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A Sunny day at the Beach

By Todd Underwood

     As I sit in my office working on the song I am going to sing at my friend David Edgar's wedding in just a few short days, I am reminded of the time David and I almost got to experience first hand what it is like to drown. It's a crazy story, all true, albeit somewhat unbelievable.

     You see, it was a dark and stormy night… well, ok, actually it was a beautiful bright sunshiny day at the beach where my friend, Boris, and I had been beach lifeguards for the past three years while attending college. Boris and I had been on duty all morning and in agony had been watching the 8-10 foot surf pound the shoreline. We were avid surfers and couldn't stand to be cooped up in the tower all day while all the great surf went to waste.

     On Occasion, we would switch off an hour at a time allowing the other "guard" to catch some waves. Boris was feeling a little tired and decided not to go out on this day as the surf was about as big as we had ever seen it. I, however, was not the least bit tired and my adrenaline was pumping from sitting in the tower watching this "hawaiin" like surf rolling in. Our mutual friend David was there and was eager to paddle out. I needed no coercion to get me out in the water. After all, I was a beach lifeguard, and nothing could happen to me.

     As David and I paddled out, we marveled at how strong we were to be able to paddle out into surf this big and not get pushed back into shore. We felt that it didn't matter what size the waves were, we could handle anything. While paddling, a few sets with about eight foot faces came through and we were anticipating some great surfing. The paddle out was longer than usual because the larger the waves are, the farther out they break. By the time we made it to the lineup (where the waves break), we were a good 1/3 of a mile from the beach, much further than usual, and only a few hundred feet from a kelp bed that normally seemed way out to sea.

     Dave and I sat up on our boards waiting for the perfect wave. I saw an eight footer coming, dropped to my board and paddled hard to catch it. I stood up and slid down the face, accelerating the whole time. I was hoping Boris was watching with the binoculars from the beach so he could see the huge wave I was riding. Seeing as how the paddle out was so long, I decided to turn off the back of the wave so I could get back to the lineup faster. In the meantime, David was nowhere in sight.

     Unfortunately for me, I had not followed the cardinal rule of never taking the first few waves of a set. The problem with taking the first few waves is that sets usually come in six, eight, or even ten. If a surfer takes one of the first waves, when he gets off that wave and turns around, he is faced with the onslaught of the next half-dozen or so waves. This is especially dangerous when the waves are big for obvious reasons, but it is also dangerous because the surfer has expended his energy on the wave he just rode and needs a minute to catch his breathe. As I turned to face the oncoming waves, I pushed hard, using all my strength to get through the approaching waves.

     Just as I cleared the last one, I could see David about 100 yards further out than me. The waves had been so big that he had been paddling out the whole time I was riding, and he had just made it over the last wave (usually the biggest) without it crashing on his head. As I paddled towards David, he continued paddling out to sea. I wondered if he knew something I didn't. Over the next few minutes we both continued paddling out with David about 100 yards further than me just about to reach the kelp beds.

     Then, the inevitable happened. The horizon started shifting as it did when a set of waves was coming. I could see this set was going to be big. In the distance I could see the undulating kelp with David fast approaching. I paddled harder and harder hoping to make it over the first wave. This was a rogue set. Every so often, ranging from a few hours to a few days, the swells coming in from all different directions would line up producing a single set of waves double the normal wave height of the day, and this was it!

     My breathing was fast and heavy and my heart was pounding as I reached the first wave and the kelp bed simultaneously, just clearing the crest of the twelve foot wave. Ahead were rolling hills of water extending as far as I could see. David had disappeared between the swells but was clearly in a better position being much further out than me. As I paddled ferociously, I feared getting tangled in the kelp. I thought about turning around and trying to catch one of the monstrous waves but just wasn't out far enough to be able to turn around and not have the wave break on my head, knocking me unconscious. So, I continued paddling out as fast as I could. Each time I barely cleared the crests as the waves kept getting bigger. My vision was limited to the wave in front of me because of their size and I could only wait to clear the next crest to see what I would have to face next.

     As I came over the top of the fifth wave I saw the biggest wave I had ever seen in person coming towards me. It had to be at least fifteen feet and it was a futile attempt to make it out beyond the set. This wave was going to break directly on top of me and I couldn't do anything about it. It meant certain unconsciousness and probably death. I had only one last out, and that was to get off my board, submerge myself and swim for the bottom of the ocean. The only problem was that I was completely out of breathe. But, that didn't matter. I figured my friend Boris, the other lifeguard, had been watching this whole fiasco through his binoculars and would be out to rescue me in no time. I took one last look at the blue sky and clouds, took a quick breathe and dove for the bottom. Unfortunately, I forgot to untie the leash that held my ankle to my floating surfboard. As the wave came over the top of me, I was protected in the water below, but my surfboard was caught in the wave. Instead of surfacing behind the wave and calmly taking a breathe to dive under the next wave, my surfboard leash tightened up on my ankle yanking me towards the shore with tremendous velocity. I was sure my leash would snap but it didn't. The drag from my body eventually pulled my surfboard out of the wave and I surfaced gasping for air just as the next even larger wave was about to come down on my head.

     If I didn't get deep under the water in the next few seconds this wave would suck me up and over the falls and probably drown me. I took another breathe and dove for the bottom. Once again, my board got caught up in the wave, dragging me back and towards the surface. By now I couldn't hold my breathe anymore. I was scared, winded, and needed Oxygen badly! As I hit the surface I turned once again to see an even bigger wave, at least sixteen feet tall, about to break on my head. I was dizzy and felt as though I could no longer hold my breathe, but once again, I submerged myself. As I got below the wave I started to feel as though I was going to pass out. I had fought so hard in such a short period of time and my body was exhausted to the point where I could go no more. My lungs hurt terribly and my muscles were aching all over.

     Just then a deep sense of calm came over me. My mind started thinking it would be a whole lot less pain if I was to just breathe in the water and give up the fight. I wondered if this was what it was like to drown. Watching movies and reading books had led me to believe it was a horrible excruciating experience, but to me it seemed like it would me much more pleasurable to drown than to continue to fight. I let myself float and was just about to take in a mouthful of water when I broke the surface. Immediately I took in much needed gulps of air and noticed there were no more waves coming. That wave had been the last of the rogue set. It had dragged me over halfway to the shore, all underwater. I hobbled onto my board barely able to move my arms and made for the beach as fast as I could.

     I didn't make it to shore before the next set came, but I was far enough in to ride the white water all the way to the sand. As I limped up onto the sand I thought for sure my buddy Boris would come running over to administer first aid, but no one was there. I laid on the sand for what seemed like hours until David, finding a break between sets, had paddled in. He had seen me disappear and was glad I was at the bottom somewhere. By now I had recuperated enough to get up and walk, but my back and lungs still ached immensely. David and I had a long walk, having drifted quite far from the tower where Boris was at. After about ten minutes we made it back to the safety of the tower. As David and I climbed the steps, we called out to Boris to tell him of our adventure and ask him if he had seen everything why he didn't come out. Not surprisingly, there was no one in the water at the time, and there was no answer as we entered the top to find Boris gayly dozing the sleepy afternoon away!

Other Frontier Trails

Surfing Pictures

Large Waves

Todd Surfing

Todd Surfing

Todd after a long hard day in the water

View from the lifeguard tower looking north

View from the lifeguard tower looking south

Todd and Boris in the early days

Todd (a few years later)
preparing to enter the water

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