A slice of life (Undertow)

Another chapter in the series, :slice of my life" True exceprts taken to help me develope my writing skills.

            It was one of those awesome spring days in California that the post card companies make millions of dollars off of by taking a sun filled photograph of the beach for the tourist to devour when they visit the Santa Cruz area. I was not a tourist, but I was not about to let this spectacular day go by without creating my own postcard memory. And that’s exactly what I did, create a crystal clear memory.

The sky was a perfect baby blue, the sun was barely up and the temperature had already climbed into the 70’s and would get into the 80’s by noon. With the softest breeze coming through my open bedroom window, the Beatles playing on my stereo, I knew there was only one place I needed to be – the beach. Classes at Cupertino High School had to be skipped. A day like today called for the ocean, and the ocean was calling me. So I called my friends and developed a plan.

I would meet them in front of the school, load them into the car and we would head to the ocean.  Some hesitated, school was not something to be skipped, it was a duty to get good grades and prepare for the future. For me, the future held a day at the beach, and I needed some friends to go with me. Some, on the other hand, saw my wisdom - they could spend the rest of the day in class sweating out the details of US history or Psychology 101 and come home to menial chores that their parents expected them to complete before they got home from their day at work – OR – they could hop into “Big Blue”, a 1965 Ford Galaxie 500, 4 door sedan, that sat 8 of my closest friends very comfortably and cruise over the hill (the coastal Mt Range – the Santa Cruz Mountains), and arrive in heaven before noon.

With the plan hatched, and confirmed, I got out of bed, took a shower and prepared for a day at the ocean. Being a local, there is not much to prepare, you always have what you need in the trunk. After getting my personal belongings together, freshening my beach towel by grabbing a new one, and restocking the ice chest with refreshments I was prepared to get my friends.

As I drove to the high school, I could feel the sun glowing at my wise decision. Led Zepplin came through my speakers, helping me celebrate my mood for being so wise as to take advantage of the perfect spring day. At school every one grabbed their gear from their car trunks, or school lockers – yes some Californians keep beach gear in their school locker – and loaded it on top of my gear in “Big Blue’s” trunk. And we were off.

45 minutes later we were almost to Santa Cruz. “Shall we head down to Rio del Mar” I inquired as we were approaching the turn off to highway one south. “Totally!” was the unanimous response. It always was. Rio del Mar was our favorite beach to enjoy when skipping school on such a spectacular day. So I veered onto highway one south headed to my favorite beach – our favorite beach – and near death.

Rio del Mar is south of Santa Cruz, has wide, long beaches, that tourist often over look as it is near the small town of Aptos, sandwiched between the more popular destinations of Santa Cruz and Monterey. On even the best weekdays, like today, it is virtually free of any tourist leaving lots of space for the locals to enjoy. It is also a more difficult beach to find because as with most of Northern California beaches you must navigate down a cliff to get to the actual beach, and if you are not aware of the entrance, chances are you will never find it.

Excitement built as “Big Blue” pulled off the freeway at the Rio del Mar exit. “Do you think today will be good for body surfing?” I enquired. “It’s usually pretty flat when it’s this nice out” came the response over the Rolling Stones now coming out of the radio. “Let’s check the wave count before we head down” I responded as I turned down the radio. “Big Blue” knew the way by heart. Off the freeway, stay left, go to golf course and turn left just before the railroad tracks, down 1 mile and park – and that’s what she did. We all climbed out, grabbed our gear from the trunk, crossed the railroad tracks, stashed our gear by the stairs to the beach, and then headed it the cliffs edge to count the waves.

The breeze was stronger as it hit the cliff and headed straight up to get around the 200 foot obstacle placed in front of it. And as if it carried a prize, it brought us the ocean smells and sounds, rewarding us for our effort to come visit. We sat, soaking in the warmth of the sun. Some were already changing, some were putting on lotion, and some were oblivious, but I was into the wave count.

Waves come in cycles. You never know how many waves are in a cycle until you count. To do this you watch the pattern of the waves go through their cycles from small to large. Each wave that comes in from the Pacific counts as a number, and you count from the smallest to the largest until you have the pattern. I have found that most cycles are either 7 or 11, but they can be any number, however I find I usually end up on a 7 or 11. I also find the more waves in the cycle the better the body surfing will be as each wave will grow in height and strength at it races to its final destination along the shore. Once the waves complete a cycle with the largest claiming victory at the shore, the wave cycle repeats from smallest to largest, always with the same number in the cycle.

It takes a few cycles to get the count right as you are often distracted by a bikini, a friend, a seagull, a dog, a Frisbee, or just the majestic view you get of the entire Pacific Ocean from the cliff’s edge at Rio del Mar. However, I was here to enjoy this day and to body surf. “Eleven! I shouted, it is a totally awesome day for body surfing – let’s go!” And that we did. My friends took everything but my towel which I promptly pulled off of the “Beware of undertow – Swim at your own risk” sign at the head of the stair way that headed down the ravine through a small eucalyptus forest ending on the beach at the cliff’s bottom.

One can not help but to get excited when they hit that last stair and they touch the sand. But even with the excitement there are rituals to beach visits that must be observed. The first and most important is setting up the towels into a base camp for the day. Rio del Mar, like many beaches appears to be flat, but to the observed eye it undulates ever so slightly so that the prime spot is at the top of one of the undulations, not in a valley with no distractions between you and the water. You must also check for driftwood, dog poop and broken glass before declaring your spot for the day. And once laid down, a towel on the beach denotes to all, “this is my space”. Californians know a towel on the sand is as strong of a bind as a gold mining claim is to a miner – you just do not mess with it. Only tourists would invade the towel space, or even worse, walk across another person’s towel without being invited. It’s sacred, and my gang took this ritual very seriously, and we hunted for just the right spot.

Heading away from the houses at the edge of the beach to the north, we decided on our spot, and set up our camp for the day. Those who had not changed promptly did so, those that had already changed up on the cliff set up the juke box, and got out the munchies and drinks for the rest. The sun had reached its apex, bringing with it the 80 degrees I had predicted that morning in bed. And still, no cloud was to be seen. The surf pounded its eleven beat count to the music of The Who and we all laid out soaking up the sun, warming our insides getting thoroughly hot before heading to the water. Only tourists run to the water right when they arrive. A Californian knows that you need to be hot before heading into the ocean for even on a day like today, the water would be in the 50’s.

After soaking up the sun, telling stories and just enjoying the early afternoon, the group headed to the water. Now everyone enters the water in different ways. Some like walk into the ocean slowly letting the water creep up their body as they walk deeper into the waves. Me, I prefer the running straight in until, I cannot run any longer method; and then as a wave comes crashing towards me to dive into it plunging myself into the shock of the cold all at once. And this is what I did  - ran right in. The water was as expected, cold.

The current was strong today. Luckily I had played water polo and was considered an above average swimmer, water never brought me fear – even with a strong current, it only brought me enjoyment – for this is what made body surfing great, strong currents and big waves within a big cycle.

Body surfing is best when you get out past where the waves crest and come racing to their finish at the shore. The art is to count the waves in the cycle, to feel the current. The top of the wave moves towards the beach, the bottom, the undertow, takes all this energy back into the ocean to help formulate another wave in the cycle. Patience is the key, sure you can body surf on the little waves in the cycle, but if you want speed and distance for the maximum enjoyment, you wait. You wait for the eleventh wave in the cycle. And that’s what I was doing waiting. Like a cork in the ocean I was first pushed towards the beach and then pulled back to the deep sea as I floated about 100 feet from where the waves crashed onto the shore.

Having already caught many good waves, I wanted the ultimate ride before heading into the towel camp to warm up with my friends. Alone in the water I was looking towards the vast pacific counting the waves. You can see those building two and three deep, so while wave four is going by you, you can be looking at wave seven or eight in the cycle. I wanted eleven.  And I would have eleven.

Eleven approached. I turned and swam towards shore as fast as I could. The real art of body surfing is to swim with the wave as fast as you can, and you need to start swimming before the wave gets to you with strong strokes to build your own speed. As the wave approaches it pulls you up its face to the crest, and if you have enough speed, and assume the proper position – arms at side but out to catch as much water surface as possible, with your body stiff like a surf board, you will body surf. And if you, like I did with this wave, do it properly, you will pick up speed and travel as fast as the wave right at the crest of it. And this is where I was, at the crest of wave eleven, an 8 foot monster traveling to its final destination before crashing onto the shore. Everything was perfect, or so it seemed.

All good things must come to an end, this includes waves. And when a wave comes to an end, it crashes onto the shore with a thunderous splash dropping whatever is at its crest onto the sea bottom, before spreading out and up the beach. And this is where I was, at the crest of an eight foot wave, about to be dropped to the sea floor like a rag doll.

Dropped is not the proper word, thrown and stepped on is a better description. My wave let me loose and I came down, arms at side, back straight like a surf board, down the eight feet, face first onto the sea bed. You only have a second, if that. Not enough time to prepare for the fall, my face hit first. But the wave doesn’t wait, it keeps on coming and it covered me like an eight foot think wet blanket and rolled me up the shore. And this is when I first learned what that sign I used to hold my towel off the dirt really meant, “Beware of undertow”! The Ocean is the most powerful force on earth.  You’re a fool to think you can tame it, over power it, or even control it. I was a fool. As the water above me rushed towards the shore, the undertow near the sandy floor of the ocean pulled at me, wanting me as its a prize to never be claimed again! Pressed against the bottom I clawed at the floor trying to secure a hold and not be dragged further into the sea. Impossible, I was rolled, tumbled, and bounced backwards deeper and deeper along the bottom. The ocean scraped me along its bottom grating my skin in a hundred different places. No matter how hard I fought, I could not get off the bottom of the ocean, away from that rocky  bottom that felt like sand paper. I could not gain control of myself. I was the rag doll bouncing deeper into the oceans depths. I realized I was in serious trouble!

  It’s times like this I do my best thinking. Time slows down, thing become clear. Realizing I had no control I stopped fighting the ocean – I would never win. I allowed it to take me where it would while concentrating on my mental air gauge. “Still doing good, I can get out of this if I just relax”, I thought. But I was pulled deeper, rolled several more times, and never did the ocean let its grip go. My mental air gauge was nearing empty, my lungs were sending messages to my brain that it was time to refill – I was in serious trouble! And backwards, and deeper I went.

And then suddenly the grip let go. All motion sensation stopped. My air was out. My lungs were screaming that they wanted more air. I opened my eyes to orient myself. I did not know which way was up or down, or even where the shore was! I found myself looking up from the ocean floor towards the surface; the sun was my beacon, fifty feet above my head, teasing me and my lungs that air was in this direction. How long had I been under water? I had no idea, but I did know that my mental air gauge was on empty and this was an emergency situation.

When your fifty feet below water it takes a while to get to the surface. When your fifty feet below water, and have just been scrapped along the bottom of the ocean, and are out of air. You do not have a while. I needed air now. All I wanted to do was breath in. And that was all I could not do. So I swam, I swam for my life. My mental air gauge not only read empty, my lungs were now a vacuum.  To prevent from breathing in and drinking the Pacific Ocean I blew out.

Hold your breath until you want to breath, and then hold it longer until you really want to breath, and then hold it even longer – then do anything for fifty feet – you start to get dizzy  - you start to get stars in your head – you start to black out. And this is what was happening to me. The sun I had seen at the bottom of the ocean was turning into thousands of stars; my legs and arms were not working and moving me at the speed in which I wanted them to. The surface of the ocean did not appear to be getting closer. My mental air gauge was reading critical!

At ten feet from the surface I might as well have been a mile from it. I was out of air, I had used every ounce of oxygen in my lungs and there was no more of this precious chemical to power me upward. My arms and legs were not responding and my vision was flashing stars like a sparkler on the 4th of July. I just wanted to breathe and that was the one thing I could not do!

I cannot recall how I got through the last ten feet. I should have been dead. Perhaps it was momentum from the first 40 feet, perhaps it was the salt water adding buoyancy to me, perhaps it was my Guardian Angel pulling me up the last 10 feet – I’ll never know. But somehow, I made it from the depths of the ocean floor to the surface, and I came crashing through fighting for air. My lungs having been in a vacuum state, quickly sucked in that sweet fresh air, over and over; I had just been through the toughest fight of my life. And I breathed the air deeply, not able to get enough. Over and over, I brought that air into my lungs while I treaded water enjoying the feeling of oxygen rushing in and out of my lungs, looking out towards to Pacific, waiting for my vision to clear away the stars that had been going off and my muscles to stop quivering.

As I gained my vision and slowly realized I was going to live, I turned to get my bearings. Behind me over 200 yards away was the beach where I had been swimming and body surfing only a minute, maybe two ago. The ocean had dragged me along its bottom for over 200 yards depositing me there. If I had not been so fortunate to be a good swimmer, I would never have had the chance to reflect on this. I was within seconds of becoming crab food down there. Sure I may have eventually floated to the surface but that was even doubtful at the depth I was left at. I lay back in the water, floating on my back, looking up at the sun, relaxing and breathing, thankful to be alive; and realized for the first time in my 18 years of living on this planet what exactly what people meant by saying, “Beware of undertow – Swim at your own risk”!


The End

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