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rip_blog2 This time last week I thought I was going to die. At least, I was trying to ignore the thought that I was going to die by telling myself everything was fine. Fine. Fine. F-i-n-e….

I chewed it over so many times as my arms dug deep through the water that the word lost all meaning, suddenly reduced to empty hollow letters tripping off my lips, just a noise I was making to drown out the sound of my blood pounding. Which was telling me everything was not. Fine.

It had all started so well. A quiet afternoon, a big winter swell, light offshores. Those are the best days, the unexpected days, the ‘am I really going to be this lucky,’ days where you’re stood surveying a near empty lineup at 2.30pm on a work day with the sun shafting through the February murk, head high faces flying off the river mouth.

And I felt lucky out back too. For a while. A few sets in and I had had my pick of fast punchy rights, garnering nods of encouragement from the handful in the water, a confidence boost for someone like me; no longer a novice but far from accomplished. Then the chop started. I didn’t notice it at first, too busy looking along the beach to the left hand peak banking up and rolling in. Someone took off; tucked in tight as spray flew back, dancing forward heel over toe, with arms up high and smile stretched wide. I smiled too, closed my eyes for a second to feel the warm sunshine and breathed deep. This is why I live here, I thought, this is what it’s about.

That’s when it happened, or I should say, when I realised it was happening. I looked around; I was at least 30 metres further out than everyone else and moving fast. Out to sea. I started to paddle left, scooping full, rounded strokes to draw myself out of the current. No luck. I tried paddling in. Fifty strokes, one hundred strokes. I had to stop to breathe. I wasn’t moving anywhere. Now I was worried. I was tired. And cold. And no-one was with me. The other surfers were wide of the river mouth, contentedly waiting for the next set to roll in, their eyes fixed on the advancing swell ahead of them, not looking in my direction at all. Every time I lifted my head to check they seemed further away; the boarded up lifeguard hut perched on the cliff top impossibly small. I tried to calm myself; perhaps all it would take was a few big strokes before I was free and laughing and back in the game – but the more I paddled the more I realised that there was no more game, or that this was the game now, paddling hard, then harder, to avert disaster.

Overhead I could hear the dull thud of a Sea King on manoeuvres and I found myself wondering what I would need to do to catch its attention. If I stopped to wave I would lose all the ground I had made up and anyway that would be like giving in, like admitting I shouldn’t have come out in the first place, like saying yes, I’ve taken on too much here, I can’t cope. Although as the relentless paddling sapped my strength and the cold wash of reality flooded my wetsuit I knew that that was the truth; I couldn’t cope, I wasn’t moving – I was losing the battle and losing energy. Fast.

rip_blog_1It started to hurt. I felt cheated; betrayed by my favourite break which I had surfed for years and which just shouldn’t be treating me like this. I’d have expected it of Brazil, where I learnt the powerful channel at Saquarema should be handled with care, or in Lanzarote where I was warned to stay vigilant of Playa de Famara’s rip which had dragged more than a few surfers out to sea. But here, where I was at home, where I grew up riding whitewater on my bellyboard, where my Gran fished from the rocks in the 1930s; this place was part of the family and family shouldn’t treat you so bad.

Which is when I worked it out. It’s teaching me a lesson, I thought as I stopped for a moment desperate to catch my breath before dropping my jaw to my board, digging deep and ploughing on. I’d got complacent, got cocky, forgot to stay aware; too wrapped up in feeling smug to pay attention, to pay my dues. I found myself apologising, as the last gasps of energy drained through my limbs, promising not to do it again, not to forget who was the boss out here.

It felt like forever before I could make out the concerned features of one of the other surfers; offering a tentative thumbs up as my spent arms slapped the water to draw me the final few feet forward. I nodded back, too tired to speak, silently catching whitewater into the shallows.

Sand has never felt so good.

Lying on the shore, lungs stinging, I could still hear the helicopter circling, slicing through my dazed relief, a reminder of what could have been – me wrapped up in a tinfoil sheet, fished out of the sea all blue lips and shivering. Or worse.

Lesson learnt. I’ll never take the sea for granted again, no matter where I am.

Oh and I’ll never close my eyes in smugness on a surfboard. It’s an accident waiting to happen.

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  • Nicely put!

    Scary when that realisation that you are in trouble hits & you’re right, wet sand never felt so good!

  • Andy Lawson

    Doesn’t that sound oh so familiar? It brings back shameful memories of a humbling experience I had a few years back. I was holidaying near Looe with my family, and before we left I threw my old Peck Penetrator on the roof bars of the car, more of an afterthought really. The kids were small and rock pools and playing with dad on the beach kept me away from taking a day out to check out the North Coast.
    One morning while having an early coffee and a crafty ciggie I remembered a spot I had noticed in previous years that seemed to have potential. It was a small cove with black sand that reminded me of the New Zealand beaches I played on as a kid. Leaving a grovelling note promising to wash up and cook for the rest of the week I drove on down to Seaton. Even the name makes me shudder in shame. I call it Satan now.
    Grey, windy, and what looked like a good 3-5ft swell albeit a tad messy. One sea fisherman on the beach.
    I’d ridden the safe beachbreaks of North Devon for years and was determined to be adventurous. I got out suprisingly easily, well after Saunton’s half mile paddle through line after line of whitewater anything’s easy!
    The trouble was the swell seemed to be building, and a nasty cross shore rip was dragging me towards the end of the beach. Every time I paddled for a wave I’d miss it. Come on..I told myself, you’ve been surfing for years. Dont panic, just catch one in. Easier said than done! and that rational voice in my head sounded like it had the edge of panic to it. If I didn’t get in soon I’d be swept round the point, and yet when I watched the waves breaking on and right up on the steep beach I wondered how I’d get through the shorebreak? Oh God…I could have been back at the cottage filling my fat face with croissant and reading about someone else risking life and limb!

    I finally caught a wave, made the drop and pulled in. The wave kinda doubled up…and instead of kicking out I cut back…into the shorebreak! I can still remember looking down and seeing the outgoing water dragging the cobbles as it sucked out dry under the nose of the board. I ate it pretty bad, and even more humiliating ( not to mention terrifying) was being dragged back into the shorebreak by the wave every time I tried to stand up.
    My pride and joy was forgotted as I tried desperately to get a toe hold on the beach, eventually crawling up the cobbles to safety. I could have kissed that beach, in fact I think I did. The old fella came over and said slowly, “I wouldn’t advise you to go out there today boy, it took me 15lb lead weight and then me 20lb” Yeh….er thanks.
    I drove home glad to be alive and cured of going out alone at unfamiliar spots. A humbling experience.
    I’ve since ridden bigger and more critical waves, surfed some lonely and sometimes bizarre breaks but that place haunts me to this day. I’m blushing in shame just writing this. Bloody Satan!