Summer is a glorious time for outdoor enjoyment. We love us some summer in our family. And while I’m a pretty staunch safety Mama, I’m always trying to be as free-range a Mama as I can be. With summer comes so many opportunities to say yes to adventure and enjoy nature.
But while Mother Nature is beautiful, she’s also no joke.
I was a competitive swimmer growing up, then a lifeguard, swim lesson teacher and swim team coach. My teenage son is also a strong, capable swimmer who swims on summer swim teams. Even being a good swimmer, I have never trusted the ocean. I thought I feared, understood and revered it. But familiarity can be dangerous.
At the end of last summer — literally the day after Labor Day, the lifeguards on the beach where we swam all summer long had packed up for the season. It was a sunny and calm ocean day, yet I was not allowing the younger kids to do more than wade in the ocean since the lifeguards weren’t there.
But my teenage son and I wanted to swim out the buoy, no more than 30 yards away from shore. We were strong swimmers, it wasn’t far at all, and we’d seen the lifeguards do it many times over the course of our summers there. We swim in the ocean all summer long, so we were both comfortable in waves. The plan was to swim out and back together (always swim with a buddy!), and it was definitely an “easy” distance for both of us.
So (stupidly), out we swam. The swim out was remarkably easy and quick. The other kids, my parents and husband played on the beach, barely paying us any attention. Once we turned to go back, I understood why the swim out had been so easy. Swimming back to shore was like trying to swim into a brick wall.
I instantly realized that we were caught in a rip current. I’d read about them, even spotted their eerily calm patterns in the typically churning ocean before. Thankfully, I remembered that the “trick” to get out of them was to swim parallel to shore.
So we both stayed calm, and I said, “Let’s swim that way for a bit. It’ll be easier to get back over there.”
My son nodded and we swam, both pretending to be calm.
We swam sideways for about 20 yards and then tried again to turn in towards the shore. The “wall” of the rip current was still there. At that point, I was secretly panicking, but trying hard to stay calm. My son is great at staying calm, thank goodness. I was beyond furious with myself at the stupidity of the decision to swim without a lifeguard and shocked that I’d risked my son’s safety.
No one on shore suspected a thing, except for my Dad. I could see him, tracking our progress, pacing back and forth along the shore. I was terrified that he might come out. I knew from my own lifeguard training that so many drownings occur when one person goes in to “rescue” someone else. I made sure to look as calm and confident as I could while trying to get us to where we could stand before we exhausted ourselves.
We swam and floated sideways for what felt like forever, until finally, the ocean allowed us to inch a bit towards shore. By then, we were both exhausted because we’d been fighting the ocean. Plus, that fear of being pulled out further from shore with no one to rescue us was not good.
We kept joking and working to stay calm and talking strategy. We ended up needing to swim at a long angle towards the shore — much, much farther and longer than we’d originally intended to swim.
I could barely walk when we got to shore. Every muscle ached from fighting the waves and I was quivering from a fear I’d never experienced before. We were both physically fine, but shaky as hell. I know that if my son had struggled out there, or if he’d panicked, or if I’d have allowed his younger sister to come with us like she wanted to, I wouldn’t have been able to help them. It was all I could do to get myself back to shore.
It was a big lesson to me about so many things. About the fragility of life. About how my guilt over always being “safety mom” could go jump off a damn cliff. About how important it is for kids to be strong swimmers, but how important it is to realize it can only help so much in the ocean.
I thought I’d always known that but last summer, I learned it tenfold. I learned about how at least pretending to be calm in a crisis can mean so much. And I learned lots about what NOT to do. Ever, ever again.
I’m so very grateful that our story ended with shaky legs and a very guilty conscience. It could have been so much worse. I spend so much time being careful, trying to guard my children’s safety, thinking one step ahead, but I let myself be lured by the excitement of doing something unexpected, something I was sure was safe given the short distance and our skills.
It’s a lesson in trusting my (initial) gut instinct, but also a lesson in forgiving myself. It was a mistake. A very big and dangerous stupid mistake. But one I will wholeheartedly learn from. My hope is that sharing our story allows others to learn this lesson on a screen or on paper, rather than in an ocean.
Information on rip currents
To learn about rip currents and how to swim out of them, please read this article. But more importantly, only swim on life-guarded beaches. Had a lifeguard been there, our story would have been short and sweet, with a quick tow back to shore.