Riptide; when going sideways is a good thing

Riptide; when going sideways is a good thing

If you’ve ever been caught in a riptide you’ll know what I mean when I say it’s all about going sideways.  As you feel the tide sucking you out into oblivion, all you want to do is swim directly back to shore.  Why wouldn’t you do the most logical, instinctual thing and take the direct route back to safety?

This happened to me back in the 90’s when the women and children in our family made the winter pilgrimage to Maui, leaving behind our beloved men to fend for themselves so we could enjoy a stretch of pure mother/daughter restorative togetherness in paradise. It was my last day on one of these trips, and I was on my own with the plan to have a quick dip/float close to shore. I made my way down to Napili Bay – the same bay I had swam in every day for the last 3 weeks and in fact for years previously, with never a care in the world.

The difference that day was I was in a hurry. I didn’t sit on my towel and people/wave watch while chatting with my family, instead I dropped my towel and slid into the seemingly calm water, flipped onto my back and surrendered to the salty buoyancy.  Thinking back on that afternoon I realize now the locals never just dive into the ocean.  Instead, the Hawaiians stand at the top of the beach leaning on their skim or surf boards and watch the ocean for what seems like eternity before jumping in to work the waves in their effortless, athletic way. They are always watching and observing, both in and out of the water.  It never occurred to me the purpose of that patience and observation until that day.

After what felt like only a few moments I popped up to look back to shore and realized with a start that the beach was far, far away.  At the time I was in the midst of triathlon training and was as strong as I have ever been, so without a thought I started swimming directly back to shore.  Within moments I could see I was going nowhere, and when I stopped swimming the tug of the water continued to pull me out towards Molokai and the coast of China beyond.  I remember that moment as if it was yesterday.  Two thoughts hit me like a truck: 1) my epic stupidity 2) how could I have done this to my family, and more specifically my son? As my predicament filled me like a lead weight I saw a man dressed in black slacks and a white shirt striding out along the point trail waving a life ring in one hand and gesturing to me to swim towards him with the other.  Swim away from the beach his arms were saying.  Swim sideways.  I immediately followed his commands and eventually found myself clambering up on the lava rocks to safety, a tricky and exhausting manoeuvre in itself to time the waves so I didn’t end up like a heap of mashed potatoes in front of the Napili Kai Resort.  It turns out my pseudo lifeguard was in fact the waiter at the local beach restaurant.  With Mai Tai sales apparently slow that afternoon he had his eyes on the water and not on his tables.  Lucky me.  My legs shaky, we clambered back along the point trail to the beach with me thanking him profusely along the way.  (Thinking back, I probably should have done something more meaningful – like buy him a car).  I then collapsed on my towel exhausted and shaken to recover from the shock of swimming for my life.

As I think back on this incredibly lucky life experience (what if Mai Tai sales had been brisk that day?), I figure the same kind of thing can happen in life when one day we look up from our routine and see we are miles away from where we want to be.  To right our course, we logically attempt to swim the shortest route possible to reach our destination. Maybe we don’t reach out to accept help offered from the sidelines, and we fight the pull and only manage to become more exhausted.  Maybe we are too stubborn, or proud to take the longer route back to where we want to be.  Maybe we don’t want to go sideways.  Rest assured my impatient, type A personality has landed me in this position on numerous occasions (albeit only once in the water – never again).  But if there is anything I’ve learned along the way, it’s that some of the most powerful, and lifesaving (literally and figuratively) experiences come with accepting a helping hand and taking the longer way home.