Attention Florida Tourists: If you see a sign similar to the one pictured here, it can be loosely interpreted into Northern as: “[Hey dummy! - yes you!] Do Not Enter [the water because a] Rip Current [is present and will kill you if you ignore this obvious sign].”
If I seem a bit abrupt it is simply because I almost died last Saturday trying to save a panicky tourist stuck in a rip current (which would have been a self-fulfilling prophecy considering my recent blog about 25,000 Mornings).
I took this picture shortly after the incident. Here’s how it unfolded:
I was spending a nice, leisurely afternoon with the fam at one of our regular beach spots along the Florida panhandle (Ft. Walton Beach to be exact). It was a beautiful, sunny, low-80′s kind of day and I was just mindin’ my own b’iness (that’s “business” for those of you who are not as gansta as me) and contemplating the Imago Dei message I was planning to preach on Sunday.
Despite the beautiful weather, we were under red flag conditions and a lifeguard had already driven by on his 4-wheeler to tell me that the water was particularly dangerous. “Don’t go any further than waist deep,” he said.
“No problem,” I replied.
I actually thought to myself, “I am not going in the water at all so it doesn’t really matter.”
So there I am on the verge of dozing off when I began to hear the panicked cries of someone in distress. “Heeeelp! Help us pleeaasse!”
I turned to see a man standing ankle deep in the water waving for help and looking desperately along the shoreline for someone to respond. About 40 yards out to sea were two of his friends, a man and a woman in their 20′s I suppose, screaming for assistance.
I looked for the lifeguard but his station was empty and his 4-wheeler was nowhere to be seen.
“I gotta go!” I said to my wife as I stood and ran toward the water.
No time to think. It’s time to do.
By that time the man had begun to tread into the water after his friends, armed with nothing more than a small skimboard. I caught up to him to ask if he was a strong swimmer. “No, not really,” he replied. So I took his skimboard and sent him back to the beach to find help.
A few seconds later I made it out to the frantic couple and handed the woman the board. The water was probably only 6- or 8-feet deep (depending on the waves) but I could feel the strong current around my legs and knew what was happening.
We were in a rip current.
I yelled to gain the attention of the troubled duo and assured them that everything was going to be OK.
“Please help us, sir!” the woman cried.
I told her to focus on me and assured her that we’d make it out OK. I knew what to do: (1) stay calm, (2) swim parallel to the shore until free of the current, (3) swim back to the beach. Seems easy enough, right?
What I hadn’t expected were the waves that were crashing over our heads. Each time a wave came down the woman panicked, grabbed on to me, and held me under the water. I was OK the first time, figuring she just needed another second to regain her composure.
“Calm down!” I exclaimed, trying once again to bring some sense of hope into this woman’s mind. “You’re going to be OK! Just stay with me and stop pushing me down into the water.”
Other good Samaritans had begun making their way out and I noticed a person over my right shoulder with a boogie board. I actually thought to myself, “That’s much better than a skimboard,” and about that same time the man with us lunged toward the boogie board.
“Good!” I thought, “Now I only have to worry about this one.”
That’s when the second wave came crashing over us and the cycle started all over. I felt myself being plunged into the water again, aware now that I was beginning to get tired. (I’m not exactly Michael Phelps.) “Ma’am – you have to STOP pushing me under the water! You’re going to be OK – just CALM DOWN!”
This time I saw the skimboard go flying out from under her; I suppose leaving me as her only floatation device.
I’m not 100% sure what happened next. I know that this time I was under the water a little longer and by the time I could see my surroundings again there was probably 20-feet of separation between me and the woman. Fortunately she was close enough to the others that they were able to help her. Unfortunately, I was now separated from the action and being pulled further out to sea … alone.
“Are these waves getting bigger or am I just getting fatigued?”
Wave five…wave six…wave seven…
Each wave rushed overhead then buried me under its weight; and each time I could feel myself being pulled slightly further away from the shore.
“I can’t see the others any more.”
Now I am literally talking to myself and fighting the panic I had just seen in the others: “Stay calm … you’re going to be OK … you’re going to make it out of this … just do what you know to do,” as another wave crashed over me.
“Stay calm … swim parallel to the shore … you’re going to be OK …”
Each wave seemed like a blow to the face from a schoolyard bully. I resented their frequency and perilous rhythm.
“Am I going to drown? … That would really suck. … Does anyone even know that I’m still out here?”
I looked back toward the beach and saw my wife standing along the water’s edge. I waved my arms until I was certain she could see me. I definitely did NOT want her to swim out to me, but at the same time I needed to know she was watching. Somehow, just knowing Dawn was there gave me strength. I knew I was going to be OK. “Thank you, Lord!”
“Stay calm … swim parallel to the shore … you’re going to make it…”
Slowly but surely the distance to the shoreline began to shrink. A hundred feet … eighty feet … sixty feet … almost there. I was able to touch the bottom and walk, still fighting against the current.
Fighting … but winning.
I distinctly remember reaching the waist-deep point and thinking about the lifeguard’s warning, “Don’t go any further than waist deep.”
By the time I reached the shore I was completely drained. I turned and dropped, sitting down and looking out at the vast Gulf waters while the waves kissed my feet. “Oh sure … now you want to be my friend. You were punching me in the face a few minutes ago and now you’re kissing my feet?”
It probably took 30-minutes for my heartbeat to return to normal. “Breathe in … breathe out … relax … you’re OK.”
I never did see what happened to the distressed duo or their friend. By the time I made it back to shore they were long gone and the beach-goers had returned to mindin’ their own b’iness.
“Oh look. A lifeguard.”
Turns out there was some confusion with the 9-1-1 call my wife made and every lifeguard within a half mile went to the wrong beach access.
I watched the lifeguard plant an additional sign: DO NOT ENTER – RIP CURRENT. (Apparently the sign located 20 feet to the east was insufficient so now there were two signs for the tourists to ignore. “Yep…that oughta do it.”) That’s the sign pictured at the top of this post.
Last Saturday was almost my last Saturday.
It’s by the grace of God that I am able to write this blog today. Unfortunately two others were not so fortunate. Both were caught in rip currents just a few miles from where I was – one to the east and the other to the west. I read another article about a 70-year old man that died that same day in Palm Beach … rescuing two kids caught in a rip current.
Folks, I was almost a statistic. The U.S. coastguard reports 100+ deaths each year to rip currents and over 80% of lifeguard rescues are attributed to them.
The ocean is not a swimming pool.
The thing is, I don’t really want to write a public service announcement. I’m not really writing about beach safety. I’m writing to remind you that every day is precious and none should be taken for granted.
You never know which day could be your last.
Therefore, “Let everything that has breath praise the LORD.” (Psalm 150:6a)
The Bible says,
“Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.” (Hebrews 9:27-28)
Are you ready for eternity? I am.