Arya, Finn, and I are playing in waves when conditions shift from fun to frightening. Fast. One second, I'm pushing Arya forward on a surfboard to catch a wave, both of us laughing. The next, I realize that Finn is too far out and that the waves have grown larger and messier since we'd gotten in the water.
It's the day after a storm which means wind swell. That morning had brought clean, peeling sets--the kind no one realizes exist on the Arabian Gulf. My buddy had sent me a video of them at 6am. Enticing. But, my fam being who we are, didn't leave for the beach until 2pm. We had to, of course, eat a hobbit-worthy breakfast, drink stout coffee, and pack every conceivable beach related possesion into our vehicle.
Despite the slow start, we'd eventually made it there and soon had our beach camp settled. As an added bonus, we'd run into two other groups of friends we know from the university. All in all, it had been shaping up to be a stellar afternoon.
But, it's anything but stellar when Finn, voice high, starts calling. "Dad! The waves are stopping me! I cant get in!"
I shout, "Try to dive forward when the wave hits you! Body surf! Then wade forward when the wave is past!"
Either he can't hear me or he's too scared to process my directions, because I see him trying to swim against the current as it sucks up for the next wave. Then, without seeing it coming, he gets hit from behind by a wall of white water. For a moment he is under. Then he pops up spluttering.
I swivel and spot Arya half way to the shore duck diving under a wave. I don't like leaving her, especially with a surfboard leashed to her ankle, but she seems to be handling the conditions. Even still, the sea is getting choppier fast. I want both kids out of the water. Now.
On the shore, a lifeguard hops down from his little tower. He's wildly signaling me to come in. I nod, wave acknowledgedment, and swivel to head out to Finn. White water nails me. I'd been too focussed on Arya and the lifeguard to see the wave coming. As I tumble, all I can think about is getting my little boy.
I pop up, wipe my eyes, and start swimming and wading toward Finn. The water is only stomach level for me, and I suspect that Finn can stand where he's at. However, I know that people drown in shallow water all the time and there is a notable current in the soup. I recognize panic building in me, but I shut it out--an odd skill I've learned over years of ending up in dangerous situations.
The life guard continues to wildly signal me from the shore. Rage fills me. Idiot. I know we need to come in. It's the doing it that is presenting a problem. Why doesn't he at least get Arya out, I wonder.
After ten long, sureal seconds of plowing through the water, I reach Finn just as a wave slaps us both. A salt blast. I manage to grab his arm right before impact and hang onto him.
When we come up, I shout, "I got ya buddy! No problem. Let's go in."
My voice is steadier than I feel.
He blurts, "Dad, I'm trying to come in but it keeps pulling me out. I'm sorry! I'm sorry!"
"Don't worry! We'll talk on shore. Right now, we're gonna launch forward when the next wave hits.
I wrap my left arm around his back and under his armpit, locking him to my side. The life guard continues to signal us to come in. I want to kill him.
I search for Arya and spot her belly down on the surfboard riding a whitewater wave in to the shore. Thank God.
Then, the next wave is on us, and I dive forward with Finn attached to me. We make it a solid ten feet or so in the white water momentum. We then wade forward as quickly as possible. We repeat the process two more times and, like that, we are out of the crash zone and trudging the last 10 meters to the beach.
Still standing on the shore, holding his orange flotation device, the life guard continues to signal us to come in."
I shout. "Do you not see us?! We're coming in!" He looks startled by my anger.
Now, out of the water, Arya is oblivious of the situation and yells, "I surfed a good one daddy! Almost all the way in!"
Finn and I are now on the beach. The life guard approaches. I'm ready to lay into him should he start to chew me out, which perhaps I deserve but not from this poor excuse of a lifeguard. But he doesn't yell. Concern in his eyes, he asks, "Are you okay? I go to come out but it looks like you take care of him."
I nod. "Thanks. Yeah, it got choppy out there fast. Lesson learned."
He says, "You can swim. Just no kids right now."
I take a deep breath and shake my head. "No thanks, I think I'm ready to be done swimming for the moment."
Oddly, he presses me, "It's okay. You go swim. No problem. Kids play here. Close to sand."
It occurs to me that he might be afraid of getting in trouble. Stratified power structures. Something to think about later. I thank him again and he finally wanders back to his tower.
I talk with the kids. We discuss the rip tides, duck diving, not panicking, swimming up or down shore rather than directly against the currents. This isn't new info for them, but it needs review. And I'm still somewhat spinning on the experience, so reviewing it with the kids feels proactive. Like I'm doing something.
After a minute of enduring the lecture, both kids dash off to play with their friends on beach swings. I suspect that Finn is rattled but decide to talk with him about it later. I know we'll need to get him back in the waves soon. But not today.
As I walk back toward our beach chairs, I imagine a scenario where Finn drowns. It's unbelievably horrific. The stuff of hideous nightmares. It occurs to me that I'm not sure I'd survive that. Not emotionally at least.
I consider all my own close calls, including in the ocean. I take a deep breathe. This is life. Especially for those of us who like edgy adventure. And, if I'm honest, I'm not even sure how sketchy the situation had been. He'd been able to stand the entire time, and I'd never been more than 15 feet away. Had I been irresponsible? Was he panicking or just asking for help? The incident suddenly feels ambiguous. Both kids have considerable experience in the ocean, including in bigger and much colder waves. Even still, I vow to only go out with one at a time if conditions even hint at being challenging.
Before I get back to Cheri, I run into our friends playing Bocci Ball on the sand. They're clearly having fun, so I decide to join them. Decompress. One, laughing, asks, "Did you guys do something wrong? I saw the life guard kicking you out."
"Probably," I reply. "I'm just not sure what."