You're Going to Drown, Stupid

I never imagined, even in my worst nightmares, that I could drown. It's certainly not because of any feeling of invincibility, since I'm the kind of person who gets a bad headache and immediately thinks I might have a brain tumor. No, I'm a good swimmer, comfortable in the water and never expected to be beyond sight and sound of the shore and too exhausted to make it to the beach.

The trouble started when I decided to swim out to a reef to snorkel. I'm not sure how far it was exactly, maybe a quarter of a mile from the beach at the Hyatt Dorado Hotel in Puerto Rico. The beach wasn't very crowded and no one else was snorkeling. Ordinarily the hotel takes people who want to snorkel the reef out on a raft because it is so far away, but that day's trip had already taken place.

It wasn't difficult to swim out to the site, and, when I got there, the reef wasn't that impressive. It had some nice coral formations and I kicked about looking for fish. I didn't see anything spectacular, but I was content seeing a few colorful fish here and there. It didn't matter; it was nice just to be in a different environment, a peaceful one, away from the rest of the family.

At one point, I sensed danger when the sound of an engine approaching penetrated my water-filled ears. I looked up and someone from the hotel had come out on a jet ski and stopped beside me. The woman said my family was worried and had asked her to check on me. I said I was fine and declined her offer of a ride back to the beach.

The jet ski roared off toward shore and I resumed floating leisurely over the reef, battered occasionally by waves when I went over to the far side. It was still warm, the water was clear and I was in no hurry to get back to dealing with my hyperactive one-year-old son.

I've always loved snorkeling. I took a scuba course once and completed everything but my ocean dive. I had trouble with my ears in the preliminary dive we had taken in a freezing lake and I couldn't muster the enthusiasm for the checkout dive in a place that was supposed to be even colder. Besides, most of the classroom work had focused on all the ways you could die underwater and it somehow didn't seem worth the risk when I was perfectly happy with the variety of fish I could see from the surface in the exotic places I'd snorkeled.

The funny thing about snorkeling is that I find the shallows the most frightening places. I tend to panic when I suddenly find myself in water that places my stomach inches from the coral or, worse, spiny sea urchins. I've never gotten a scrape from coral or stung by an urchin and I want to keep it that way. Still, I have to admit feeling embarrassed about being more scared of the things in the sea that don't move than the ones that do. Of course I never have had an encounter with a shark and hope I never do. The closest I ever came was snorkeling off the island of St. John when someone said they saw a shark. I started swimming furiously, not away from the shark, but in the direction it was going. I suddenly thought, "What am I doing?" That was probably the stupidest thing I'd ever done — until I snorkeled alone so far from shore in Puerto Rico.

At some point, maybe after being out close to an hour, I was ready to head back to the beach. After a few minutes, I started to get very tired and soon felt completely exhausted. I looked up and found that I was still very far from shore and that was when it occurred to me I couldn't make it. The immediate feeling I had was of disbelief that I could be in this position. I trod water and waved my arms in the universal help signal and shouted at the top of my lungs, but it was clear after a couple of minutes I was too far away for anyone to see or hear. I would not be rescued.

Well, now the phrase "sink or swim" took on a new and more poignant meaning. I started to swim slowly, rolling on my back occasionally to float and conserve energy. My life didn't flash before my eyes. It's too bad, because I would have like to have seen it all, though I suspect the memories would have been more lowlights than highlights. I did think that I desperately wanted to get back to my wife and kids, but it didn't occur to me what would happen if I didn't. The main thought cycling through my head was that I couldn't believe this was the way it was all going to end for me. It just seemed too damn stupid to drown, so I kept swimming and telling myself I could make it.

Unfortunately, when you're tired and swimming in the ocean far from shore progress is excruciatingly slow. It's not like being in a pool where the side is never far away and even the dizziest swimmer can't get too far off course. Even the relatively gentle tide I faced kept me drifting down the beach, farther from where I'd left and forcing me to expend more of the limited energy I had left.

Since I am telling the story, you know the conclusion. I realized that the water was not that deep after awhile and was able to stand on rocks and rest periodically until I got close enough to walk the rest of the way in. Finally, I staggered onto the shore like a survivor of a shipwreck in an old movie. My wife was apoplectic, she'd been on the verge of calling the Coast Guard, especially after my father, a neurosurgeon noted for his ice water calm in the face of stress, had begun to pace the beach looking for me. I didn't hug them or say a prayer of thanksgiving, I simply collapsed on a chaise and told them I didn't think I'd make it. My wife wasn't sure if I was kidding and the thought that I wasn't only made her more upset.

I'm not sure how close I really came to dying that day, but it was closer than I ever want to be. I was glad to learn that I have a survival instinct that was powerful enough on that day to pull me through.

Did the experience change my life? Have I stopped taking life for granted and learned to distinguish inconveniences from real problems? I certainly try to do so, but I guess I either wasn't close enough to death or those experiences really don't work that way. Then again, now that I think about it, maybe this one should.