Photo credit: Thanks to the Mercury News for this shot of Monastery Beach near Carmel, California .
It was the most relaxing feelings imaginable. Floating on my back like a buoyant cork, drifting up and down on the warm ocean waves, sliding playful down into the trough between crests and up to the top of the next as each wave passed by.
I took a deep cleansing breath and let my mind slow to a meditative pace and watched, straight above me as small white clouds shifted with each rise and fall, letting time pass without a care – until suddenly , what the … and the whole ocean disappeared from beneath me and I was falling with nothing but misty air between me the hard shore. I was too surprised to even scream as my sky view disappeared behind the giant wall of angry white water. This was going to be really – REALLY unpleasant.
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Dad was going proud. I had moved into my first apartment in Silicone Valley to start my first professional job. I enjoyed that I was jumping into adulthood, paying my own rent and utilities; starting my own life.
One of my first decisions as a independent man was to finish learning a sport that dad had started me on. I signed up for a local junior college class to become a certified scuba diver and a couple of Saturdays later, I found myself sitting on the floor of an apartment recreation room that our instructor had reserved.
This guy was a typical manly man, very full of himself but seemed to know his stuff, so I decided to give him a chance. I really wanted to do this .
I’ll call our instructor, Manly Mark, and he gave us quite an introductory lecture about learning to dive safely. “Folks, if you don’t do this correctly, you can die.” He made it a point to make eye contact with each one of us, drilling in how serious he was. “So I will insist that you pay attention and demonstrate that your understand before I’ll certify you. Every student I’ve certified is still alive. I don’t want any of you breaking my record.” I couldn’t help but look around trying predict who would struggle. One gal, Becky, had a look that did not inspire confidence.
I already knew from dad that there was a dangerous side to diving and was ready to pay attention. Over the next 12 Saturdays, he lectured us. He put us into the pool with various pieces of gear and leaned on us to do everything correctly. He was a great instructor. He also consistently behaved like an adolescent macho jerk which kept me from wanting any more of his time than required.
I was easily catching on because much of this dad had already taught me. Becky, on the other hand was always awkward and struggled. I worried that she might not be well suited for scuba diving. Her friends Andrew and Jessie also caught on and stayed nearby to help her.
The class included several dive trips to demonstrate our skills. One trip was to learn how to enter the ocean against big waves. Monastery Beach is a small but dramatic public beach just south of Monterey and Carmel, California. If you look closely at an ocean floor map, you would see how the Monterey peninsula acts very much like a funnel – focusing waves from a deep offshore abyss into a small rounded south-east corner of the shoreline.
Monastery Beach has a nasty reputation. The locals refer to it by the less-than-honorable name of “Mortuary Beach” because so many people have died there. Manly Mark knew that on any given day, the waves here could be huge.
At the beach, I marveled that I was able to walk to edge of dry land and be no more than 12 feet from a wave crest more than 6 feet above my 6′ 3″ hairline. This was no smooth, gently sloping shore. It was deep water right up to shore. These giant waves crashed and fell all within about 10 feet.
Wow- this is so cool! Did Manly Mark really say we’re going to enter the ocean from here? I thought as I tried to decide if I was thrilled or terrified.
My dive buddy, Ben, yelled out , ”Oh yea! Going to be epic. You first.” Ben was bigger and taller than everyone so of course we called him, Big Ben, because the laws of sarcasm physics cannot be denied.
Manly Mark had us gear up and line up within arms reach of those huge walls of angry water and, yelling loudly over the crashing waves, lead us step by step, how to get safely in through the surf. We succeeded and soon found ourselves about 30 feet from shore floating in small groups with our dive buddies. Mark instructed us to do a short dive down through layers of floating seaweed and suddenly we were the moving world of a thick kelp forest.
Afterwards he summoned back to shore where he shouted, “One more lesson for the day. Everyone drop your gear.” We did so without knowing why. “Okay, enough work for one day, everyone get back in the water and enjoy bobbing in those monster waves!”
We cheered in mass because we all realized how much fun this was going to be. We would get knocked around by the waves, but in our neoprene wet suits without our heavy belts and gear, WE WERE UNSINKABLE. To mixed shouts of “Kowabunga’s” and similar screeches, we hit the water and popped up like corks laughing and spitting salt water in proportion to the quality of our entry, but even the washing machine effect of churning us through the breakers, barely slowed us as we shot to the surface. It was incredibly fun. Gotta give this round to Manly Mark.
Big Ben, in his wet suit, also shot up near me. For a moment, I thought he might actually clear the water altogether. He was laughing and spitting water and making horrible gagging sounds. The class played for a few minutes. Even Becky was having a great time when Manly Mark called us back for lunch.
“Seriously Mark!? You expect anyone to eat after that ride?” But people began to make their way in. The trip back in proved to be much tougher than getting out. The waves were still moving us up and down within about 12-15 feet of altitude and we needed to time our exist to be close to the beach or risk being pounded by the breaker.
I watched as Big Ben tumbled up the beach, but he survived. Then I noticed that Becky was in trouble. She was scared to death of this part. Andrew was there again tohelp her and I smiled as he literally took her arm and drove her through the exit, timing it almost perfectly. She came out on all fours, but looked much more graceful than whatever it was that Ben just did.
I didn’t want to leave. Those waves were wonderful. We’d packed our lunches so no one actually needed me ashore. I chose to just enjoy the floating for a bit. It was the greatest water bed ever; sliding down into a deep trough and coasting up to the crest of the next , I’d settled into a easy, relaxing pattern.
Big Ben, the good dive buddy that he was, stayed on the edge of the beach waiting for me. Dive Buddy rules were clear. He could not leave me in the water alone but coming between Ben and his lunch was a lapse of wisdom that I completely missed.
“Wilson – get your butt in here!” He called out as I rode the crest of a big wave. I looked over at him and gave him my best you-must-be-kidding smirk just as the wave passed and I slid down into the next trough. This is so great – or so I thought.
Big Ben had to be a biker or something crude because his language, while still playful, decayed quickly into words I prefer not to repeat and I continued to smirk at him from high above him on each wave crest. I was particularly taken with how close I was to the beach where Big Ben had his hands on his hips trying to figure out how to reach me and pull me in so he could go eat, but I was just out of reach and could turn my head to wink at Ben, then turn to watch the ride down into the next trough.
But I was drifting closer to the beach with each wave and finally got too close to the edge and never saw that next trough. I figure I fell backwards about 12 feet into the churning water at the base of the collapsing wave. I was amazed at the view of that giant wave breaking right above me. Angry exploding water buffered my fall, but slamming into the beach still knocked the wind out of me. There I stayed while all that falling water overwhelmed my wet suit and pinned me to the crunchy sand bottom, forcing said sand into any unprotected body opening and even up inside my wet suit. I was a bit slow to pinch my mouth shut and prayed it would stop soon because I had almost no air and couldn’t move until this pounding stopped.
As the storm of water and sand and seaweed began to slow, I felt myself moving toward the shore. It was counter intuitive and paused my panic at needing to breath. I tried to move, but one arm was not responding and I needed to deal with this mouthful of sand. I have to clear that mess if I wanted to breath again. Both sinus’s were also packed with sand and at least one small, very annoyed crustacean.
The water level around me got lower and I finally realized that it was Ben, dragging me by one arm to safety. He was laughing so hard I thought he was going to choke. Finally, he dropped me on the warm sand, not more than 6 feet from that wave was receding. He then sat down near me, almost in tears of laughter. He leaned close to my face so I could hear him over the crashing of the next wave and said, “What’s the matter Wilson? Get an O. S. wave?”
But I really needed air, so I rolled over to spit out a mouthful of sand and finally gulped a fresh breath. Then I used my finger to dig out as much as I could. Talking proved tougher. I finally choked out, “What –ACK –, is a — PITUY — O.S. wave?”
Big Ben leaned back and laughed, “It stands for ‘Oh S**t and that definitely was one.” I was still gagging on sand but I knew I was safe and air was getting where I needed it. Do you have any idea how hard it is to laugh with both your mouth and sinus’ layered with sand?
Well, Manly Mark signed all our cards.
About a year later I heard that that Becky had joined with a group from class to go diving and got separated from her dive buddy. They found her, days later, dead, having drifted to where the shore was very rocky. Apparently she died on those rocks, fighting heavy surf, alone.
I wondered if I could have, should have done something differently, but what?
I also wondered if Manly Mark updated his class introduction to note that he had finally lost a student. RIP Becky. I still think of you.
I discovered on a later dive that my eustachian tubes were unsuited for dives deeper than 20 feet and my doctor advised me to give up scuba diving, so I gave ski diving a try instead. And dad, he was always proud of me.