Some emergencies are fast but some are slow. Slow emergencies grow in intensity and then slap you in the face. Until I saw the slumped silhouette of my friend Cam walking slowly up the beach I wasn’t sure if he as alive.
Let me backpedal a bit. My brother, our friend Cam and myself were on a short holiday in Hawaii after swimming at an international event in Japan. We had changed our return flights so we could stopover for a little holiday.
I love going to the north shore on Oahu to watch surfers slide effortlessly on giant beautiful waves. Dangerous waves too. I was there to watch, not surf; my style of waves were the baby waves on the Waikiki side of Oahu.
Since I’d been there a few times I knew that north shore beaches like Sunset Beach were not swimming beaches. However if the water was flat you could go in. Today was a big-surf day and the waves glowed lime green and turquoise as the sun shone through them on their way into the shore.
Cam said he was going to go for a swim. I thought it was odd but I assumed he knew what he was doing since he was one of the fastest breaststroker swimmers in the world.
Cam went into the water where the waves weren’t crashing onto the shore. As I sat on the sand watching the surfers and bikinis, Cam’s head got smaller and smaller on his way back to Japan. I thought; hmmm that’s not good. I hope he knows what he’s doing. He didn’t.
Cam went into the rip tide. ‘The Rip’ is the flow of water that goes out to sea due to the huge weight of water being brought in by the waves and wind. All that water has to go back out somehow, so it does in a river-like flow in each bay.
I knew a bit about the rip but didn’t realise how strong this one was. Obviously neither did Cam. Cam had been gone a long time, but not long in Olympic swimmer terms, more than an hour, and I was getting worried. As two hours approached I needed to do something. I felt I had waited too long and started to panic. He was an Olympian but…
I called the emergency number from a small house close by the beach. Both myself and my brother walked up and down the beach looking as far out as we could for Cam’s stroke to splash towards shore. Nothing. It was hard to see beyond the big waves.
The sun had started to set in the spectacular vermillion orange and yellow Hawaiian way. But this sunset gave me dread. Cam was out there somewhere and it was going to get dark. Dark in Hawaii was pitch black, there’s no light pollution in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Cam was swimming somewhere in the vast Pacific.
Some surfers were trotting back out of the surf in their tanned laid-back coolness, carrying their surf boards under their arms. I asked one of these friendly dudes if he’d seen a guy swimming out there. He said no: where did he go swimming? I said over there and pointed to an area in the surf where the waves seemed to be flat. His bleached long hair swung back after we both looked where I pointed and he said “In the rip man? Bummer Dude.”
That’s not what I wanted to hear.
My mind continued to race in the manner we all do in a slow burning emergency. What happened?? Then I heard off in the distance the whine of a siren. Emergency vehicles would not be long.
Cam arrived with a whimper, walking slowly along the flattened sandy shore. We couldn’t believe he was back after his ‘swim’. He walked like he had been on a marathon. His head hanging down and his arms almost useless by his sides. Strangely, I remember clearly, the fake tattoo of a large Batman symbol on his left chest. He was funny like that. On that day, he was no superhero, but he swam like one.
I shouted to the family that lived in the house I called from, who were also anxiously watching from their property, to call the emergency number again. Shorty after we heard the sirens fade to a stop.
Cam was alive! We embraced him and he said; ‘holy shit, that was a very long swim!’ And coming from someone who has been on some extremely long swims that was saying something.
You can’t swim the rip. You can’t go faster than a rip tide going out. Even if you are an Olympic swimmer. Cam swam non stop for about three hours. I expect he covered about 15 kilometres because world class swimmers can swim 5km an hour.
My advice: don’t swim in the rip.