Killer Waves





Kauai has 58,000 permanent residents and about 75,000 visitors a month. Eight people on the island drowned in 2003; on the very last day of the year, I was almost No. 9.

What was I thinking?

. . .

Here’s the surf …

The sun was finally started burning through the gray haze of the past two days on New Year’s Eve. Gage, who had been nursing a cold, also for the past two days, felt a bit sunnier too. We walked over to Anahola Beach. I brought along a snorkel mask and fins.

The water was too murky for good snorkeling and still a bit too chilly on the north end of the beach. We headed toward the south end where the sun had been shining longer.

Anahola Beach has an easy slope and fine sand, making it really nice for a morning stroll. A reef protects the shore on the north end. About halfway, a stream empties out. Past the stream, the surf is a lot stronger.

Gage and I stopped to watch the body surfers. They were just kids, 12, maybe 13 years old. The two of them made it look easy. Their used their body boards to carve measured planks down the way.

“I could so do that,” I said.

“Uh-uh,” replied Gage

“Oo-oo, look at those kids body-surfing,” I said, pointing down the beach.

“Don’t even think about it,” Gage replied. “You’re not going out there.”

“I might, just a little bit,” I answered.

“Oh, no, you’re not,” he scolded.

I kicked some sand with my toe.

“Man, I never get to go body-surfing,” I whined. “All the other kids get to, but I don’t …”

“If all the other kids jumped off a cliff, would you?” Gage asked.

“I would if it was fun,” I pouted.

“Well, think again, bub. You’re not going out there.”

“We’ll see …”

We turned to walk back to a good spot and laid out our towels. I propped myself on my elbows and watched the surf. It was choppy far out, but closer in, it didn’t look so bad.

“I’m going in, just a little ways,” I said.

Gage arched his eyebrow at me and gave me a disapproving “hmmm” but didn’t object.

In over my head?

I waded in. The bottom was really shallow. I kept going — ankle deep, shin deep, knee deep.

I got to where the waves were breaking and looked back. … Wow, I’m pretty far out.

But the water was still only waist deep. I let some waves crash into my chest, and got knocked back a couple of steps. Strong, but not strong enough to body-surf.  I ventured out farther, slowly, jumping up as the waves came crashing over me.

The highest waves were over my head now, but in between swells I could still touch bottom. The waves were really good for surfing now. I caught a couple of good ones, my body gliding along on the crest of a wave.

After a few waves, I dug my toes into the sand and called Gage to take my picture. Seeing how small he looked, I decided I had better not go any farther. I dug my toes into the sand, confident that I was still safe.

The surf was really rough now. Some waves carried me a good ways, but sometimes they went right over me and I didn’t make any progress toward the shore.

I rode a pretty good wave, and all of a sudden, the bottom dropped out. I couldn’t touch. … No problem, I thought. I just hit a deeper spot. I’ll catch this next wave and get to more shallow ground. But the wave went over me and I was still treading water.

Okay, get the next one.

Same thing happened. …

Tried again. …

Same thing.

I looked toward the shore for Gage. He wasn’t there! On the next cresting wave, I rose up and caught a glimpse of him — way off to my left. I was drifting sideways, not toward shore.

The waves kept coming, not giving me any time to catch my breath. I was treading and trying to swim with each incoming wave. A hundred different thoughts washed over me as well.

Okay, I must be in a riptide … Swim sideways, that’s what you’re supposed to do …

I turned and swam parallel to the shore. I didn’t seem to be making much headway, but I looked up toward Gage, and he was even farther to my left than before. He didn’t even realize I was having trouble.

I kept trying to ride a wave in closer, but I didn’t seem to make any progress.

… I’m getting tired … I can’t keep this up …

A really big wave caught me off-guard. I went under. I saw the bubbles rising as I was sinking and the light from above fading.

Shit! This is exactly how it looks in the movies when someone is drowning … No, no, no, no, no.

I kicked hard.

… Head above water, head above water … I’m in trouble … I need help … There must be someone around … But there’s only Gage … He still doesn’t know I’m in trouble … I’d better yell …


… I don’t think he heard me … And even if he does, what’s he going to do? He can’t rescue me. We’ll both end up in trouble … Is there a boat nearby? No …


I think he heard me that time … He’s getting up … Don’t come out here, don’t come out here … I can’t drown … It will ruin his vacation … He’ll hate Hawaii forever … And what about Mom and Dad? and Terri (my sister)?

Shit, the paper will say “Iowa tourist drowns on New Year’s Eve” …

… So tired …

Dammit, I am NOT going to be a headline … I am NOT going to die this way …

C’mon dammit … Make all those workouts count for something, all those weights. Pump those arms! I didn’t lose 25 pounds for nothing. Catch this wave. Swim, SWIM!

… Okay, I think I’m getting somewhere … Where’s Gage? No! He’s heading out this way …

C’mon. I can do this … I have the stamina … I have the muscles …

Here comes a wave. Ride it! Go go go! … Wait, my toe! It touched! Okay, again! Go go go …


YES! I felt sand!

Gage was getting closer. He was in up to his knees … He still looked so far away though …

Swim, dammit, swim … Yes! I’m touching!

Okay, get a foothold …

All right, keep your head up … Keep going … Swim! … Both feet touching now … so tired …

I think I can stand now … water’s only up to my waist … oh, but I’m too tired to stand … whoa, that wave knocked me down …

What? Oh, it’s Gage, grabbing my arm, pulling me up … dragging me …

There’s the shore … almost there … almost … unh …

I flopped down on my stomach and my elbows. I took in huge gulps of air.

I was so out of breath … I was gasping …

This is what “gasping for air” is like …

I lay there for a good 10 minutes. Two other Mahina Kai guests came strolling up the beach. They started talking to us but I couldn’t focus on anything except breathing. My mouth tasted like salt water. It was getting drier and drier. I was so thirsty.

I managed to get to my knees. Gage went to get our towels. I tried to follow him but I sank to my knees again.

… I’m so tired …

We were at least a mile from Mahina Kai. I was not sure I can make it, but what choice did I have? Then our fellow guest said that they drove to the beach access point just on the other side of the stream — 150 yards, tops. We could drive their car back. I mumbled my gratitude — it was all I could muster — and started trudging in that direction.

My mouth was parched, my legs were rubber, my head was pounding, and I was on an adrenaline rush like I’d never felt before. But I was exhausted and I still hadn’t caught my breath. Back at Mahina Kai, I stripped off my swimsuit outside our patio door. A bucket of sand fell with it. Another bucket clung to my body. I got into the bathtub and started drinking as water from the shower head cascaded over me.

Water … water …


Textbook case of what not to do

I’m a decent swimmer, but obviously being from Kansas, I don’t have a lot of experience in open water. Even 10 years of living in Florida didn’t help because the Gulf Coast doesn’t get very high surf.

It turns out that my situation is a textbook case in what NOT to do. I disobeyed nearly every guideline on beach safety.

From: Kaua’i Beach Safety Guide

1. Swim in lifeguarded areas.

Nope. If there was a lifeguard at Anahola Beach Park, I was too far away from him. And I was probably 100 yards from the kids we saw body-surfing.

2. Watch the ocean for at least 20 minutes before entering.

Nope. I watched it for maybe 10. Not enough time to notice hazardous conditions.

3. Always swim with a buddy.

Nope. Gage stayed on the beach.

4. Never swim near the mouth of a river.


The bottom line: I was about as stupid as you can get.

And I should have listened to Gage in the first place.

* * *

At the Mahina Hai resort where I talked about my experiences with other guests, Dale said later that this may be a life-changing experience. And Paul and I talked about the deeper meaning of it all.

Was I lucky? Was it fate? Was I saved because I’m destined for greater things? Was it divine intervention

Beats the hell out of me …

I’ve been agnostic for a long time. I’ve never been sure what I really believed. Does God exist or doesn’t he? Are religions based on anything except a culture’s need for a moral code and for simple answers to life’s fundamental questions? These are issues I’ve pondered for a long time.

So when an occasion arises that I could have — some would say should have — called on a higher power, I didn’t. I never called out to God or Jesus or Allah or Buddha or even the Hawaiian god Lono to save me.

I found the strength within myself. Pride, stubbornness and determination (and trying not to embarrass myself or cause pain in others) pushed me. Well, all that and a fear of dying. But no one saved me except myself.

Doesn’t that, then, make me an atheist? No, I don’t think so. I’ll keep an open mind, but I now I’m more certain of the strength of my convictions.

* * *

So what changes?

I’m reluctant to say I’m going to turn my life around. The fact is, I have a pretty good life. And it’s hard to plot out a new course as I’m sitting here trying to survive another frigid Iowa winter. Time and distance are causing the initial feelings of relief and awe to fade as fast as my tan did. So I guess if anything changes, it will be that I’m more determined to enjoy life — more time with friends and family, more travel, more wine, more lovin’ my man.