We arrived at the beachouse just past midday . The drive had been long but we had been in good spirits, initially singing along to the radio to keep ourselves awake as we set off at eight o’clock in the morning – very early for the holidays. It was a beautiful day, the air was crisp and the sky was practically cloudless. We stopped for a brief lunch at Wonthaggi before making the final leg of the trip to Brett’s beachouse at Cape Paterson.
There were five of us in all, Brett, Michael, his sister Lisa, who was going out with Brett, Angie who was going out with Michael, and myself. Angie was down from Queensland for a skating comp which was held the previous weekend. I had just returned from two weeks of backpacking around Europe and had thus not skated to the best of my ability owing to the fact that I hadn’t trained for quite some time. No matter, we were all here to catch up on some much-needed rest and relaxation. Angie, not being from Melbourne, asked us why we had to drive such a long way just to get to a beach. To put it simply, we didn’t have to. We could’ve hopped on a tram and been at a beach within thirty minutes. Cape Paterson however, was quieter and was outside of Port Phillip Bay and thus not sheltered from the ocean. In other words, the waves were bigger… this was to later prove an important detail in the events which transpired on that day.
We put our bags down and got changed, not wanting to miss a moment of sunshine. In a decidedly non-sexual way, we proceeded to rub sunscreen on each other. Brett revealed a sunscreen “miscalculation” which had resulted in some very artistic-looking shapes etched into his skin in swathes of red and… well… tan. We scampered out the door and realised quickly that the ground was quite warm. Me, having been blessed with very sensitive feet, quickly learned that the lighter-coloured sand was cooler in the sun, but the opposite was true in the shade funnily enough. We made our way down the walkway to the beach and, after trekking some distance to the west, we finally happened upon a wide expanse of sand which was, surprisingly, quite well populated.
We made preparations to sunbake having slip, slop and slapped our skins to sunburn safety. The fine texture of the sand on my skin was very refreshing after spending two months in the cold European winter. I lay down on the beach, belly up, thinking about the world – its people, cities, countries, everything. Thinking that it was now mostly behind me and all that was ahead of me was clear blue sky. The sound of the waves lapping at the shore was surely therapeutic as I closed my eyes and before I knew it, I was asleep. A fact which I only became aware of when I woke up two hours later.
I woke to the sound of Brett and Michael asking me to come for a swim. Considering the toasty nature of the day, it seemed like as good an idea as any. We walked briskly past several large clumps of dried seaweed on the beach before wading excitedly into the water. The waves had increased in size since midday and we were doing what must’ve been a very awkward looking bouncing moon-walk once the waves began to reach neck-height. I, thinking myself a fairly strong swimmer, began to swim out into the open ocean. With every wave I dived into the crest, relishing the refreshing salty sensation of the cool water over my body.
I stopped to look up, treading water briefly. Mick and Brett were now behind me, but not by much. They had also stopped and were treading water. I, being in an obviously excitable mood, began swimming again. I noticed that the waves I was so enthusiastically diving through were now bereft of the tickly foam that had dressed many of the earlier waves. I stopped again and looked back. Brett and Mick were now further back – much further back. I must’ve swum further than I thought. I decided that I would begin swimming back towards the shore.
I turned and began to make my way through the water. I put my head down and swam a short way in the normal freestyle fashion. I mistimed a breath and took in several mouthfuls of water so I stopped to clear my throat. I looked up, I wasn’t any closer to the shore. In fact, I was further out and had moved some way off the line which I believed I was swimming along. Then the realisation hit me, I was caught in a “rip”. I went to swim again but mistimed it in spectacular fashion as a fairly large wave caught me and sent me tumbling.
It took me some time to right myself and by the time I did, another wave swept me into a disoriented state. Floundering around under the water, I became entangled in some seaweed and, for what seemed like an eternity, couldn’t find the surface. When I finally did, I was gasping for air and even further from the shore. “Swim”, I said to myself “just swim”. I swam a bit sideways in an effort to get out of the rip which I must’ve done to a certain extent, because I was slowly getting closer to shore.
As I swam, I imagined that I was just swimming laps at training or something. One stroke at a time, just keep it ticking away, just keep it going. I looked up, I thought I was closer, but if I was, I wasn’t much closer. I started to quicken my stroke, I kicked harder. I was trying to conserve my energy, but I also desperately wanted to be on firm ground. I’d never been a big fan of boats, now my dislike extended to the ocean in general. At that moment, it was one place I’d rather not be. I wasn’t flailing around, but my arms were starting to get tired, they started burning.
That burning sensation was all too familiar, it was lactic acid. The aerobic fitness of my arms wasn’t quite the same as my legs and they were getting tired. I looked up. I was still a long way out. I started to panic. I started to die. All manner of morbid thoughts floated through my head. I wondered what my parents would think, how my friends might react, about all those people in the world whom I knew who would learn that I drowned because I carelessly swam too far out. I thought about my life, my short pathetic life. It was all behind me now, and, as far as I was concerned, all that lay ahead was nothing but clear blue ocean.
Something happened. A thought? A whisper? I’m not sure what it was exactly. There was too much to do, too much lay ahead. There were all my goals, my sport, my degree, and my lofty ambitions. There was too much at stake. In a moment of pure selfishness, pure arrogance even, I decided that I couldn’t die. I was too important – the world still needed me. I would not allow myself to die, I would not accept defeat. My arms, although seeming to have exhausted all their energy somehow managed to come back to life. “Relax”, I said, “it will all be ok”.
I swam like I had never swum before. I wasn’t traveling particularly quickly, but I was getting closer to the shore. I couldn’t relent, I pressed on. I was out of breath and the world was spinning, but still I persisted. I could only pray that I was still pointed towards the beach. Every muscle in my body felt the strain but somehow managed to husband enough strength to keep things going. I kept telling myself, “just a little more”, “just a little further”. I was increasingly out of breath, I started to take in water.
I could barely see when I dug a hand deep into the sand of the beach. After never being more afraid in all my life, I was now more relieved than I had ever been in my life. I swam a few strokes more, then I dug my limbs into the sand and used what little strength I had left to crawl up the beach, safely out of reach of the waves. I coughed and spluttered for a few brief moments and collapsed, barely conscious and breathing with great enthusiasm. I could hear my heart beating in my ears – easily over two hundred beats per minute.
Brett and Mick helped me up. We all gathered our things and walked back to the beach house. Nobody said anything, but both Mick and Brett knew what had happened although perhaps didn’t know just how close I came to never coming back. Angie and Lisa were probably wondering why I looked so completely exhausted. It was at least another half an hour before I was fully recovered. We proceeded to laze about the beach house and watch the tennis on TV for a few long, relaxed hours before driving back to Melbourne. I had survived, and with a new found respect for the open ocean.