into the water. I didn’t have any food in my belly, so there was no 15-minute rule to ignore. I also ignored my own rule of: if you go into the water, make sure someone is on shore to help if needed. I wanted to be brave. I wanted to show my husband, who grew up on the shores of Delaware, that I could handle the waves. I should have put myself on restriction.

Something in him impelled him to join me and my niece in the water.

My first step into the ocean from the shoreline put me at 15” depth, solely because of the waves crashing at that point for days. Immediately, the water was just below my knees. About twenty more steps, and it’s up to my ribs. The water is refreshing but not terribly cold. The waves can carry my weight and I can enjoy the ride. My feet are still landing on the ocean floor. All is well.

A couple of big ones come in and I had two choices: get slammed or dive under the crest or into the wall of water on the approach. I dove into the wall and avoided the washout. A couple more waves like this come in and I start to lose my footing… I don’t feel the floor anymore. But it’s been only 30 seconds or so, how bad can it be, right?

Bob bob bob some more. No more footfalls and something in me says, “maybe take a look around, check your distance from the shore…”

To my astonishment, I’m about 150’ feet from the shore. My husband is about 12’ away from me, but closing in. My niece is slightly beyond me, deeper into the water, by about 10’.

I have a small “moment” (as I like to call them) and say, “Holy shit, >name of niece and husband<, we are in a rip current. I can’t feel the ocean floor….”

Immediate HORROR overcomes me and by this time, my husband is RIGHT next to me.

All my training in yogic breathing and meditation is now sealed in my mind palace and I don’t have the key. I’ve left it on my beach chair.

I start to struggle emotionally and alert my niece and husband that I’m not ok, that I’m fearful for my life and that I don’t know what to do — EXCEPT I DO KNOW WHAT TO DO, but doing what I’m supposed to do in a rip current feels like the COMPLETE opposite of what my instinct says to do.

My instinct to survive says, “swim, get out, survive.” My awareness of rip currents, even before this moment, in fact for years preceding this moment, is to get on my back, float with the current and let it take me where it will take me and then eventually dump me somewhere and then I can swim back in, or in the more recent studies I’ve seen on rip currents, they magically take swimmers back in …

I have mentally decided that 1) I don’t know where the fuck I am in the water relative to how far the shore line is. 2) I went in at exactly the wrong time: within an hour of low tide. 3) I’m a fucking emotional wreck. 4) I’m getting really tired. 5) The last thing I want to do is just ride this out, because of “1.” 6) What if this thing doesn’t bring me back in but instead spits me out 800’ from shore. I’M SUPPOSED TO SWIM BACK IN?!

So it gets even worse: my emotions. Meanwhile, I’m apologizing to my husband. He’s telling me, “stop it” >pant pant pant< and somehow he gets the lung power — he whistles his amazing DadWhistle, gets our eldest son’s attention and shouts in his most DadVoice “Get the board! YOUR MOTHER IS IN TROUBLE! NOW!!!”

Meanwhile my niece is also shouting to our son to get the board as she is getting back in to shore. She then rushes out of the water with the intention to grab our other boogie board for my husband who is now starting to scare me because he’s really tired too. He’s been repeatedly shoving me through cresting waves; I feel like a piece of soggy cardboard.

We’ve been at this for at least a minute, trying to calm each other down, stay afloat, navigate this thing, and not die.

On our 26th wedding anniversary.

In front of our children.

Three-hundred and fifty miles from home.

Every second felt like an hour. As our son runs through the water, he passes our niece and tells us when he gets to us, that she’s coming back for Dan. Which she did with surprising speed. It’s as if she had wings.

My son plops me on the yellow board, but he’s exhausted too because he had to fight the incoming tide’s waves to get to me and his father to help. He is starting to get a little unnerved by all the tumult and I could hear alarm in his voice. I suspect he’s concerned about how wiped out we were too. He couldn’t get his bearings.

I think about this time we are on minute three. We are making headway back in, but I’m still HAVING AN OUT OF BODY EXPERIENCE. I had no clue where we were, relative to the shore, because I couldn’t get a view — I was on my back. My son was tired and my husband… where was he? Was he ok? What about my niece?!

Oh GOD, is this it?! Am I going to die out here?

My son tells me, “Kick Mom. Like really hard, empty the tank.” (This is a rowing phrase.) I am crying and I am exhausted and I am scared and I can’t kick. Instead I choose none of the options he offered and decide to hyperventilate. “MOM. GET IT TOGETHER. YOU HAVE TO DO YOUR YOGA BREATHING AND KICK. I NEED YOU TO HELP ME. NOW.” So I helped. I started my kicking, and the sound of his voice scared me into gear. I started to kick so hard, because I knew that if I didn’t I was putting him at risk. We all hear so many stories about how the helpers of people in the water in near-drowning experiences die.

I am a mother. I couldn’t bear the thought of losing him or of being the cause of his . . . I can’t write it. So I won’t.

So I kick. I decide to be a survivor, but I was still afraid.

“Mom, I can feel sand. It’s here. I can feel it,” he says with incredible hope and relief.

So I try. I drop one leg to test. “I CAN’T!” I cry. We must’ve hit a trough in the floor. “IT’S NOT THERE!” I say. I’m going to die here.

Suddenly the urge to call to more people on shore occurs to me. “HELP. CAN YOU HELP?!”

Whatthefuckaretheydoing? Canttheyseeourstruggle? Whywonttheyhelpus???

Dan and my niece are alongside us now or close.

“Mol, who are you talking to? Why are you calling out?” Dan asks, exhausted, confused, almost angrily — exasperated.

All I could think of was “human chain.” I don’t want to put more people at risk, but I’m so delirious and exhausted that I thought a human chain would solve our problem and there were so many people on shore, surely, it could happen.

I’m so tired. Crying, Salty. Still kicking, water coming up behind us, washing over my face. My hair is in my eyes and over my mouth. Can’t see. Can’t breathe. I’m so depleted.

Sand.

I felt sand under my foot.

My husband pushes my board hard toward the shore. I can hear the urgency in his growl to get it done. My niece stands up and pulls him in while he holds onto the board. The water is about hip high now. We are 20’ from shore.

We stand up and walk out of the water.

My son and niece bid their adieus and collapse wherever they ended up on their towels.

Dan and I sit on the boogie board that I rode in on. I sit there. Crying. Breathing. Shaking. Unmanageable, desperate, grateful … shaking and crying. The sun is on my skin and there’s sand under my ass. The remnants of a just-crashed wave rolls up to us and I startle.

“It’s ok. You’re safe,” says Dan.

We’re safe.” says I.

We lean on each other’s shoulders. We sit there and breathe. I feel a >tap tap tap< on my wrist. It’s my Apple Watch with a prompt: “Swimming workout detected. Would you like to record?”

NO.

This is one anniversary I won’t ever forget.

Dan and I are pretty good shape. He runs or rides his bike several miles, several days a week. I had just gone for a run the day before and had practiced a vigorous vinyasa two days before that. I work out at home all the time. I had just done some yoga on the beach before it all happened.

This thing nearly killed us.

When I got back to shore, I went on YouTube to look for rip current videos and began immediately to share them with our beach team via our “OBX” chat thread.

I learned that in a standard rip current, one that is not connected to any big storms, that people can be pulled out at a speed of one to two feet per second. In a storm-related rip current, the speed is up to eight feet per second, which NO OLYMPIC CHAMPION can best.

I don’t know how fast ours was, and I’m good with that. There was a storm two days before that and that was the third day in a row of near-constant successive storms.

I couldn’t stop shaking. I couldn’t stop replaying what had just happened. I’m extremely well versed in therapy, in “ruts” and the risks of “intractable thinking.” I was afraid I was going to really mess myself up. Yet I couldn’t calm down enough to slow my breathing to where I could get ahold of my thoughts.

Yoga. said something in my head.

So I did a headstand. It calmed me instantly. I was able to balance on my head for almost a full minute. Then I did another. It helped so much.

The science is behind this: cranial pressure calms the central nervous system. Some upside down poses can calm us.

But it didn’t last. I couldn’t sleep well that night. I felt as I laid on my back that I was gasping for air. That I was gulping air. I felt like I was sinking. I took .125mg Xanax. I slept well.

The next night, I was marginally better, but I wasn’t going to take Xanax. I took Benadryl and did legs up the wall, a yoga pose, instead. It helped.

I shared a brief synopsis of this on FaceBook. I heard from many people about their experiences with rip currents and of their witnessing the sad outcomes of people who weren’t as lucky as we were to come out. Experienced surfers, average beach goers, stories about people who saw others struggle and tried to help but couldn’t save everyone. People shared some really intimate stuff.

The OBX, in particular Cape Hatteras (which is very close by where we stayed) is called “the graveyard of the Atlantic” … did you know that? I didn’t until last week. More than 600 ships have wrecked there.

I went back in — for a bit, thigh high — the next day. Dan never let me go. I bobbed in a wave or two, but I’d had enough.

My perspective on a lot of things has changed.

I had therapy today. My therapist defines trauma as a negative event that changes your life; something that feels close to death or is positively monumental enough to change your appreciation of life, that has a “before X and an after X” delineation. I considered this event to be something traumatic.

We did something called “recent event processing,” a cousin to EMDR to process the event. “EMDR is geared more for PTSD, which the DSM-5 defines as something that occurred at least six months prior,” my therapist explained. What I experienced “is PTS,” she said. Some things that came up were super deep, tangential to my upbringing, but we had to stay on task to process the rip current.

I came out of that EMDR-esque session resolved. I wouldn’t describe how I feel as a “new lease on life” or a “second chance.” I’m grateful as hell to be here, but I don’t want to turn what happened to me into a cliché.

The reality is that I am going to live the way I always have, but with more assurance that I really have a reason to be here. I’m going to be less concerned with disappointing people. That doesn’t mean I don’t care about people; to the contrary. I care about the bigger picture enough to risk upsetting one or two people. I see the forest for the trees.

I can’t give what I don’t have, so whatever I touch or influence will be what I believe is best for everyone I serve. I don’t have to agree with people anymore to do what I think is best. I am ok with disappointing some people in order to do what I think is right.

I’m humbled by this entire event. My child and niece saved our lives. They risked their own. I know I didn’t “do anything wrong” — but it’s been hard to shake the feeling of responsibility.


They did what I would’ve done. They are beautiful people … and their response was “well, that’s over…” and within 30 minutes they went back out and frolicked like usual.

To my selfless, courageous and strong son, my relentless and giving husband and my strong, brilliant and brave niece: Thank you. You’re stuck with me.

Thank you, yellow boogie board.

Resources

The Tides app: https://apps.apple.com/us/app/tide-charts/id957143504

The videos

About Grass Oil by Molly Field

follow me on twitter @mollyfieldtweet. i'm working on a memoir and i've written two books thus unpublished because i'm a scaredy cat. i hail from a Eugene O'Neill play and an Augusten Burroughs novel but i'm a married, sober straight mom. i write about parenting, mindfulness, irony, personal growth and other mysteries vividly with a bit of humor. "Grass Oil" comes from my son's description of dinner i made one night. the content of the blog is random, simple, funny and clever. stop by, it would be nice to get to know you. :)

2 responses »

  1. Molly:
    Okay. This brought tears to my eyes and my heart is racing. I’m glad you are okay. Sounds like it was super scary. Thank God for your rescuers, I don’t know how you can stand on your head 😳.
    Happy Anniversary,
    PBrindley

    • I’m humbled by this entire event. My child and niece saved our lives. They risked their own. I know I didn’t “do anything wrong” — but it’s been hard to shake the feeling of responsibility.

      They did what I would’ve done. They are beautiful people … and their response was “well, that’s over…” and they went back out and frolicked like usual.

      Standing on my head was easy… lol.

      Thanks, Patty. 🥰

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