I stood on Rehobeth Beach in Delaware and licked my chops. Nasty waves were roiling out there, churned up by a hurricane in the Atlantic. Not often do waves like these bomb eastern shores - five-foot swells that take shape 100-150 feet out, rise to a foaming head and then crash with a roar. The shoreline at Rehobeth Beach drops off fast. Storm waves don’t gently roll in, all you need to do is listen to them. I’m a lifelong failed surfer (couldn’t figure out how to stand on the board) relegated to a gung ho body surfer. These five-footers looked like fun.
A cognitive failure
Wrong. I left my wife behind in her beach chair (“You’re not going in, are you? They’ve been warning people all week on Action News about the ripe tides and rough waves.”) Soon I was out where the swells formed, harmless looking green-gray humps that quickly rose to a gurgling white crest. The first five-footer I dived on to ride was churning and swirling. I stretched with arms out and hands touching. Then I had a belated stroke of insight: these aren’t body surfing waves. Then off the cliff I went.
As the crest broke I shot inside an underwater washing machine, the force of the wave turning me upside down, right-side up. A whole lotta shakin’ going on in three feet of water. I surfaced, too weak in the knees to fully stand, in time to be clobbered by the next wave.
My adrenalin was juiced. Where’s the next bad boy, I wondered, looking to the horizon. I caught another foaming little monster, tried body surfing again, rode high on the crest for a moment, and plunged back into that washing machine. This time I tucked into a ball, easier to bounce off the ocean floor. At least I didn’t feel like my arms were being ripped from my shoulders. Amazing power packed in a five-foot wave.
Up on the beach a semi-circle of middle-aged women sat watching the surf thrash me around like a ragdoll. They had a blast. Or so my wife later told me. “Ohhh, did you see that guy? Where’d he go? Oh, there he is, over there. Boy, he got nailed, didn’t he?” My wife wasn’t laughing; she just shook her head.
Twenty minutes or so of rocking and rolling out there was enough, and I trudged in thinking, how do big wave surfers live to see another day? You know, out in the wilds of Santa Cruz, Half Moon Bay, or Hawaii’s North Shore. Where the likes of the legendary Laird Hamilton and an elite crew of crazies get towed out to 70- to 100-foot mountains of water.
This is what psychologists call a “cognitive bias.” On the East Coast here I believed I was plenty safe. That was my bias. Two- and three-foot waves are the norm. Styrofoam boogie boards straddled by ten-year-olds don’t even break on these tides.
That night we ate at a cozy corner Irish pub, and I had my blinders taken off. Down several seats from me at the bar a woman talked about what a rough summer she had had. What happened? “Four or five times we had to chopper guys out of the water to Salisbury (the closest medium-size city on the DelMarva Pennisula). “Head injuries?” Yes indeed. She was an emergency medical technician working out of nearby Bethany Beach. “One man was standing waist deep in water, next to his wife and daughter. He dove in head-first and struck a sandbar. Cracked his neck. He’s a quadriplegic now. It was so sad with his daughter right there. It was a rough summer.”
I am not, as my wife will tell you, a shore person. I don’t spend a lot of time in the ocean. I’m not a sailor by any stretch. This void in my life has left me ignorant of the power of the sea and lacking appropriate respect for who’s really in charge out there.
Back from Rehobeth I picked up the book, “The Wave” (by Susan Casey, published by Doubleday, 2010). On page seven she relates, “An 18-inch wave can topple a wall built to withstand 125 MPH winds. Coastal advisories are issued for even five-foot- tall surf, which regularly kills people caught in the wrong places. The force of a wave is hard to underestimate.” OK, I get it. “Every year on average more than two dozen large ships sink or go missing. If smaller vessels are counted, the number is vastly higher. Imagine if 24 747s slipped off the radar with all passengers each year, never to be heard from again.”
With the oceans accounting for 71 percent of the Earth’s surface, perhaps the immensity of the seas makes it easier to put these disasters out of sight, out of mind. We all fly in planes, but none of us book passage on 300-foot tankers that might confront nightmarish storms.
I Googled “killer waves” to learn more.
“A 7-year-old girl died in Maine after her father and a 12-year-old girl were swept into the water as powerful waves, remnants of Hurricane Bill, smashed into Thunder Hole.”
“A 54-year-old swimmer died after he was washed ashore unconscious near rough waves fueled by Bill.”
And then this, written by a tourist, struck too close to home: “Rehobeth Beach is the most beautiful beach that I have ever been to and of course all the lifeguards are beautiful but the one bad thing about that is that there are many lifeguards for a reason. The undertow and the water is very dangerous and in the hours that I was there, three people had to be rescued by the lifeguards because the current took them out too far. It is a wonderful place to travel to and I definitely recommend it but the water can be extremely dangerous, if not taken serious enough.”
Guilty as charged. Next time I’ll give Mother Nature her due.