Terror at the Beach: Caught in a Riptide!

She looks around just in time to see a wave towering over her. There’s no time to duck this one, and it sends her spinning underwater.

By Derek Burnett
Also in Reader's Digest Magazine August 2014

ocean riptidePhotograph by Claire Benoist, John Antczak/AP Photo (inset)

It’s a well-conceived first date for lifelong surfer Chase Newsom and scuba dive master Cynthia Hatfield: The two Southern Californians will spend an afternoon honing Cynthia’s novice surfing skills on the waters of Orange County’s Aliso Beach. Unfortunately, their Saturday afternoon date comes on the heels of the worst Pacific storm to hit the area in years, and by the time they put on their wet suits, the water is too rough. The surfing lesson is out of the question.

The two agree to splash around in the shallow water just a few feet from shore instead. But within seconds, they realize their mistake. An eight-foot wave comes in with startling force. Chase, the surfer, lets the water push him toward shore, where he stands and collects himself. But when Cynthia, the diver, negotiates the wave by ducking under it, she is shocked by the strength of its pull away from shore, diagonal from the beach. She gets her bearings and starts to wade toward land, when a second wave hits.

Cynthia tries ducking again, but this wave slams even harder. She knows she can hold her breath for about a minute, and as she feels the seconds ticking away, she begins to wonder if she’ll surface before her time is up. She does, and she finds her footing and calls to Chase, who is alarmingly far away now. She’s been pulled both down the beach and out to sea. “I think I want to get out,” she yells. She looks around just in time to see a third wave towering over her. There’s no time to duck this one, and it sends her spinning underwater, where once again she tests the limits of her breath. When at last she begins to see sunlight through her clenched eyelids and bobs to the surface for air, she has been pulled a quarter mile from shore.

The waves are enormous. They’re not breaking, though, and she can stroke without getting pounded. But the water temperature is in the 50s. She can’t stay out here forever.

Swimming to shore is out of the question. For one thing, although she’s strong, she doesn’t know if she’ll survive another encounter with the surf break. And the current has pulled her down shore from Aliso Beach; to her eye, she’ll come ashore in the next cove, which is studded with rocks and reefs. She knows that getting slammed by a wave into a barnacle-covered reef would cut her to shreds, maybe even crack her skull. With no good options, Cynthia marks time, paddling seaward to avoid the suck of the waves that keep trying to draw her toward the surf line.

Chase is astounded by how quickly Cynthia has been pulled away. An Orange County Lifeguards truck rolls onto the beach, and he runs over to where the rescuer is pulling on his wet suit and fins. “My friend is out there,” Chase says.

“OK,” the lifeguard replies. “I’m going out there.”

“Do you want me to paddle out and get her?” Chase asks, but the lifeguard doesn’t respond. Chase shrugs and runs back to the beach, determined to try. To his surprise, someone else is already swimming through the surf toward Cynthia.

Chase flings himself onto his surfboard and begins paddling furiously. He makes it past the break before the waves begin crashing again. He doesn’t know what he’ll do once he gets to Cynthia besides help her stay afloat and commiserate.

The swimmer beats Chase to Cynthia and introduces himself as Brennan, a former local lifeguard. “Are you OK?” he asks.

“I’m fine,” Cynthia answers. “I’m so sorry you had to come out here. I was sucked out really quickly.”

After a few minutes, Chase paddles up and shares his surfboard with her. The trio is quickly joined by the local lifeguard Chase had spoken to on the beach and two Laguna Beach guards, who were responding to a 911 call a bystander had made. The Laguna Beach rescuers, Matt Grace and Casey Parlette, determine that the best option is to ride the current while they wait for a rescue boat. It is no casual treading of water; they need to be close enough that they can make a break for shore if necessary, but not so close that the waves suck them back into the surf. They fall into an endless pattern of paddling hard out to sea, getting pulled in by the nearly 15-foot waves, and paddling hard seaward again. For an hour, they rise and fall together in the cold water, counting the waves, timing the breakers. The sets are too close together for them to risk an attempt to the shore.

“I’ll go back,” the Orange County lifeguard finally says. “I’ll brief them on the situation.”

The group watches him depart. Cynthia, who is connected to both Laguna Beach guards by a rescue tube with a tether, can see that an ambulance has arrived on the scene, and EMTs are unloading stretchers. Please let there be a boat,she thinks.

Suddenly, a wave that looks the size of an apartment complex mounts. The Laguna Beach guards yell, “Swim!” Matt, who is farthest from shore, fins hard, managing to make the crest, but now he is on the back side of the wave, while Cynthia and Casey—still tethered to Matt—are on the front. Casey disconnects himself from the rig, seizes Cynthia, and pushes her into the tube as Matt spread-eagles his body to create enough drag to keep Cynthia from being carried off. There is a mad yank on the tether, and then Casey and Cynthia burst through to the back of the wave, gasping.

“Keep swimming!” Matt yells, and Cynthia sees another stupendous wave. The timing of this one is worse; Cynthia knows that the rescue tube will catch its full force. Casey slips the tube over her head and wraps his arms around her, and they kick hard to slice into the wave. It feels like half a minute of frenzied kicking before they break through.

“Don’t stop swimming,” Casey says.

A few more seconds of effort and they’re clear of the break, but now they notice another lifeguard battling his way out through the surf to reach them. When he arrives, he tells the group what they already know: They should not try to swim in—a boat is on its way. They’ve been in the water for nearly two hours.

Finally, a boat arrives, and the Orange County Harbor Patrol plucks the swimmers from the water and carries them to its basin at Dana Point Harbor. The group is cold and exhausted, but no one is seriously injured.

Cynthia regrets that she put herself in the situation, but she is grateful for the lifeguards’ bravery and professionalism. “I knew if I did what you said, I’d be fine,” she tells them as the boat motors into the harbor. “I knew I was in good hands.”

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