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April 2011 Issue
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Hindsight’s a fine thing

It’s funny how with hindsight you can pinpoint the exact moment things start to go pear-shaped. Especially when you consider that at the time you’re blissfully unaware that life is about to change for the worse.

I’ve been thinking about that quite a lot recently because I was involved in a near miss that left me quite shaken.

The day after a friend’s wedding in Whangamata, my wife Pelin and I, along with another friend, went for a swim at the southern end of Whangamata Beach where an estuary drains into the surf. There were no flags to swim between and surf live savers only sporadically rode their quad bikes down to survey the conditions.

The waves were huge – too big for my paddleboard – but we thought we could swim nonetheless. The water was behaving strangely, waves breaking in an unpredictable manner and coming at us from all directions. My friend Wade and I spotted a small rip and I commented on how strong it was as we waded through it. We didn’t go far, staying only thigh deep where others were also swimming and body surfing. This is the moment, with hindsight, that I realise we relinquished control over our own destiny.

But Pelin didn’t hear our conversation and coming from Turkey she was used to the calmer waters of the Mediterranean and Aegean seas. She’d never seen a rip before, let alone been caught in one.

After surfing a wave I looked around for Pelin. She was quite far out and I could see she was struggling so I swam out to her to help her to shore. It was only when I reached her and tried to get her to swim with me to the beach that I realised the trouble she, and now I, was in. We were both in the rip and the look of terror in Pelin’s eyes and the sound of panic in her voice as she realised she couldn’t make it back sent a cold shiver down my spine. This was do or die.

I dragged her and I pushed her, but for every stroke forward we were sucked another two back out to sea. Panic was the enemy and it was welling up inside both of us. Pelin could barely keep her head above water and the waves were tossing us around.

I was powerless to help so I waved my arms and shouted to Wade for assistance. He saw a surfer who was paddling in the shallows and asked if he could come to our aid.

The sight of the surfer on his big red surfboard paddling out to us was hugely uplifting. I told Pelin I had to head for shore because he wouldn’t be able to help us both and the longer I waited, the more tired I was getting.

I managed to catch a few waves and clamber to the beach. Pelin and the surfer looked to be struggling in the surf, but he soon had her on shore. He picked up his board and ran off down the beach before we could thank him properly. For a short while we were too shocked to speak, but then our emotions got the better of us and we hugged and discussed what had happened. In an instant, the glorious day at the beach had turned into a nightmare.

We’ve highlighted several other stories of near misses in the wild, from getting lost to being flooded. Each story will hopefully inform others and help clarify their thinking if they find themselves in similar situation. Each tale comes with key lessons learnt; it’s only fair that I share some from my recent experience, too

  • Trust your instincts: The rip looked and felt bad – we should never have entered the water
  • Swim between the flags: At a big surf beach, you’re inviting danger by swimming anywhere else
  • Understand how a rip works: We wasted too much energy swimming against the rip – it’s impossible. We should have swum to the side until we were out of it before making for the shore
  • You need a flotation device if you’re going to help: I should have gone for help rather than swim to Pelin. To do that would have been to make the toughest decision of my life, but in not doing it I put would-be rescuers at risk by making a bad situation worse

Thank you, mystery man on the big red surfboard – you saved our lives.