I’m back home gazing out the window at frost glimmering in the morning sun, after two weeks visiting friends in Hawaii – where a combination of crummy internet access, writer’s block, the flu, and the desire to just relax and visit with friends and family kept me from updating either blog.
The trip held many highlights and here’s the story of one (or was it a low light?)
“There’s basically just three rules for swimming in this water,” said David as he picked his way over the lava rocks leading down the trail.
“Number One, don’t panic. Number two, don’t panic. And number three – don’t forget rules numbers one and two.”
He turned to face me shading his eyes from the sun, and I laughed as I watched the beams dance over the shimmering water.
“Sounds like all we need to know,” I replied.
We’d been here on the big island of Hawaii for a week, and I still hadn’t jumped in the water. After touching down at the airport we hopped in our rental car and drove across the island to our friends’ place in the Puna district.
Nestled just south of Hilo on the eastern side of the island (otherwise known as ‘the rainy side’), Puna is not known for its white sandy beaches or surf and swim spots. But lush jungle, brilliant flowers and abundant fruit draw unconventional sorts who are looking to live the island life – full or part time.
We were staying with our friends M and S – just blocks from the one accessible beach in the area. I’ve been warned not to publicize this beach’s name too broadly, so we’ll just call it K Beach.
Anyway – K is a beautiful, albeit somewhat shaded, black sand beach. Powerful wave sets crash to the shore most days because the sand drops off just a few feet in. Apparently, when there is a big drop off like this it means the waves don’t have a chance to mellow and roll on in. They slam onto the beach with full oceanic energy.
But some intrepid locals don’t let this keep them out of the water. Even on the roughest days a few swimmers slash through the surf. I even saw one women standing on her head in the foaming waves.
David, who lives here several months out of the year, revels in these waves.
“I’m addicted,” he enthused about the rush of meeting those waves with only his bare body.
He’d been telling me stories about playing in the waves for years, and now that I’d finally made it over for a visit I looked forward to plunging in.
We climbed the steep trail down that first afternoon and gazed at the crashing surf. A few heads bobbed in the roiling waves.
“Hmm, it’s a little strong today,” David admitted. “You guys might want to wait a couple of days until it settles down a bit.”
With that he shucked off his clothes and ran into the water. We cringed and covered our eyes as we watched the humongous waves throw his fragile body closer and closer to a large, jagged lava rock.
I was terrified of this water.
And I knew that I had to brave those waves. So much of my inner work this year has focused on facing my fears. Pushing past all of these self-imposed obstacles that have stifled me for so long. And kept me safe and comfortable.
But I don’t have a death wish. We’d be here for a while. I could wait for a day when the surf seemed a bit kinder.
And today was that day. Rounding the bend and we could see the entire beach. Finally the surf had softened enough to imagine actually stepping in.
More than a dozen swimmers bobbed in the waves, on the first truly sunny day we’d experienced so far. The water gleamed blue and turquoise, and waves rolled in, still powerful but just a tad more inviting. And it was early enough on the east-facing beach that a touch of sunshine still caressed the sand.
Now, I’m not a total newbie to ocean swimming, I know about jumping and diving the waves. I’ve done plenty in my time – but mostly when I was a kid in the Atlantic Ocean. The water’s way too cold for actual swimming here on the North Coast of California, although plenty of friends wet suit up and hit the water with surfboards. I’m not a surfer, and I’m definitely out of practice.
So I was glad David had offered us a little hand holding for today’s swim. One of the most frightening aspects of swimming at K Beach was the warnings about how it can be so hard to get out of the surf and back to shore.
There’s an art apparently to catching just the right waves in – and getting back to solid ground before a huge one tackles you and turns you into a load of laundry in a foaming dryer.
After rolling out our sarongs on the sand, Ciel and I headed for the waves. No dilly dallying. I knew if I put it off I might chicken out.
Although I’d felt sick with a cold the day before, today I felt better. Strong. And besides, who knew if the surf would be this low again?
And we’re in! After a few minutes of standing on the shore while foam swirls around our ankles and David instructs us on the technique of digging just one heel into the sand (not two!) to prevent being knocked over – we splash on out.
Whoa! Oh yeah. From waist-high water to instantly in way over my head. Exhilaration washes over me as I dog paddle up and down the roiling waves in “the safe zone” (beyond the break.)
I did it! Oof! Splat. A rogue high one splashes into my face filling my mouth with salt water. No matter. I can handle this. What a rush to glide up and down on these waves that crash together in a maelstrom of wind, water and might.
Ciel and I catch each other’s eye and give each other the high five signal. We’re in the water!
But, what’s this? Are we being pulled further out into the ocean? Is that an undertow?
“I think we’re getting carried out,” I yell over to her, motioning to David several feet towards shore. “Let’s head that way.”
Glurg. More water in the mouth. But I’m doing good. This is cool. We’ve got this.
David beckons. “It’s more fun if you play with the waves a little.”
Umm , maybe. I was pretty happy just bobbing along.
After a few moments of second-guessing where and when those waves will break, I’m feeling ready to paddle on back to safety. I gaze at the expanse of roiling water in front of me freakishly green and beautiful in the sunlight.
What were those tips he told me about how to get out?
“Are you ready to head back to shore?” asks David. We both nod gratefully.
“Here’s one! Paddle!”
Ciel and I wheel our arms in the water, riding forward on the wave. And get sucked right back into the same spot as we watch it curve toward the shore.
“This one’s better! Time for the crawl.”
Right. Swim! Swim! My arms seek the momentum of the wave as it carries me a few inches closer to the sanctuary of the shoreline.
“Are we still in the safety zone?” Ciel asks.
I turn to her to tell her we can’t have both. It’s either safety zone or paddle back to shore. That was the whole problem in the first place. Didn’t she get it?
But another wave bears forward, sucking the words out of my mouth. Heart beginning to pound I turn to swim with it.
Wow, this is hard. So close and yet so far.
Another swell splashes into my face, filling my nose and mouth. I open my mouth to breathe and realize I can’t quite get a good breath.
But another wave is coming. It’s time to paddle.
“Are you okay?” David looks back at me, a concerned look on his face. Oh no. I don’t want to be that girl. The old lady. The wimp.
I nod, trying not to gasp. “I’m fine. Just can’t quite catch my breath.”
This is okay, I tell myself. Remain calm. The worst thing that can happen is you’ll get a little banged up on the rocks. You’re not dying here.
I turn. A new set is coming in and a huge wave is about to break on us. I get ready to dive, but can’t get the necessary breath.
Oh no! I’m going to get trounced in the surf.
I almost make it but don’t have enough strength to dive right through. The foam tosses me around a bit, but I’ve been in worse. My head bobs up and I gasp, trying to get some air.
“Are you OK?” I see Ciel frowning my way.
“Dive!” David yells pointing again.
Another even huger wave is right there. I’m gasping from breath now but nothing to do but plunge in.
Pummel, pummel, rumble, rumble. I bob up again amazingly unscathed, just tossed around. Both Ciel and David are looking worried as they stare at me. (Ciel told me later that my face had become an alarming shade of purple.)
“Okay, let’s get this one!” I jump into the one that’s just crashed, swimming toward shore for dear life. Just a little further. I reach down with my toe. Not quite yet.
Ah, finally. I can feel rocks and sand. Gasp. I can’t breathe. My heart is pounding. I’m getting sucked back out. Keep swimming.
Okay, I can touch. I’m almost there. I. Just. Can’t. Breathe.
Shakily I stand upright. Take a step. Almost to the water’s edge. Do I have the strength to walk? I’m still gasping for breath. A smaller wave rolls in, hits my calves and knocks me down. Shit. I can’t get up.
David pulls me to my feet. God, this is so embarrassing. Yes, I’m fine. Really. I’m okay.
Still shaking I exit the water, I can see the sarong laying in the sun. Not too far. I can make it.
No I can’t. I collapse onto the dry rocks, breathing heavily.
“Really, really I’m fine!” I shoo away the concerned inquiries. Just need to catch some breath. My chest feels like it’s being squeezed in a giant vise.
My throat now feels raw and sore and my ears throb. My stomach clenches with the influx of salt water and my chest is squeezed in the grip of an evil giant. I sipped my water bottle weakly, waiting to feel semi-normal again. I expect to recover within five or ten minutes.
That’s about when I find the strength to crawl back to the sarong and collapse again.
An hour later I’m finally feeling normal enough to answer questions. No, I didn’t get beat up. No I didn’t feel panicked. Not quite sure what happened out there. I just suddenly couldn’t catch my breath. And one needs one’s breath to fight those waves!
I didn’t feel psychologically scared or panicked, but somehow my body clenched up into panic mode.
So much for the three essential rules.
Get Right Back On It
I just knew I had to jump in again before I left the island. If I didn’t I’d probably never want to brave the waves of K Beach again.
We made a plan for 9 a.m. the next morning – when the tide was due to be low and perhaps the waves would remain calmer. I woke Ciel at 8 and we prepared to head down to the beach again.
But it typical island fashion, 9 came and went with no sign of David. We wandered over to M & S’s cottage to bask in the sun and debate whether to go down to the beach on our own.
The odd thing was, although I had awoken feeling pretty good, shortly after 9 a.m. my chest began to feel tight again – as if my body knew what I planned to subject it to! I grew increasingly uncomfortable – I’d never had a symptom like this before. Is this what a heart attack feels like, I wondered?
But when David did appear with the news that the surf was light, I decided it was now or never. You know, gotta get right back on the horse and all that.
And, he was right. It was a gorgeous morning, the waves even lighter than when we’d arrived the day before. No way could I get knocked down today. I needed to prove to myself that I could do this. Too bad I feel a little sick, but this could be my last chance.
And paddling out to the waves, I felt pretty good again. This was going to work. I wouldn’t stay in that long.
And it was much better. No rogue swells splashed into my mouth. But I could feel my energy draining as I paddled about. And suddenly my chest tightened again, beginning to feel squeezed in that vise. Ugh, time to go in.
It took a few tries, but with David’s help I paddled safely to shore – thankfully avoiding embarrassing collapses this time. But my chest felt squeezed and painful. Once again I crumpled on my sarong, sipped my water and waited to feel back to myself.
My ears throbbed and I blew my nose. So much for having kicked this cold. It stalked me with various symptoms for the remainder of the trip.
Is There A Moral To The Story?
I’m still not sure exactly what happened to me that first day out there in K’s waves. Or even why I felt compelled to tell this story.
Sure, the waves suddenly got much larger. Sure, we somehow ended up in a confluence that tossed us about in a manner that was exactly what David was trying to avoid. Sure, I was a little sick that day (was the breathing problem a result of the sickness, or was the return of the sickness a result of the trauma?) Sure, I’m a newbie with those big waves.
But does it all have more to do with my fear and resistance to pushing through it?
I so wanted to discover a new and braver self once I’d plunged into those waves. Instead it brought up all my issues about control and loss of it, and perhaps a resistance to going with the flow. I was decidedly not ‘one with the waves’ that afternoon.
Looks like I might have a little more work to do before I conquer fear and resistance.