David Cogswell | September 03, 2015 1:00 PM ET
An Encounter with Fate in the Indian Ocean
The closest I ever stared death in the face was on the east coast of Africa in the Indian Ocean. It happened in Africa, but it could have happened on any coast. The ocean can be treacherous and its power must be at all times respected. Any time the power of nature is not sufficiently recognized, danger lurks.
The experience affected me profoundly. It shook me to my root and adjusted my perspective on life and on the value of my own life.
It started innocuously enough. I was supposed to meet a group of people in the morning to go snorkeling around a coral reef. I went to the appointed place and I was the only one there. It turned out I had gotten the instructions wrong. We were supposed to meet at a little hut near the beach to get outfitted with our fins, masks, snorkels and wetsuits.
So by the time everyone else showed up at the beach, they had their gear and I had to go back to the hut to get mine, and then catch up to them. That was my first error. It caused me to be separated from my group and from the person who was leading the group.
I went and got my gear and then back to the beach to catch up with the group. They had already moved on. But it was early, the beach was pristine and I was able to clearly see their footsteps in the sand. I followed the footprints and 100 yards down the beach I saw them at the place where the coral reef jutted out into the ocean from the beach.
The others in my group were already in the water when I caught up to them, so I put on my fins and mask and prepared to join them. But when I looked up again after putting on the gear, I couldn’t see them. They had moved out of sight. So I headed out toward where they had been in search of them.
The water was shallow on top of the reef, only three feet deep or so. The reef had razor sharp points on it, so it was not comfortable to swim over it. One errant kick and I'd get a slice, so I wanted to get off the reef into an area where I could kick my legs and swim around without fear of cuts or abrasions from the reef.
The others in my group had actually moved to an open place just to the side of the reef where it was safe to swim. They had been led to this safe place by the guide. I hadn’t seen them go there, so I just kept moving along the reef in search of a place where I could get off of it and swim freely. This was my second error: losing sight of the group and therefore not knowing where the safe places were.
What I only realized much later was that the reef extended half a mile or so into the sea. As I moved across the top of it, I didn’t realize how far out into the ocean I was moving. The water was calm that day. I didn’t realize that by following the reef out into the ocean I was much farther out into the ocean than I had ever been swimming in my life. And even on a calm day, waves a half mile from the beach can be quite large.
I was not paying close attention to any of this. The water on top of the reef was completely calm and shallow. It was like swimming in a kiddie pool. When I reach the end of the reef, I pushed out and used my fins to kick myself away from the reef so I would not have to worry about bumping up against it and getting cut.
The fins gave me more swimming power than my bare feet and I’m not sure how far from the reef I swam before I came to the surface. When I came out of the water with my mask and snorkel in place, I realized immediately that I was in water that completely overpowered me.
The waves rose over me 30 feet high and when they crashed down on me they sent me tumbling through foamy water. The realization was instantaneous. I had no power over those waves, no defense. I was completely at the mercy of the elements. I tore the mask and snorkel off immediately and they dangled from my neck. There was no way to use a snorkel in that situation. I had to gulp in whatever air I could get during the moments my head was above the surface, and hold it tightly when the next wave plunged me down again.
Ten seconds of this and I knew that my life was up for grabs. My consciousness narrowed to an instant, a tight focus on the problem of trying to get to the surface, get a breath, and just survive another moment.
One of the first waves to hit me knocked off one of my fins. So then I had one foot with a fin, giving me some pushing power, and one without, which felt like a stick kicking back and forth with no power of propulsion. That made swimming even more difficult. As it was you couldn’t call what I was doing swimming. I was just desperately struggling to get my head above water to get a breath.
I was completely helpless, like a ragdoll being thrown about by the waves. Fortunately I was able to continue grabbing breaths at every opportunity. But each time was touch and go with no idea if I would be able to do it again.
It flashed across my mind that this may be it for me, that I may not succeed in getting out of this mess alive. But that was only a quick flash of thought as nearly all of my consciousness was focused on the struggle to get to the surface and suck in another breath before the next wave sent me tumbling again.
Time was infinite. I had no idea how long this was going on. At the time it seemed like eternity, an endless recurrence of the cycle of trying to breathe. At one point the waves had pushed me up to a piece of the coral reef that stuck out above the water and I grabbed hold of it and held as tightly as I could.
Though the reef had razor sharp points on it, it was also slippery and hard to hold onto. When the next wave came it threw me off the reef like a toy and I was tumbling in the waves again.
The cycle kept repeating and then at one point I found myself again holding onto a piece of the reef that jutted out above the surface of the water. I held on and braced for the next wave. But this time it did not come.
I couldn’t believe it. I could breathe. The ocean that had just about killed me a few moments before had delivered me to a place of safety. I felt as if a benign hand had picked me up and saved me. Something somehow decided that I could have another chance to live.
I was worn out and totally defeated and humiliated. I took off my single fin so I could walk. I was bewildered. A young man who worked with the diving concession had seen me and was on his way toward me to help. I was never so happy to see anyone.
The danger had passed. As quickly as it had come, it was gone again, and there I was back in a calm place on a beautiful day. But I was greatly changed and moved from how I had been a little while before.
Even with a wetsuit protecting my skin, I had a few abrasions from tumbling around the reef. But other than that, I was fine.
It was the closest I ever came to having my life instantaneously curtailed. Every moment after that seemed to be a great gift.
Of course it always had been a great gift, but I didn’t always realize it as much as I did then.
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