This story was originally published as part of the winter edition of The Master’s University Magazine. Read the full magazine here.
I almost drowned last summer.
Looking back, it’s easy to see that every choice I made leading up to the incident (as I like to call it) played a part, and that by the time I took my first step into the ocean that morning, something bad was bound to happen.
To begin with, while I am (normally) a strong swimmer, I am a novice surfer. I wasn’t entirely familiar with the break I intended to surf that morning, and my lack of experience blinded me to signs that should have kept me on the sand.
Additionally, I hadn’t participated in any consistent physical activity in years, so I could expect to tire easily.
Finally, I had made an all-or-nothing commitment to surf every day over the summer in an effort to get into shape, so it didn’t deter me that the currents were strong that morning or that there was no one on the beach and no lifeguard on duty. Longboard tucked under my arm, I waded foolishly into a choppy, heavy swell while simultaneously lauding myself for my commitment and determination.
The spot I picked features a rock jetty that extends about 100 yards into the water. It was constructed decades ago to protect the Ventura shoreline from being battered into submission by the sea, while at the same time creating a calmer community beach on the other side of it. Local surfers congregate beyond the jetty in a spot they call the Dredge.
I had no intention of surfing the Dredge that morning. The regulars there, some of the best surfers in Ventura, are territorial about the spot and would have disdained an unfamiliar, inexperienced 54-year-old clogging up their lineup.
My plan was to stay on the other side and catch whatever scraps I could. I didn’t expect to do much riding. My goal was to start slow — work my way back into shape by paddling around by myself. If I caught a wave or two, all the better.
I waded out a good 50 yards up the beach from the jetty. My inexperienced eyes judged that to be a sufficient cushion to paddle through the current and the crashing waves to calmer water beyond.
Waves hammered me as I tried to paddle out, however, and progress was slow. Every time I came close to getting clear of the crash zone, another wall of whitewater pushed me back toward the beach. Meanwhile, the current was nudging me closer and closer to the rocks.
It happened quickly. I stopped paddling for a moment to catch my breath and relieve my burning shoulders, and suddenly, the jetty was dangerously close — just a few feet away. I was close enough to see the black and green mussels affixed to the concrete and rocks. I could hear the water slapping against them.
It was at this point that I realized I was in trouble. Exhausted, caught between a strong current and a wall of rock, I bobbed up and down on my board like a cork. My best chance was to make one final push to clear the jetty and paddle over to where the experienced surfers were lining up. But I was already out of time. The current had now pushed me close enough to touch the rocks. I remember placing my hand on their slippery surface, hoping to push off and use that momentum to propel me around the jetty.
But then another wave came. It swelled under my board, pushed me skyward, and threw me back-first into the rocks. The impact slammed into my shoulder, my hip, and my arm. My board shot off in some other direction.
After the water rushed past me, I took a quick self-survey. Not too bad. No horrific injuries as far as I could see, although I couldn’t see a lot. I was wedged ribs-deep in the rocks. Climbing to safety was impossible, so I was going to have to muster all my strength just to get back into the water.
I tried to wriggle myself free. At the same time, another wave — a much larger wave — began to rise and curl toward my position. I hoped to crouch as low as I could and cling to the rocks for stability. But that was never going to happen.
The swell hit from below first, pushing me out of the rocks as if I were nothing more than driftwood. I could feel myself ascending, and then the wave came over my head. I was suspended. I could feel the weightlessness and I remember thinking, this isn’t going to end well. Above me was a wall of water and below me were rocks.
I heard the next sensation more than I felt it — this loud bang as my body was tossed onto the rocks. Saltwater forced its way into my nose and down my throat as I tumbled, backward at first, then flipping once or twice. I didn’t know which way was up. I didn’t know where the next impact would land — my head, my face, my spine. I believed I was about to die.
The surfers beyond the jetty could not see me at all, so there is no one I can ask to explain what happened next. All I know is that when my head broke the surface of the water, I was about 10 feet clear of the jetty — not far enough to be safe, but still alive and at least no longer trapped in the rocks. My board, still tethered to my ankle, floated six or seven feet away. The shore lay about 50 yards in the other direction.
I was beyond exhausted. I needed my board to keep me afloat, but I lacked even the energy to reach down and grab the leash to pull it toward me. My wetsuit felt too tight. I couldn’t catch my breath. I couldn’t take a breath. I was hyperventilating. I didn’t know the extent of my injuries because I was in a state of shock. All I knew was I needed to get to shore or I was going to drown. And I needed to get away from those rocks.
I have spent most of my life on the West Coast, and more hours in the ocean than I can count. I have never feared it. I have always wondered at how a good swimmer can get caught in a riptide and be lost at sea. In those moments just after the ocean spit me out from the rocks, I gained a new understanding. I could see the shore, tantalizingly close. And yet, try as I might, I could not beckon it any closer. My muscles had nothing left to give, and the tide was pulling me in the other direction.
“Breathe, Bob,” I told myself. And that helped. With each slow, deep inhalation, I could feel a little life return to my arms and legs. I could not fight the current and get to the beach, but I could keep my head above the surface.
It was in these moments that I seriously began to contemplate death. I thought about not making it home to my wife, Debbie, who didn’t even know I had gone surfing that morning and who was probably still asleep. I thought about my daughters and the moments of their lives I would miss. I thought about some of the things I had always wanted to do with my life that would never happen.
I didn’t try to make any deals with God. Out there, at the mercy of the waves, the tides, and my weakness, I found a sense of calm. My situation, dire as it was, merely magnified a truth I had long-ago acknowledged: I was no less in control of my life or my safety or my future in that moment than at any other moment in my life.
I could have chosen not to surf that morning. I could have been nestled under my blanket at home instead, and if that was my moment to leave this world, I would have left it just the same. The fear and panic I was feeling was a reaction to the circumstances, not to the reality. I am never out of God’s hands and never outside of His sovereign plan. Out there on the water, helpless as I was, I found a deep comfort. If this was my day to enter eternity, then it was my day.
Two factors led to my escape that morning. The first was that there was no third wave. The sea was calm after twice throwing me into the rocks. That was a mercy.
The second factor was that I stopped trying to swim to shore. I knew I couldn’t make it. I also knew that on the other side of the jetty, there were surfers. If I could get to them, they could help me get to shore.
I turned around and swam out to sea. The jetty was mere feet to my left, but I was out of options. Within seconds, I reached my board — another mercy — and a few seconds later I was past the tip of the jetty, wrapping around to the safer side.
Now the waves and the tide were working with me. They pushed me shoreward. I gripped the board with my left arm and half paddled, half drifted past the Dredge’s strong break and into the soft cove of Marina Park Beach. I got about 10 steps onto the sand and collapsed. For 30 minutes, I just sat on the sand, sucking air, retching, and taking stock of my injuries.
I suffered lacerations to my left wrist and foot, which were bleeding enough to drip onto the sand. My wetsuit was sliced along the outside of my right thigh, and I could see that the slice had penetrated my skin. My right shoulder was scraped up and already bruising. The bruising on my hips took a couple of days to emerge.
I was never so grateful to walk through my front door — although Debbie was none too pleased to hear my story. She has only ever tolerated my surfing and would rather me trade my surfboard for a boogie board.
I’m undecided about that. But if I were to stop surfing, it wouldn’t be out of fear. At the same time, I would never put the Lord to the test (Matthew 4:7) by willingly, foolishly ignoring real danger.
But of all the lessons I learned in the ocean that morning, the most powerful — and the most exhilarating — is to never forget who it is that holds my life in His hands.
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