By Olivia Wolf
In my nineteen years of life, I had never been scared of drowning. But, I never realized how easily it could happen until this past spring.
I have always loved the water. Growing up, I swam competitively for 10 years and relished anytime I got to jump into a pool, lake or ocean. After the restrictions started to lift towards the beginning of last fall, I decided to rekindle my love of the water and join my university’s surf club at St. Andrews, Scotland. I had never surfed before, but with my long swim history, I figured I would feel close to home in any water sport.
I wasn’t the only one with that idea. Over one hundred other students at my university also had the same idea. So, when I finally snagged an opening on a surfing excursion this past February, I jumped on the opportunity.
The day of the excursion was cold but clear. I biked down to the surf shed and met with everyone else who had also managed to land a surf slot. We changed into thick wetsuits and booties to protect us from the North Sea temperatures, grabbed our boards, and headed towards the sea. Because the sky was clear, I thought that the water would only have two to three-foot swells, but as we walked toward the beach, I could hear the roar of crashing waves. When we finally crested the dunes, we were met with five-foot swells all along the beach. The leader of our surf group saw the nerves on our faces and explained to us that all we had to do was paddle through the rough surf and reach the calm spot beyond the breaking waves. He pointed out to another group of surfers sitting on their boards. We watched as one of them paddled out from this calmer area to the breaking point and caught a wave into shore. At this point, any nerves I had at the prospect of such big swells had turned into excitement at the possibility of catching my first big wave.
At the beginning of the year, we attended surf lessons with the club and were taught how to safely duck under big waves with our boards. This came in handy as we set out into the water. It felt like every 15 seconds, I had to duck under another massive wave. Finally, I made it to the calm water beyond the breaking waves. My arms ached, but I was still excited to try and catch a big wave. I rested for a bit in the calm water, trying to regain my strength. After a while, I spotted a promising wave. I lined myself up and started paddling to try and catch it. Just as I finally felt comfortable enough to try and stand up, my weight shifted, and I tumbled off the board.
As soon as I entered the water, I was tossed around like clothes in a washing machine. I didn’t know which I was up or down. When I finally felt the pressure of the wave release, I came up sputtering for air, only to have to duck down again to avoid the next wave crashing right on top of me. I managed to swim to my board and start the long journey of paddling back out beyond the breaking point. It took me twice as long as the first time to reach the calm section of the water and my arms were even more drained. Still I was excited and waited patiently on my board for a second chance at a big wave. I repeated the process, lining up and paddling to try and catch a good wave, and this time I managed to get to my knees before falling off the board. I was immediately shoved under and somersaulted through the water before breaking the surface again. I was able to spot my board but didn’t have time to swim for it before another wave crashed right on top of me. After two more waves passed, I was finally able to grab my board but after being tossed around in the sea I hardly had the energy to do more that hold on to the side of the board and float. At this point, I had a crucial decision to make, try to paddle back out against the harsh waves as my strength faded or point my board towards the shore and try and catch a less powerful wave to the sand.
I made the decision to paddle back to shore. From my years as a competitive swimmer I knew a tired swimmer was not a good swimmer and I didn’t want to take my chances. I didn’t even realize how tired I was until I had to pick my board up and carry it back to the surf shed. I could barely lift the board and couldn’t even manage to pull off my tight wet suit booties when I tried to change back into dry clothes. It wasn’t until I called my mom to report on my experience that I realized I had come close to drowning. It was only after my mother had said, “Thank goodness you didn’t drown! A couple more waves, and you might not have come back up!” that the seriousness of the situation struck me. She was right. A couple more waves and tumbles, and I don’t know if I would have had the strength to keep my head above the surface. I had always imagined drowning as someone waving around for help, not quietly slipping beneath a wave.
The only reason that my experience ended well that day, and I never once thought drowning was a possibility, was because I had the skills to bring me to safety. I was a strong swimmer and was comfortable keeping myself afloat. I wore a wetsuit to protect myself from cold water shock. I hadn’t gone in the water by myself. I was at least one of ten people out on the water that day. I had told my roommate where I was going and when to expect me back. But that one decision, to stay in the water and paddle back or head for shore, was the major decision that decided my safety on that day. If I had chosen to paddle back out and try and catch another wave, I can not confidently say that I would be here writing this article today, despite all the other safe choices I had made.
I know many of you will not be braving the North Sea cold to try to catch big surf. However, I hope my experience illustrates how strong swimming abilities and strong water safety knowledge can provide happy endings to potentially dangerous water situations. Without these two skills, any experience with water can be just as close a call as mine. So, I encourage everyone to start their journey towards becoming strong swimmers or brush up on their water safety as summer rounds the corner so that everyone can enjoy the lake, pool, or ocean this summer.
A great place to start is on the Red Cross website! We offer lots of great resources, from swim lessons for children and adults to a free Swim app that helps families and kids have fun learning about water safety. On our website, you can find Red Cross partner swim lessons that are being offered near you and find lessons for parents about children’s water safety. In addition, the Swim app has videos and activities to make learning about water safety more engaging for young children. You can even track your kids’ progress, allowing them to earn badges as they learn to swim.
Resources like these make water safety more accessible than ever, so please don’t hesitate to take a look! One more person who learns how to be a safe swimmer is one more person whose story ends like mine, safely on shore.
Olivia Wolf is an American Red Cross volunteer for the Minnesota and Dakotas Region. She’s attending university in St. Andrews, Scotland.