You Don't Have to Be In Water to Drown
I once found myself trapped underwater. It was during our annual surfing trip to Costa Rica, the last day of the trip, and I was feeling uncharacteristically confident. It had been a good week. I’d graduated from beginner to intermediate over the course of the past seven days. I had convinced myself that I was a natural (like that’s a real thing), and ignored the reality that I was a total novice and had only ever actually surfed a total of 21 days spread out over three years. One week a year – that’s how often we came to Costa Rica. I only took up surfing because Nick thought that it would be a fun family trip tradition. Dashiell, just two years old when he had his first “pop up”, was immediately hooked, and Olympia, always biting at his heels, popped up the next year. It was decided; we were a family that surfed. We wowed people with photos, our blond sun-kissed kids catching waves as tall as they were. They were only two and three feet tall, respectively, but it was still impressive to see these tiny groms with their confident stance, cruising towards the beach, all smiles.
To lead by example, I would dutifully take my lesson every day, out past the break. The kids were nearer to the shore with their instructors, inside the break, and they could see mommy riding waves in the distance, and this was fun. Nick, far more advanced than the rest of us, would take daily boat trips to catch big waves with the advanced surfers, and he would body surf in the afternoon with the kids. We loved this little beginner beach we found, and we decided this was our spot, and every year we came back to visit our friends in Tamarindo at the Witches Rock Surf Camp. It was almost by accident that I found my own confidence surfing. Already in my early 30s, I felt too old to start taking serious risks, and I never intended to catch anything taller than I was. But the thing about surfing is it feels incredible. When you get that first taste of the drop, it’s exhilarating, you’re flying, and then you want to go right back out there, fighting through the sets to get back to that spot and tuck again into that perfect curl to recapture that freedom.
Surfers are chill. The soft rock of the ocean beneath you as you wait for the perfect wave to roll in, the taste of the salt water on your lips, just two inches of board between you and the vast wide ocean with all of its life and power and the simplicity— it is good. “Pura vida,” is what the locals call it, which translated directly means “simple life” or “pure life.” But there in Costa Rica, it is more than just a saying—it is a way of life.
That trip was a good one. Dad had joined us that year. He was in charge of Zuzu who was just a baby, barely four months old. Dad and Zuzu would sit in the wet sand, waving to us, slathered in sunscreen. Both of them would leave Costa Rica as white as they’d arrived, and that’s how they liked it. She would nap in his room while he would bang away at his computer keys. As long as I can remember, my dad has always been hunched over a computer screen, or a typewriter when I was very small, clanging and banging away, miles and miles of words. As an adult he comes to visit unannounced and leaves unannounced and the spontaneity of his trips is relaxing, so when he said he would join us that year in Costa Rica, we were happy. Dad used the excuse of Zuzu to avoid taking surf lessons that year. “But who’s going to keep Zuzu company?” he would say, with great concern in his voice. “Well, we will, Dad! You don’t have to take your lesson at the same time as us!” But no, that wasn’t going to make any sense, and it’s such a bother to get wet, and we’ve got things to take care of and that was that, Dad and Zuzu stayed on the shore and everybody was satisfied with that arrangement.
We had perfect weather that week and perfect weather means perfect surfing conditions, just the right size waves rolling in, one after the next. We were all beginning to look like pros. There wasn’t a wave we couldn’t catch, and Dad was impressed, and I impressed myself. As the week went on, the wind began to pick up, but just enough that each day the waves were only slightly bigger, and that’s how I went from the beginner group to the intermediate group. Seeing my name that morning on the white board in blue marker under the intermediate heading was enough for me, in my mind, to join the pros. “Maybe I should take a boat trip tomorrow,” I told Nick. “Do you think I can handle it?” Nick was always supporting all of my decisions and he liked to see me enthusiastic about the sport, but it never worked out for me to join the boat trip because even though Dad was “in charge” of Zuzu, really I was in charge of her, and the kids couldn’t be left alone for that long – boat trips were a much longer excursion— and I decided it was too much hassle, so I never did sign up for the boat trip. The last day of the trip came, and with it the relay.
The relay was a fun way to show off all the hard work we’d all done over the course of the week. The sun had just come up over the horizon, so it was still cool and the wind that had been picking up all week was really whipping across the water, and the sets that morning were rolling in steady and the swells were big, six feet at least. It felt almost ominous on the quiet peaceful beach with its soft sand and soft light and soft waves. I didn’t recognize this ocean, but I was feeling strong, and it had been a great week, and I was an intermediate surfer now, so I was going to show everybody. My instructor, Rafa, gave me a wink. They’re not supposed to be partial to their students, but we had been coming for three years and he had been my instructor every year and we were beginning to feel like old friends. I didn’t want to disappoint him; I could see he was proud of all the progress I’d made that week. The head instructor blew the whistle, and the relay began. I was towards the back of my group and I watched from my line up as the students one by one tore out into the water with their boards to catch a wave and come back. That was the drill: you had to catch one wave and not fall, and if you fell you had to start over. If you succeeded you could come back into shore with your board and tag the next person on your team. Most of the students had never surfed before, the advanced surfers never partook in these little games that the camp arranged, I watched patiently as they were catching the bubbles that rose about six inches just before they washed onto the sand, the students teetering on their boards and laughing at the “wave” they’d caught. This was supposed to be fun, so nobody really cared and anyway, surfers aren’t the judgmental type. But I must have had something to prove that day, because when the person directly before me came flying back in from the water and passed me her board, I took off like a rocket. I paddled as hard as I ever had out into the ocean, way past the break. The waves were strong and I really had to fight to get out there. It scared me to push through the sets as they crashed over my head, smacking me in the face, forcing me to turtle my board (that’s when you roll it so as not to get thrown with the force of the water pushing against the front of your board, as you go out past the break to where the water is calm). When I finally got out I wasn’t alone. Another one of the more skilled students had decided to make his way out there as well. I guess I wasn’t the only one looking for a little danger that morning. He waved to me, “The waves are big today,” he observed. “Yeah,” I smiled back. I wasn’t feeling as confident any more. Something in the way he spoke those words felt like he knew something I didn’t know and now I had to get back to shore, but the only way back was to surf because, he was right, the waves were big. I couldn’t swim back because I had this big board tied to my ankle, and you don’t just swim a board back to shore. One way or another you have to ride it. That “pura vida” I’d been feeling all week vanished. I could see the instructors and the other students on the shore. They were all cheering and shouting, but I couldn’t really hear them because the waves were roaring and the wind was whipping. I gathered up my courage. I had been catching waves all week, and this was just another wave in a long week of waves, and it was just water and it was going to carry me back to the shore, back to my people. I just had to pop up and stay up. It was probably going to be fun because surfing is fun and the drop feels amazing and didn’t I want that drop? It was my last chance for an entire year, because this was the last day of vacation and we don’t surf anywhere else, so catch a wave and have some fun and show everybody just how good you are, because you are good. And it’s just water.
Looking over my shoulder, I could see the swell in the distance, my friend to my right. “You going to take that?” he smiled. “I don’t know, should I?” I looked back at him, begging him to sprout wings and carry me back to shore. “Sure!” he said. And before I had a chance to reconsider the swell was under me, and I’m paddling with fury, my arms pulling like windmills at my sides and my body stiff, toes in a plank and ready, my eyes squinting ahead to the shore. The water closes around my sides, and I’m reciting the basic rules in my head “Don’t hang onto the rails, just straight up, no knees, get straight up and look to the shore, look where you’re going, stay low.” I push up with my hands and I’m up, I can feel that I’m up and the board drops beneath me. But it’s not “the drop”, it’s actually dropping. I’m falling and the board is falling, and I don’t know when it’s going to stop. My heart drops and I’m down and I’m pushed under, and I wrap my arms over my head and duck my chin against my chest and the board crashes against my hand, crushing my fingers. I’m rolling and I can’t breathe and I have no idea which way is up. I can feel myself tethered to the board, and the board is flailing above my head, yanking me deeper and farther and the waves are like giant hands pushing me down and sideways. I can make out faint glimmers of light, and I think it’s where the air is, but everything is so violent, and I can’t breathe, and I’m scared. If I open my mouth, even just barely, my lungs will flood with the powerful strength of the water pressing around me, pushing to get inside of me, pushing me down, pulling my surfboard and I’m so scared and I’m drowning. I can’t hold my breathe much longer. I feel like I’m crying into the ocean, but my tears are so small and they’re salty and the ocean swallows them like it’s swallowing me. Finally I do come up. It’s only for an instant, but I gasp and it’s long enough to take in oxygen. But I’m in the middle of a set, and the next wave hits me harder than the first, so I’m back down, and the board is tangled in the water and I’m whirling around with it. The sets are coming at me, one after the other, and I’m losing my strength to hold on. But I know the sets will end, they always do, and if I can wait it out there will be a moment of peace, a moment long enough for me to come up and struggle my way back towards the shore against the current, back to life. The sets eventually do slow and I make my way back. I’m beaten and shaking and I need to get off the beach and out of my bathing suit and I need to hold my children.
The next year, we went back to Tamarindo, back to our little oasis on the coast. The instructors remembered me— not just my instructor, but all of them. “You’re the one with the epic wipe out from last year!” They would cheer and high five me. “We still show that video to people to this day!” And they’d laugh, but I was still sick to my stomach. I’d been dreading getting back on the board all year, but my kids wanted to surf and I wanted to show them my courage. So I went back out there, but taking the small breaks right by the shore, where the water bubbles and swells gently. I no longer had anything to prove, I really am just there to have fun. The truth is, I’d rather not surf anymore, but I know that’s not “pura vida,” and Dad says he’ll try surfing this year, so I got back on the board. It was a great week, and there weren’t any wipe-outs, and it took me almost all week to stand up on the board. But that’s okay, because I’m a beginner, and I will be happy if I am a beginner for the rest of my life. I never want to feel that violence again, that violence I felt the day the water showed me all of its power and strength and reminded me how small I am in the big vast world.
As it stands, this is a story about a time I almost drowned on a family vacation. Tilt it to a slightly different angle, and I could say, “That was a time I consciously put myself into a life threatening situation, and then felt really sorry for myself afterwards.” I may have learned something that day on the beach about my own mortality, but what it didn’t prepare me for was what I did not know yet about my own life. How could I know that another choice I'd made, the choice to have a family, would be the pressure that would take me down deeper than any wave on that little beach off the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica? I thought, if I stay on these little waves and I take it easy, that pounding and beating and tearing and screaming into the dark vast ocean will be silenced. I will never again feel like I can’t come up for air. But I didn’t know that you didn’t have to be in water to feel like you are drowning.