Saturday, February 11, 2012

El Estero de la Noche - an OBN Writing Prompt on "Scary Outdoors"

Don't even bother with the "sunsets in my town are this awesome" comments

To partially describe the scene would be to say that it was a picture perfect evening in an endless history of such evenings in northwestern Costa Rica.   Hot air, cool water. That freaking orange sky. Perfect, wind-groomed 6 to 8 foot surf just a quarter mile offshore, and a friendly little beach town full of surfers, anglers and beach bums happy to split fresh shrimp and dollar beers with a total stranger. Paradise.  Seriously.

I had trained for this trip for four months.  Lost 25 pounds. Spent night after night in the gym. The pool.  Trying out my new big wave shortboards in the 33 degree North Atlantic in January.  So I knew something had gone wrong when my back tightened, only a few hours into the year's first surf session in tropical waters.  The critical point of the wave - the wave I was interested in, anyway - was right on the edge of a tough current.  I was in a wolfpack full of capable surfers from around the world.  I'd met none of them.  We paddled.  We surfed.  We hooted and hollered.  Brothers and sisters.  It was awesome.  Most got tired, had visions of cheap Imperial and rode a thumping wave into shore.  I stayed. Let 'em go in.  I came here to surf.  I paddled against the current, unaware that it was a riptide (from the huge rivermouth), and that it might get stronger and wider.  And boy, did it.

Does EPA Have a Beach Warning
Code for this?
My travel partners were splitting the two breaks to the south - one a mild but fun beachbreak, and the other a more critical lava reef.  I wanted el Estero.   The rivermouth bleeds out fast and wide into the ocean here, in 12 foot vertical breaths (tides).  A quick, steep takeoff but in deep, safe water, over sand, not reef.  Looooooooooong rides, even at low tide, which was approaching.  Only potential hazard: caimans (and rarely crocodiles) that accidentally washed out from the marsh, into the ocean, with the dropping tide.  I was so busy paddling against the current that while I noticed the lineup thinning, I didn't notice that my friends were already on the beach.  Concerned.  Minding the setting sun, the tide, and the growing size of the waves.

Not for the "I Can Swim Okay" Crowd

Finally, there were only two of us left in the ocean - myself and a local Costa Rican.  The dropping tide, the hideous current, and my fatigue made me ambivalent to the fact that I was now nearly a half mile out to sea, under a setting sun, in 8 foot crushing waves.  The rides were amazing - but shorter - requiring a surgical pull-out and a military-speed scurry back out to safe, deep water.   Oh -  I should mention that at that point, I was only about 6 hours off the plane to Liberia, Northern Costa Rica.  I was jetlagged and didn't know it.  

Click on the picture - you can see the half-mile long
riptide on a small (3-4') surf day
As that amazing orange creamsicle Pacific sunset started to melt into the sea, I had my first moment of clarity, and realized that I'd been surfing on the edge of a world class riptide for the previous three hours. I was totally dehydrated, exhausted, and jetlagged, and I was nearly a half mile out to sea with only one person, who I didn't know, and who I doubted spoke any English (and who, at that very moment, took his last wave into the foamy shorebreak maelstrom on the way to the beach).  Whoa. This just got serious.





Right then, it got dark.  On the Atlantic Ocean side of the Americas, you can surf after sunset, because the sun's escaping light stares you in the face, from the beach, for another 30-45 minutes. On the Pacific side, not so much.  At this point in our broadcast, I'll remind you that I was in Costa Rica, which, while being a very beautiful country, is still in Central America.  And a rolling blackout was in effect.  There were no lights on the beach. Or in town.   Meanwhile, the Costa Rican guy was still flailing around in the shorebreak, maybe 500' out to sea or so, getting ripped up and down the beach by the pounding 6-8 foot walls of surf - waves that had come about 10,000 miles from New Zealand, and were not interested in "letting up."  He looked like he was going to drown, but I was in no position to save him - hell, I could barely even see him. I then realized that I was in no position to save myself. 

Belly on up to this beach in the dark - I dare ya!
I finally panicked.   I knew that the current was pulling me north, away from generous sand beaches and toward a large area of rocky lava islands and very, very tough shorelines.  No sand.  Just black lava.  I'd never even set foot on them before.  Great places to drown or crack my skull, especially in the dark.  Worse yet, much of it was unpatrolled National Park and Marine Reserve.   I tried to calm myself down by admitting, out loud, "I just have to get onto shore.  I can sleep on the shore." Yeah, that didn't help. I kept paddling to stop moving away from the darkening shoreline.  Exhausted. Dehydrated. Confused.  Hungry. Scared. Despondent over how my friends could have "left me."

A strong but small seaward rip.  Photo: NOAA
Finally, another brief moment of clarity.  A lifetime of boating, surfing and swimming reminded me (a little late - blame the jet lag) that the rip current must have a seaward limit, even if I didn't like or understand where it might spit me out.  With just a few minutes of passable gray-orange light left in the sky, I let go.  The riptide pulled me - fast - another several hundred feet.  I don't really know how far.  And suddenly my only landmark - one set of truck headlights and lamps on the beach - stopped getting farther away.  That same moment, I saw the outline of the Costa Rican surfer....still in the water.  He'd arrived at the same spot - poor bastard.

I yelled, "Amigo! No Vayas!!!"  Who knows, I might have said, "No Vatos," or "No Vatas" in my excitement.  He waved me toward him and seemed annoyed as he yelled "Aqui, aqui."  Thank you, 6 months of studying "Handbook of Costa Rican Spanish."  And Gracias, Amigo.

Dark
It was dark now.  I could see the white foam from his hands striking the surface of the water, and the white tail of his board, between his knees as he paddled (invisible).  I paddled just 10 feet behind and 10 feet to the left.  We soon entered the shorebreak from the trench.  I knew it was about to happen because suddenly, his board accelerated and disappeared into the dark.  My turn was next. Vertical drops of 5, 6, 8 feet while laying on my board.  Praying the board wouldn't break, because I would drown.   All I could see was dark and foam, and that was somehow OK because it meant that we were headed  toward the beach or the rivermouth, and not out to sea.


After a brutal set of 6 big waves in a row, the Costa Rican was gone, and I didn't even have a moment to consider what that meant, except of course, the worst - shark attack.   My mind was slipping yet again.  I came up for breath, spit out a mouthful and noseful of sand,  and I saw the headlights and lamps of our rental truck pointed at the surf about 200 feet in front of me, and 500 feet to my right.

My friends, of course, had not forgotten about me, and when they saw the Costa Rican wash up (healthy, alive, and disoriented) a few hundred feet south and two minutes ahead of me, they hoped that I'd be nearby.  Yes, of course, they were drinking beer.  A final crunching wave spat my board and I up on the beach.  I sat there, exhausted. I'd been surfing for almost six hours in pretty serious conditions.  The sun had been down for 90 minutes. 


The rest of the trip was a dream come true.  I surfed. I fished.  I drank. We met Costa Ricans, Americans, Canadians, and Italians. I saw my first wild macaws, a Costa Rican rodeo, and Costa Rican girls with tan skin and bright green eyes.  During a big surf session offshore, I even "grabbed the reef when all duck diving fails," as the Sublime song goes.  But it was also the first time in my life that my failure to take my time (or basic safety precautions) almost cost me a whole lot.  I don't know what would have happened if another half hour had slipped away with me, sitting on that board, confused in the dark.  I don't spend much time at all thinking about it, and this is the first time I've ever written about it, though it happened a decade ago.  I guess I've tried to absorb the life lesson and leave the memory behind.

For this particular writing prompt ("My Outdoor Scary") from the Outdoor Blogger Network, I'm sure some fascinating stories will come in about run-ins with lions, tigers, bears, and  poisonous snakes.  And it's easy - not to mention smart -  to be scared of those things.  But I'm living proof - or at least this story is living proof - that the most dangerous and scary thing out there in the wild is the kind of situation you put yourself in, and the lack of preparation and planning you afford yourself.  Be careful out there! 

What the rest of the trip was like...

Me (50 pounds ago) with two of the boys....those are 10' waves about 1/3 mile offshore.
That was another long swim - strict buddy system! 


3 comments:

Tonto Rambler said...

What a great story on survival, just goes to show if you are faced with the prospect of death a clear head is your best friend. Glad the first night didn't ruin the whole trip.

River Mud said...

Thanks TR! In a way, it saved the trip. I was so sore the next morning (of course, we surfed at dawn) and for the next 2 days that it made me be really conscious of the situations I was putting myself in.

Clear head wins the day.

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