Photo credit: Thanks to the Mercury News for this shot of Monastery Beach near Carmel, California .
It was one of the most relaxing feelings imaginable. Floating like a buoyant cork, drifting up and down with the warm ocean waves, sliding playful down into the troth between wave crests and up to the top of the next as each wave passed my position. I took a deep cleansing breath and let my mind slow to a meditative pace and watched, straight above me as my view of soft white clouds shifted with each rise and fall, letting time pass without a care – until, suddenly the whole ocean disappeared out from beneath me and I was suddenly falling with nothing but misty air to support me. I was too surprised to even scream as the clouds stopped shifting and then disappeared altogether behind the giant wall of angry white water. This was going to be really – really unpleasant.
My dad was going to be so proud. I had moved out of the only home I’d ever known and into my first apartment in San Jose to start my first professional job. I was stepping into adulthood, working, paying my own rent and utilities – starting my own life. I was making my own decisions about what to do with my free time and an early item was to finish learning the hobby that dad had started me on – I had signed up for a local Jr. college class to become a certified scuba diver.
So on an upcoming Saturday, I found myself sitting, back to the wall on the floor of an apartment common room that the certified instructor had reserved for our class. This guy was a typical manly man, quite full of himself, but seemed to know his stuff, so I decided to give him a chance because I really wanted this knowledge.
Manly Mark, gave us quite an introductory lecture about learning to dive the correct way. “Folks, if you don’t do this correctly, you can easily 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 you understand things before I’ll certify you to join this sport. So you know, every student I’ve certified is still alive. I don’t need any of you to mess up my record.” I couldn’t help but look around to try predict who would struggle. One gal, Becky, had that look in her eyes that did not inspire confidence.
I already knew from my dad that there was a dangerous side to diving and was more than willing to pay attention. Over the next 12 Saturdays, he lectured us. He put us into the apartment pool with various pieces of gear to learn how to do all sorts of cool things. Manly Mark, did impress me that he was a great instructor and a real macho jerk in some ways that kept me from wanting any more of his time than required. Becky was always awkward and many of us helped her along the way.
The class included several dive trips to demonstrate our skills. A major 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, you can see how the Monterey peninsula could act 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 these days. The locals refer to it by the less-than-honorable name of: Mortuary Beach because so many people have died there. Manly Mark knew was that on any given day, the waves here would be substantial – huge even. I marveled when 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 thus the 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? ”
My dive buddy for the day, Ben, answered,” oh yea! Going to be great. You first.” Ben was bigger and taller than me and I really had not yet learned the art of choosing dive buddies based on chance of survival. Of course we called him Big Ben because some laws of physics cannot be denied.
Manly Mark, had us all gear up and we lined up, almost within arms reach of those huge moving walls of angry water and, yelling loudly over the crashing waves, succeeded in teaching us how to get safely in through the surf. We succeeded and soon found ourselves about 30 feet from shore floating above a huge kelp bed. We were instructed to do a short dive down through the kelp (an unexpected lesson in survival by accident) but enjoyed a quick dive down in the weird world of a real kelp forest before being summoned back to shore.
“One more lesson kids,” Manly Mark shouted. ” Everyone drop your gear, right where you stand.” We did 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 – instantly realizing how much fun this was going to be. We could get knocked around by the waves, but in our rubber wet suits, WE WERE UNSINKABLE. To a mixed chorus 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 breaking waves only scrambled our interest in ever eating food again and in seconds we shot to the surface. It was incredibly fun. Gotta give this round to Manly Mark.
Big Ben, clad fully in his rubber 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. He must have really been churned on the way up. 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 was 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 again.
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. Several of us guys would often step in to help her and I smiled as one guy I knew to be a good chap, literally took her arm and drove her through the exit and timed it almost perfectly. She came out on all fours, but looked much more graceful than whatever it was that Big Ben just did.
I did not want to leave. The waves just out a few feet were wonderful. We’d packed our lunches, so no one actually needed me ashore, so I chose to just enjoy the floating for a bit. It was the greatest water bed I’d ever been on. After sliding down into a few troughs and back up to the crest of the next not-quite-broken wave, I’d settled into a easy, relaxing pattern. This whole experience was rare and thus to be enjoyed for a bit longer.
Big Ben, the good dive buddy that he was, stayed on the edge of the beach, waiting for me. By trade practice, he could not leave me and getting between Big Ben and his lunch was a lapse of wisdom that I completely missed at the time. “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 – 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 use, and I continued to smirk at him from my recline 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 smirk and turn my head to watch the ride down into the next trough.
But of course, one time I got too close to that edge and never saw that next trough. I figure I fell backwards about 12-13 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. There was some churning water to buffer my fall, but it still knocked the wind out of me and then 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 well up inside my wet suit. I was bit slow to pinch my mouth shut and hoped it would stop soon because I had almost no air and couldn’t move until this pounding stopped.
The storm of water and sand and seaweed began to slow. and suddenly, I felt myself moving and this split my attention away from dealing with a mouthful of sand. I’d have to clear that mess if I actually wanted to breath again. Both sinus’s were packed with sand and at least one very small, annoyed crustacean.
The water level around me got quieter and lower, without my doing anything and I finally realized that it was Big Ben, holding me by one numb arm and dragging me 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 no-man’s land of where that killer wave was now receding. Big Ben, 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?”.
By then I really needed air, so I rolled over to spit out a handful of sand and used my finger to dig out as much as I could and finally gulped a fresh breath. Talking proved tougher. I finally choked out, “What ack, is an, pituy, O.S. wave?”
Big Ben leaned back and laughed, “It stands for ‘Oh S**t and that definitely was one.” Do you have any idea how hard it is to laugh with the insides of both your mouth and sinus’ layered with sand?
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, a couple of days later, dead, having drifted to a spot where there was no good place to get back to shore. It appeared that she died on the rocks, fighting heavy surf. I wondered if I could have, should have done something differently.
I also wondered if Manly Mark updated his class introduction to note that he had finally lost one. RIP Becky.