The superstitious student of disaster will tell you that misfortune arrives in waves of three.
This story is about the third wave.
Surfing has been a lifelong recreational pastime of mine, spanning roughly 40 years. Whilst I have never been greatly skilled at the sport, I have always been intoxicated by the thrill of the ride; the calmness of sitting out the back past the breakers, hunting the forming lines, hustling to be positioned for “right of way”, and testing myself against whatever nature could throw at me. Who am I kidding? When I was young some of that may have been true, but from my late 20’s onward, surfing was something I only did in 2 week intensive stints during family holidays up on Queensland’s Sunshine surf coast (and later in Bali), and anyone who knows anything about surfing will tell you that age, and a distinct lack of fitness, does not mix well with any lengthy abstinence from the sport. These factors spoke very much to my undoing.
My mini-malibu surfboard had ceremoniously earned the nickname of “The Couch”, a title bestowed upon it by my dry-witted old friend Iain (and often repeated by my kids), as I seemed to spend a lot of time out there in the water just “lounging” on it. This was because I’d spent most of my energy paddling out and needed a long rest before I could even think about tackling a wave.
In Bali for two weeks for a family holiday in June 2012, I adopted my usual “Conditioning Regime”, which, previously, had consisted of:
- A 30 minute paddle on day 1, increasing each day by 15 minutes, until I felt the return of some rhythm and stamina. In the first 3 days I would fight the urge to give surfing away for good, telling my wife Susie that “I’m too old for this,” and “That’s it! I’m going into retirement!”
- Enjoying Days 4 to 6 and catching some half decent waves, prompting the announcement that I was “back in town!”
- Feeling invincible and bullet-proof on days 7 to 9.
- Nursing sore wrists and ankles by day 10.
- Losing interest altogether by day 12, preferring to read a book in the sun or loiter at a beach-side bar.
I followed this pattern successfully for 17 consecutive years, but during the 18th year I got it horribly wrong.
The problem is that you age in your body but not in your mind. You think you can still do things that you simply no longer can.
On day two of this particular holiday, I was wading out through a beach break at Seminyak when I noticed the presence of a rip that could “Jet me out the back” and save me having to battle through breaking waves. The swell was quite big (with sets around 3 metres, 9-10 foot) and Bali waves are very powerful. Now, remember, this was day two, and I knew that I was still a long way off taking on the bigger stuff. The rip was there, however, and I thought I might just sneak out yonder for a bit of a look. There was no harm in that, surely?
Things initially went well and before I knew it, I was nearly level with the back breakers. Then I suddenly encountered a strong cross current that pushed me rapidly sideways, and directly into the path of one of the biggest dumping waves I’ve ever seen. There was nothing I could do. I dived down into the water, but I was exactly in the wrong spot, and the wave broke on my head. When this occurs, you usually spend time flattened on the sea floor, where you wait until the force of the wave moves past you, before you can propel yourself off the sandy bottom, and finally pop out through the whitewash and get some air. On this occasion, the water was deeper than expected (around 9 feet deep), so my feet did not touch sand, and I was caught up inside the wave’s fury, tumbling over and over. The whitewash whirlpools also sucked me back down each time I fought my way close to the surface. Without the benefit of a “push-off” from the sea floor, it took too long to rise back upward. It took forever. I had expelled the last of my air and was starting to take in water. I took two gulps of salty brine before I eventually surfaced. What I saw then was discouraging.
The second wave, just as big, was at tipping point directly above me. I had enough time to cough and splutter a few times and take a quick 3/4 breath, and then the cycle began all over again. The only thought in my mind was, “If I had surfaced 2 seconds later, the second wave would have hit while I was still under”. With my day 2 level of conditioning, I was already struggling with fatigue. I knew that if I didn’t make it to the surface in the same time frame as the first wave, this may indeed be my last cognitive earthly moment.
Whilst enduring the whitewash washing machine for the second time, tumbling over and over, I started to panic. I was rolling with the powerful momentum of the ocean, but moving with it rather than under it, and the force was taking too long to subside. Once again I could no longer contain my air, and I started taking in water again; this time more so, and my faculties were beginning to fade. I came to the realization that too much time had elapsed, and that I would not reach the surface before the third impact. I was already choking, and another cycle without air would certainly finish me off. The third wave is often the biggest and most powerful of the set. This was it. I wasn’t going to make it through.
As I said at the beginning of this tale, this story is about the third wave. The one that never came.
I broke the surface expecting to see a cylindrical tonne of water plummeting down on me, but all I saw was blue sky. I scanned seaward for more hostile forming lines but there were none.
I was too exhausted to be relieved, and there was still work to be done. I felt like the beneficiary of a heaven-sent distortion of nature; an exception to the general rule, and I couldn’t have been more grateful.
With only enough energy to pull on my leg rope, I dragged my board back toward me. I clung to it, unable to climb aboard, and gradually moved myself with the momentum of the swell pulses toward the shore. I was sufficiently shore-ward to avoid the fury of the next set of breaking waves, allowing the whitewash to propel me toward the beach.
I staggered out of the water and collapsed on the shoreline, gagging and spluttering, and heaving volumes of salt water out of my body. The beach was pretty much deserted, and no-one had seen that I was in distress. I lay on the wet sand for a long time, exhausted and physically ill. After a long rest I moved up onto the sand and returned to where my wife Susie was baking herself on a sun lounge, face buried in the pages of a trashy holiday romance novel, and feeling slightly agitated because the large red sun umbrella was starting to cast a shadow over her shoulders. She was totally oblivious to what had just happened.
I said quietly, “I think I just nearly drowned!”
Now, it’s not uncommon for me to wildly overstate the gravity of things, so Susie was quite within her rights to immediately file this announcement under “Just another fall off his couch – exaggeration #127″.
“How about a coke?” She replied cheerfully, not looking up from her novel, but pointing at the empty bottles on the side table that needed to be binned. “The ones we got last time weren’t that cold!”
That was the moment when the fog lifted and I happily returned to reality. I wondered how differently that moment in time may have played out, had the third wave arrived as predicted. Instead, we were together on a tropical beach, basking in sunshine, unsure whether to read a book or stroll up to a beach bar for an afternoon drink. The previous 20 minutes could now be erased because there were no witnesses and no loose ends. It was just a small panic-filled time bubble. I returned from the beach drinks vendor with two cokes and handed one to Susie. I stood there for a long time afterwards, watching the ocean, rejoicing in being alive, and wondering if I would ever surf again.
The very same superstitious student of disaster may tell you that our fate is predetermined. The message I received on that day was that fate can also issue warnings to those that are particularly stupid, and that a “shot fired across your bow” should not go unheeded, because there is also another saying … that the postman always rings twice.