Fight or Flight… or, Paddle.

I had never seen anything quite as beautiful and perfect as I had when I pulled my van up to the beach access in “Surfer’s Paradise” on Australia’s Gold Coast.  I had a week off between the end of classes and start of exams while studying abroad in Wollongong, Australia, so I decided to rent a van and drive as much of the east coast as I could – solo – stopping at all the famous breaks along the way.  Two hours prior I had been sitting on a rock in Byron Bay 60 miles south staring wistfully at the blown-out chop and debating my next move.  I pulled out a second-hand road map I’d been using a guide and figured I wasn’t too far from Queensland, so hey, why not go?

The sun was setting as I pulled up.  I figured I may as well take a peek at the ocean as a prelude to whatever tomorrow may have in store.  As walked out onto the sand, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing: slightly overhead clean easy perfection against the fading light and a rising moon.  I literally took one picture (see attached-look at the guy paddling out for a size reference) turned around and ran back to my van, threw on my wetsuit, grabbed my board and didn’t stop running until I hit the water.  I had maybe 20 minutes of light and I intended to make the most of them.  Plus, sharks are actually present in this region, so I wouldn’t want to be out past dark.

I’m not sure whether I’d call this move an error in judgment, but it was an error none the less.  Everyone was catching their last rides and heading in mumbling something about the tide as I was paddling out.  I managed to catch a couple decent rides before finding myself in a “lull.”  I’d drifted a descent way to the north but didn’t think much of it.  At this point the dusk had all but faded, and I decided to get one more and head in.  I waited.  I waited some more.  I paddled south.  Still waiting.  I was alone in the water.  Now it was dark.  Crap.  Whatever, there’s always tomorrow.  I pivoted and started paddling absentmindedly towards shore – I’d rather call it than get eaten.  Then I saw the fin.

Just kidding.  But 20 minutes later I was still paddling.  WHY WAS I STILL PADDLING?  I couldn’t see the beach, only the lights of the city in the background.  How could I still be this far out?  I started paddling harder trying to get anything rolling through in to push me.  I figured I must be in a rip current, so I started paddling at an angle to the south to get out of it.  In the past I’d never given rip currents a second thought – They come with the territory; all surfers are well acquainted with them.  Like everyone else I’d always just used them as a speed lane to paddle out through the break and viewed them as easy to get out of by moving laterally.

I looked up periodically using the lights of the buildings as a frame of reference.  I was legitimately making backwards progress.  By this point my arms were growing progressively heavier.  Why couldn’t I get out of this thing?  If I could make it south I could get pushed in with the whitewater, but still I was going nowhere.

I started to realize that I was actually alone – not one person knew where I was, and there was no one within ear shot. The thought of what feeds at this hour began to crop up in the back of my mind, and I could feel the sinking rush of adrenaline that just precedes panic.  I immediately tucked it away – this would not help me.  As my arms and back grew more fatigued, the reality got harder to ignore.  I had to get out of the water.

I began to sprint, kick, grunt, anything I could to fight the current.  Lactic acid built up in my arms to the point where I could barely pull them back out of the water.  I kept going – I was inching closer.  I heard a crash behind me – the set caught me off guard and sent me tumbling off my board and pinned me under the water. I gasped once at the surface as the second and third waves hit, this time letting my body relax as I cartwheeled below the surface, doing nothing but praying that they had pushed me forward.  When I resurfaced I quickly realized that it hadn’t.  As I pulled my leash and climbed back on my board I felt like I had nothing left to give from my muscles.  I took a deep breath.  This wasn’t a game anymore – I HAD to make it out of the water.

It’s true what they say about the body’s capacity to give more than you think it can when it’s exposed to extreme levels of stress.  I had nothing left to give but started paddling harder and faster than I would have ever thought possible.  I paddled and paddled and kicked and finally threw my feet down to find that they could touch at chest depth.  I laughed and anchored myself against the bottom, leaning into the current and driving with my legs as hard as I could.  Even though I could touch I could still barely make any progress against the strength of the pull.  When I got to shore, I set down shaking on the sand to catch my breath. From this vantage point I could make out the entirety of the pull against the light form the city and moon– thick feeders pulled off the sandbars into a main channel easily the width of a football field.  All I could do was laugh… no wonder I got stuck.

I don’t know how many hours I was paddling for, but it was well past midnight by the time I hiked back to my van (and fortunately still with all my limbs).  I was in respectable surfing shape, but the soreness I felt the next day was immeasurable.  Because of the circumstance, I was able to push the physical limitations of my body to a level where I did not think they could go.  I suppose this is what we call the “fight-or-flight” response, but all in all, my situation was not that bad – I cannot even begin to imagine how Tanya Streeter is able to defy panic and trust her body’s abilities 525 beneath the ocean’s surface.

roadie 108

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2 Responses to Fight or Flight… or, Paddle.

  1. Awesome story. Sounds like one of those moments that you would never actively seek to find yourself in, but in hindsight, you are (hopefully) thankful for the experience and its impact on your life. Certainly worthy of the term “adventure.”

  2. Fearless Leader ugogal says:

    Wow! Gripping adventure tale…you and Pilgrim should team up on that book!

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