Don't Do This. (Just Don’t.)

Cross-posted from

Or, more accurately: A Moronic Moment From My Youth

Pool Practice

I had recently come into possession of a brand spanking new shiny bright pink wave ski. I had had occasional goes on the odd wave ski that had come my way in the past and having rowed my Grandad’s wooden dinghy around the bay of Whangamata for over six years, and being (if I may say so myself) pretty deft at it, I was a relatively experienced rower. I had also procured a wave ski book from the library and had practiced some snazzy moves and manoeuvres in a friend’s pool. Since my recent asset accrual I had keenly gone out every day that summer past the breakers, cruising in on the waves, flipping every now and then to test, sharpen and speed up my skills at spinning back out on top again. Yep – I thought I was fairly much the bees knees as far as wave skiing went.

Pool Prank

Cyclone Bola was a Big Momma of a hurricane that struck the North Island of New Zealand in March 1988. Whangamata – the holiday resort on the east coast of the idyllic golden-sanded Coromandel Peninsula to which both sets of my grandparents had retired – was badly hit by the tropical mega-storm. The sea was churning and wild – waves tore at the sand dunes with gnarly talons and creatures from the depths were driven forth. The beach was littered with seaweeds and zonal shellfish that had been lashed off the rocks and mercilessly dumped – pounded by the mindless breakers. The whole calm, idyllic seaside was transformed into a chaotic battlefield of the elements.

For two days I had been stuck indoors with the holidays drawing to a close. When the rain abated, I dashed out to the beach and the whole scene was revealed. The violent gales took my breath away as the enormous vista stormed and boiled around me. It was exhilarating standing on the dunes with the roaring wind and a whole fresh world before me. I loved it – the moody clouds, the freshly washed beach – and the waves!! They were enormous! Eyes widened with glee, I rushed back and grabbed my wave ski – I only paused briefly, wondering about the wisdom of my venture – then hauled it down to the beach and into the sea.

Whangamata Bay

The main shore of Whangamata Bay in calm conditions, viewed from Moana Point

The waves were coming in fast and strong, but in a brief gap I quickly pushed out onto the turbulent water of a backwashing wave – felt the familiar thrill of starting out to face the elements. Then "BOOMPH!" – the first wave hit with a strength that surprised me. Then they all came at me in quick succession but I managed to make a slow headway, heading for the point past the breakers where I could whiz around and ride in. The waves were big and the sea was wild so I was rapidly coming to the conclusion that maybe I would ride only once, then call it a day. There was the briefest lull in the waves and I grabbed the respite to quickly shoot out a bit and was going to turn and come in when a really huge wave reared up before me really fast. Instantly the options flashed before me – they were: (a) try to turn and ride it, however with not enough time to get fully around I would probably be caught broadside, and not only be flipped, but dumped and maybe face injury; (b) stay where I was and risk being flipped over lengthwise in the curl at the top, and maybe face injury, or; (c) row fast (really really fast), get over it and catch the next one. As (c) was the only safe-ish one I rode over it – for one panicky moment I was vertical near the top, but leaned forward and managed to get over just as the curl was forming. The wind sent the spray back, stinging, onto my hands and face. To my horror there was another, at least to my eyes, tsunami-sized roller behind it. And behind that as well. I faced a long succession of these waves and it took all of my strength and skill in the cross-currents just to face them straight on. I was getting quite freaked out at this point. It was at the top of one of these titan waves that I started to face my folly. At the pinnacle of an extremely big one I looked out upon a vista of an untamed and angry ocean. In fact the vast ocean itself was a succession of huge breakers and the only point past the breakers for which I was seeking was on a beach on the coast of South America, some thousands of miles away. I tried a few frantic efforts to turn around and nearly came to grief several times and just about lost my paddle.

Just as I thought that at least things couldn’t get worse, they got worse. The outgoing tide had drifted me near the offshore islands and waves from cross-currents started buffeting the wave ski, and it became very unstable – sometimes the waves would cross each other out (where there was a wave and a trough occurring together) and I would find myself in an enormous node of calm water, facing an even more enormous peak of water where the waves had doubled themselves! It was a freaky situation and if I had had any time that wasn’t action and battling, swerving, turning, propelling forward, stopping, etc, (i.e. time to think), I would have panicked. And badly.

Very soon the islands loomed before me and I was being swept between the first two – and the waves changed again – very choppy and uncertain as I was over the reef and the rocks (relatively near the surface) made unexpected eddies to complicate things. I was beginning to tire badly but had to keep going for all I was worth. I was trying for the small beach on the first island. (Ironically at low spring tides it is shallow enough to walk from the beach of Whangamata to the beach of this island and I had splashed gaily across to the island many times. Now – in the same spot – I was fighting for my life in mountainous seas.) However there was no chance – the tide had a mind of its own and there was a swell trying to shove me roughly onto the jagged rocks of the island.

During my struggles to avoid the rocks I was swept between and past the first two islands. (I was afraid of capsizing at that point as my morbid mind conjured up a scene where earlier that month, on a fishing expedition, we had been plagued by a 14 foot long grey nurse shark at approximately this position and I didn’t fancy being shark bait. I calmed myself somewhat by thinking that no self-respecting shark would be anywhere near the surface in these conditions.) When I was out in the open sea – and a hostile one at that – it was upsetting to have all of my efforts and plans thwarted and to see the back of all that was familiar to me: the beach, the islands, etc – and to be swept away completely against my will. I was powerless to say the least, in an extremely dangerous situation, and despair started to set in. Stuck in a holding pattern of keeping upright, I knew my energy was nearing an end. I had been fighting for a couple of hours now at least, was hungry, afraid and COLD! My hands and feet were numb and painful, and up till now my wetsuit had kept me warm, even when the waves had broken over me and a couple of times the wave ski and I had completely submerged. Now I was aware that my body temperature had dropped and I was shivering. It also began to rain. I had been sustained by the thought that as soon as it was noticed I was missing, my grandparents would raise the alarm, when with finality it hit me that I would not be missed at all! Not until bed time at least. With both sets of grandparents settled at Whangamata, each would naturally assume that I was with the other.

All thoughts of rescue were smashed to smithereens and I privately also thought that no self-respecting life saver would venture out into conditions such as these anyway. I cried and the tears were hot on my frozen face. Rage born of hopelessness boiled up in me and I re-doubled my efforts for a while. But to absolutely no avail! The islands got no closer. When I was completely exhausted – I had gone past hunger and was weak and shaking with effort, I had to subside and just sit there amongst the turbulence, passively observing. I was mortified at my situation. It was starting to get dark, and on the crest of waves I could see the lights come on in the houses of Whangamata. I could even discern the window of Pop’s house where there was warmth and the safety that I had so easily, naively and foolishly dispensed with. I thought of my most beloved grandparents and grieved thinking of how they would blame themselves; of my parents and their grief; and of my own callous stupidity that had allowed this to happen – that had needlessly jeopardized the happiness of many, for I had come to the conclusion that I would undoubtedly die. I was on a small exposed wave ski on the open sea in hostile conditions – nobody knew I was there and there was no way of getting back. Trust me – the outlook was bleak. There was nothing I could do. I had read enough Readers’ Digest condensed books to know that drowning was an okay way to die, although I didn’t really fancy it myself, now that I faced my doom. I just thought I had better stay on the wave ski as long as possible, then when it sank or I fell off it, to tread water as long as possible. I was wearing a lifejacket, which would help, so I could be okay until tomorrow, if I wasn’t so cold. Actually I was starting to get warm deep inside and my focus was starting to blur – I recognized the onset of hypothermia. I wasn’t really aware of my limbs right then.

It began to get quite dark. To assuage my feeling of upset-ness I prayed. Mainly I prayed for God to minimize the grief of those left behind and I also commended my soul to Him for His Keeping. If I was going to meet God, I wanted to be at my best so I prayed for peace and forgiveness and to be surrendered to the conditions over which I had no control. To my relief, a tangible Peace stole into me, and then grew and grew. I felt it inside my entire being. It comforted and warmed me and I stopped fighting the elements. So I sat there, holding my paddle, in extreme peace, happy that my passing was being made easy, and thanked God for all of the good things I had known and which seemed so much more precious now. As I sat and waited to die, what struck me was that I didn’t. I became aware that the wave ski stayed in the troughs, and the waves that swung up into the air – threatening to curl over me – flattened out as they came near. Without doing anything except sit there, it seemed I was completely safe. It was quite dark when I heard the sea making another noise – a dull booming – and a shape darker than the night hove into view. It was the first island. To my surprise the wave ski and I were being swept back between the first two islands and towards the main shore. The tide had obviously turned and was taking me back with it! As I drew near the shore I calmly and with little effort placed one end of the paddle in the water, turned the wave ski and a large breaker caught it up and smoothly glided me all the way (and it was quite far!) into shore, capsizing on a rogue cross-wave that I didn’t see in the dark in (thankfully) chest-deep water. I managed to drag the wave ski up the beach only a little way and had to leave it as far as strength and trembling limbs would allow me to. (As it happened, the tide pushed it up a bit further and it was there, partially covered in sand, the following day when I retrieved it.)

I had been gone for about seven hours and – true to my reckoning at sea – was right in that each set of grandparents had thought that I was with the other. At the same time that I was out on the sea, three other lives were lost off the coast of Whangamata, just near to me. By Divine Grace it was not my turn to go. I believe God saved me for something else and in turn I am grateful to Him.

Precisely because
God loves me infinitely more
Than I love myself,
God cannot afford to be
As careless with my life
As I am.

– Sri Chinmoy from his book titled ‘Love’.

Ideal conditions for wave skiing!

Ideal conditions for wave skiing!

Epilogue

After my experience in the maelstrom during Cyclone Bola my nerve was broken as far as wave skiing went and I no longer sought my thrills on the waves. Instead I only went out when the sea was as flat as a millpond!


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