I didn't die. I wasn't even close to dying. I knew this because there was no euphoric moment of serenity nor was there a second during which my life flashed before my eyes. Instead all I had was a burning sensation in my lungs giving way to one overwhelming thought: I need air NOW!
This past weekend we racked 'em, packed 'em and loaded up for a trip over land and sea. Our destination was the sleepy town of Santa Theresa hanging off the western cost of the Nicoya Peninsula into the Pacific Ocean. I made the 4-hour journey squashed in the front seat of an old Toyata pickup with a friendly Swedish couple, fellow students and twenty-somethings from INCAE.
Why Santa Theresa? Surfing of course. The coastal city was legendary for it's relaxed atmosphere, happy people and steady waves. The three caught a ferry west of San Jose in the town of Puntarenas and then proceeded to jam ourselves in the truck's cab as we blasted down the rain-beaten dirt road to a Hostel a few hundred yards from the beach run by surfer-friendly Argentinians. We arrived just before 5 p.m. Friday and, eager to get a few waves before the sun dropped behind the horizon at 6, The Swedes brought me straight to the beach.
Perhaps here I should mention that the Swedish pair were both skilled surfers with dozens of trips to surf spots around the world between them. I, on the other hand, had played in the tiniest of waves on a family vacation to Hawaii around the age of ten and fumbled through the sunset break in Los Angeles for a few minutes on a borrowed board one afternoon with an old roommate and no success.
By seasoned surfer standards I'm sure the sea in Santa Theresa was easily manageable. But for a boy from Colorado who sees the ocean once every three years, staring down the face of a 5- foot wall might as well have been staring into the brute force of a category 5 hurricane. The light was fading but, foolish as I was, I paddled the large board the Swedes had loaned me out into the sea. Immediately I could tell that this wasn't going to be easy. I used a momentary lull in the set to lumber through the whitewater for a few minutes before making my way out close to where the real break was happening. But before I could paddle past the break to the calmer ocean the next set was upon me and it arrived with a fury.
I saw the wave coming and I knew immediately I wasn't going to be able to dive under it. It had height. It had strength. It had a low rumbling noise that made my stomach want to jump out of my mouth. I turned my board shoreward, paddled, and prayed.
I can only guess that as I lay belly-down on the board I managed to skirt the face of the wave for a second or two. The next thing I remember I was tumbling headlong into a churning ocean. The wave stole any sense of direction. Before that moment the process of picking a direction had always been a concrete decision. If I wanted to go left I went left. If I wanted to swim up, I swam up. But the wave had taken direction hostage and now I had to negotiate for its release. All the while my board was tugging at my ankle and that's about the moment with the burning lungs and the I need air NOW!
I knew struggling or panicking would not convince the wave of anything. I knew I needed to relax, to be calm in the face of such a strong opponent. I knew all this but survival instincts took over and I struggled with all the struggle I had in me. I panicked liked it was going out of style. And by some miracle of flailing arms and thrashing legs the wave decide to make its peace with me and send my towards the surface. For about 10 seconds I thought I had allied with the wave and the ocean. Then the next wave hit...
Wash, rinse, repeat. The only saving grace of this wave was that, while beating me into submission below the surface, it also hurtled much closer to the shore. A few desperate strokes more and I was on the beach, daylight fading, catching my breath, happy to be on dry land. 15 minutes later with the last of daylight nearly gone the Swedes rode a final wave to shore and walked up with satisfied smiles. I tried to match their grins but it was no use. I was battered, I was bruised and I was an enemy of the sea...
I spent much of the next day sitting on the beach, wrangling with seeds of fear and doubt that the wave had planted inside my head. It wasn't until the third day, when the last hours of our trip were winding down and the waves had shrunk to a size that I could at least picture myself riding, that I finally had the courage to walk out into the surf, climb on the board and paddle my way back out to sea.
Until the next adventure,