My sister Sloane and I showed up at Salmon Creek, a beach break in Sonoma County, around ten in the morning. We already knew what we were in for; it was going to be a stormy day. But we were ever hopeful and drove the two hours regardless of what the surf report said. I had just bought a new leash and fins for a shortboard that was handed down to me, so I was stoked to be out in the water on new equipment. I ran down the stairs from the parking lot on the cliff, Sloane following closely behind.
The only other surfer that we had watched paddle out while we were putting on our wetsuits was walking back up the cliff. I stopped him and jokingly asked, “Done already?” He gestured to the less than mediocre waves, “It’s getting chewed up. And there’s a bad rip headed north, but good luck out there.” He was right, it was shit. There were windy and unpredictable waves with no shape, but like Sloane always tells me: “There’s always something we can take away from a surf session.” So, optimistically, I took the plunge on the six-foot board. I immediately knew that my body placement was important. Where I was on the board was causing the nose to go under and I slipped off. I scooted a little further back on the board and noticed I wasn’t going anywhere as I tried paddling into what could best be described as a line-up. I ended up staying inside and practiced sitting up on the board, positioning, and duck diving, something I’d never done in my two years of surfing. After 20 minutes, I was already exhausted and I saw Sloane, back on shore, chatting with a long boarder with a wavestorm. I came back and asked Sloane about him. “Did you take his picture?” I asked, seeing she had her film camera. She hadn’t, and we watched him paddle out into the ocean alone.
Earlier in the day, Sloane and I had a conversation about what to do if things ever got too dangerous out there. We discussed the pros and cons of going to help the other, or if it would be better to get someone. But we knew the danger of the ocean and how it only takes a matter of seconds before something goes wrong. Something you might not ever expect to happen can happen in a flash.
This is part of surfing’s allure: the adrenaline and knowing that at any moment you could be the object of nature’s brutality. You mean nothing to the ocean, and as a surfer, this knowledge is inherent; it passively floats through your thoughts as you wipeout and get pulled under, only being able to come up for air when the monster leaves. Feeling powerless under the mercy of the waves is humbling, of course.
Sloane and I ended this conversation without any real conclusions about what we would do. I’ve never considered myself a “calm and collected” individual. I am pretty high strung and emotional. I’ve taken many first aid and CPR classes for work and I always thought that I would not be able to stay level-headed in high-stakes situations.
Turns out, our bodies are incredible and the adrenaline that pumps through us gives us the proper strength needed to act in ways that we might not normally. For the first time in my life, I was put into a flight or fight situation. We were getting ready to leave when Sloane took a final look for her longboarding friend.
“I told him I’d keep an eye on him,” she said.
Her brows furrowed as she panned the vast, uncaring sea. “I… I see his board?” She looked concerned. “Where is he?” Maybe a hundred yards out, we saw his board rolling through the stormy waves. “THERE!” His leash had clearly snapped in the chaos of the choppy ocean, and he was about 70 yards from shore, and 20 yards away from his board. We watched for a second, hoping he could swim back to shore or that he could grab his board. But with the rip, he was only getting further away from both his board and the shore. Sloane and I were the only people on the beach. I don’t remember everything that happened. I told Sloane to get one of the surfers from up on the cliff, grabbed Sloane’s board, and paddled out. I think somewhere in my mind I was terrified, but my mind was not in control right now, my muscles eased me into a natural state of rescue as if I had done this before (But I sure as hell haven’t). The previously impending waves had been put on pause for me and it seemed the sea was being parted. (God?) I got out faster than I ever have. There was a clear transition on the man’s face from terror to mitigation when he saw me coming.
Somehow, he sputtered a thank you and I realized how big he was. “I’m not a professional.” I disclaimed, preparing for the voyage back to be more burdensome with 200 extra pounds of weight. I had him grab onto my ankle and he floated behind me, warning of any oncoming waves. He took over at some point during the paddle back, which I was thankful for because my arms were turning to jelly.
Finally, we were awkwardly spewed out onto the shore after what felt like a lifetime. Seeing him on land, I could see he was well over six feet and all 200 pounds of him embraced me as soon as we hit land.
“You saved my life.” He hugged me.
Sloane came running from the cliff at full speed. She hugged the man and then me. “I don’t even know what to say…” She said, tears in her eyes.
“No one came to help you!?” I asked, confused by the absence of another person. She explained that the surfers on the cliff had dug out their binoculars when she told them what had happened, they looked out, and saw that I had the situation handled. They nonchalantly told her, “She’s got it,” and went about their business.
Luis, the tall, Venezuelan man, Sloane and I sat on shore for a few minutes, absolutely humbled by what had just happened. Luis explained to us that he came here from Venezuela and has been surfing for seven years. He has a yoga practice in Sebastopol, and invited us out there, saying if we ever needed anything, we would have a place. We hugged again, and he and his Australian Shepherd, Charlie, went on their way.
A few minutes later, my mind caught up to my body, and I broke down over the weight of what could have happened. My strength dissipated with the downpour of rain and all I could think of was being at the mercy of the ocean.