Monday, November 27, 2006

The Day I Could've Died

Yesterday's post, and the Hamilton/Vedder "Iconoclasts" got me to thinking about a specific incident from my youth that I recorded for posterity.

My first journal started in 1983 and pretty much tapered off and on through high school. Prior to going off to college, I had a burst of journalling, which is kind of neat, as I have a great snapshot collage of the Summer I turned 18.

Anyway, here from my official juvenilia called "Your Guess is as Good as Mine, Jr." is an entry from June 30, 1985:

"The beach. Webster's defines beach as "a nearly level stretch of pebbles and sand beside a sea, lake, etc., often washed by high water; sandy shore; strand." Also defined as "an area of shore as a place for swimming, sunbathing, etc." In Hawaii, the beach s the main attraction. The water is warm, and the sand is smooth, white, and usually riddled with trash.

Of the hundreds of beaches os Oahu, all with appropriate nicknames (i.e. Point Panic), only one is notorious for its list of casualties: Sandy's. Sandy's is a bodysurfing beach yet, unlike other spots, it is dangerous. Of the long list of people "wounded" at Sandy's, the most experienced are on the list. How else does one become experienced, but by receiving battle scars?

Why is Sandy's notorious? It is so dangerous. Why is it so dangerous? Shallow water, with waves breaking so near the shore. Many waves come from out of nowhere. The current is such that they will just form. Without warning.

I had driven by Sandy's. Sat in a park near Sandy's, but in fifteen years of living here, I had never once gone there, until today. I still would not have gone without Chris and Pat, who also brought Pat's sister Marilyn (who at one time had been a model in Japan) and her friend Kelly.

Nothing much worth mentioning about the trip out in Marilyn's car (Pat drove, and I left my car at Pat's), except the bird that flew into our windshield and was crushed by the car behind us.

At the beach, I stared in awe at the waves. They were the largest I had ever seen in person. A lifeguard said 6 to 9 feet, but Pat was saying 5 to 6, which is large for a wave. We were eating our teri-burgers and manapua we had picked up at a lunch wagon, and putting on sun-tan lotion as we took in the sights. Blonde-haied, tanned female bodies passing by, the bodysurfers getting "pounded" in the surf, the sun, the wind, the fear.

Chris and Pat were familiar with Sandy's, but I wasn't. The stories of people breaking backs and necks, sustaining serious injuries normally found in auto wrecks. It is said that a car can run over a good surf board and not damage the board, but a good six-footer can run over a surf board, and snap it in two. The power of nature!

As I stared at the great size of the waves, a lifeguard spoke over the bullhorn: "These are ideal conditions here at Sandy's today, if you are not familiar with the beach, or do not have fins,...go to Bellows." Very reassuring to me, indeed.

We debated at least twenty more minutes before finally deciding to go in.

We went in, Chris with my boogie board, Pat and I without any boards. Pat and I got in O.K., but Chris got knocked down by a wave and the board shot over to me, as Chris hadn't fastened the leash. When Chris got out to us, they decided I should have the board. I agreed, as I was scared shitless. They said they would tell me what waves to catch, I consented. Several times, it was, "Billy, catch this one" or "Go, now. Go!" But I didn't get up enough courage until after 10 minutes when I caught my first wave at Sandy's.

(The Right Way to catch a wave at Sandy's)

It was about a four to five-footer. I felt the board surge under me as I held on while moving to shore. The wind blew spray in my face for a second, when I suddenly felt myself falling, head-first, straight down. I hot the water and let the board slip from my grasp. I felt it move ahead and drag me along a bit and I emerged sputtering, amid the smiles of a bunch of fellow bodysurfers. I had survived a wave at Sandy's.

"Did I look that bad?" I asked. They said nothing, but nodded and laughed. I loved it. My cousin Marc, a fearless boy from Maine who got hooked on boarding when he was here for my graduation a few weeks ago, would have loved it too.

I paddled back out and yelled at Pat, "Go for it, Billy, you said! Thanks a lot!" I let a few other good sets pass when I saw a wave I definitely did not want to catch. As it approached, I prepared to dive under it. I got through it, I thought for a second, but I caught my second, and last wave at Sandy's.

(The Not-So-Right Way to catch a wave at Sandy's)

The tail of the wave caught my feet, and flipped me backwards into the surge of the wave. I had already let go of the board while still in the air. As I plummeted down the six-to-seven footer, my eyes were blinded by salt water and I hit the surface and the beach. The board and the wave combined to drag me a few yards against the bottom, until I sputtered to the surface. I didn't bother to look to see if the others had seen me eat it, as I ran back to Marilyn and her friend halfway across the beach.

I only waited a couple of minutes, water dripping out of my nose, until Pat and Chris trotted up and said, "Let's hit Bellows," a more mild-mannered beach that was to Sandy's as a babbling brook to Niagra Falls.

We ended up at Sherwoods, a beach near Bellows (incidentally my favorite spot), where the boarding is usually adequate. Today it was rough, and there were the biggest waves I'd ever seen there, although miniscule next to the back-breaking surf of Sandy's.

After a couple of hours at Sherwood's, we headed back to Sandy's to see if it had mellowed out some, and it had. We passed our murdered bird on the way home......"

The following day, I continued the saga:

"When I got to school today [my Summer job was at the Iolani library], a bunch of guys called me over and said they had seen me at Sandy's. I was relating the story when I said I only caught two waves. A guy interrupted, saying, "You didn't catch any waves, they caught you!"

Of course, I cringe a bit while reading this, thinking I could edit here and there. Of course, legend has transformed this story for me. I often relate it saying that the people on the beach were cheering as I stumbled out of the froth. The experience of "going over the falls," relates to falling off the crest of the wave into the trench and then getting crushed by the mass of water from above.

I cringe at my naivete, and the fact that I was so awe-struck by waves that, compared to the swells that hit the North Shore of Hawai'i every Winter, are tiny.

I should have been wearing fins.

A great article about Sandy's here.

And I can't resist this shot:

I just added this, a YouTube clip with some amazing amateur footage of a "typical" day at Sandy's, June 30, 2006, 21 years to the day that I took the plunge for the first and last time (warning: gratutitous bikini shots interspersed within):

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