The last thing I remember thinking as the third towering, three-meter-tall wave blocked out the sun and my cramped arms stopped moving was: “Oh my God, I’ve only been here three days!”
Every day since I have been here on Bali, they have had red “no swimming” flags up and down the beach. Of course, the flags have been there so long that scores of people don’t even look at them as they head to the water for surfing and swimming. Last week an Australian surfer drowned, and helicopters were still flying low in hopes to recover his body. The flags have been out as a caution ever since.
In years and years of adventure, nothing like this has ever happened to me before. I have had stuff go wrong while diving or rock climbing when I knew that I was in trouble, but the adrenaline made the stress well worth it. Part of the fun is pressing your luck anyway…but the idea is to live to tell about it in a pub later.
Today, I almost didn’t.
I plodded out into the water along with several other surfers on my third day here in Bali. The sun was shining and the sky was beautiful. It seemed a great day to learn to surf, something that’s been on my life bucket list for quite some time.
In about thigh-deep water, the current was so strong that I was sinking up to my knees as the soft sand around me was sucked away by these giant waves forming. By “giant” I literally mean the kinds of waves that have the nice pipe you can stand up inside of going through them.
I’m pretty comfortable in the ocean from all of the time spent living on islands and diving, so I started doing my best to swim at an angle, all the while diving under and through the relentless waves. I had a pretty good thing going and was actually gaining some ground on my way back to shore…
Then it happened.
The mother of all waves formed above me and I straightened out to dive through it. The last thing I remember was more weight than I have ever felt smashing my head into the soft sand bottom. It really rang my bell, and as I twisted and tumbled in a world of darkness, I realized suddenly that I was over my head in more ways than one.
When I surfaced, I had such a headache that my arms and legs wouldn’t even respond. I was just a piece of meaty flotsam, and the Indian Ocean was having its way with me. To seal the deal, three consecutive waves just like the first broke right on top of me.
I was pummeled.
My lungs begged and pleaded for oxygen, but there was none. I was literally helpless, and it certainly wasn’t a very nice feeling. Unlike the adrenaline buzz earned deliberately, this one wasn’t very addicting at all. For the first time in a while, I realized that I was going to die.
Panicked, praying, and cramping — when I surfaced from the sandy blackness my throat was so filled with salt water that I couldn’t yell for help. I got the attention of an Indonesian surfer by waving my hands and when he got close enough, I croaked a pathetic “help!”
I probably didn’t need to say anything; he could see that I was bleeding, snotting, and coughing — not the normal signs of someone enjoying their holiday on the beach! I hitched a ride on his board, and we kicked and fought the waves together, not communicating, just sharing one very real desire to survive the surf which was now even more in a frenzy.
I slipped off the board several times and sank like a stone; my legs simply weren’t responding, and I had a ringing in my ears.
Lucky for me, the lifeguards had been paying attention rather than smoking and joking with Western girls (which they usually do in these countries) and they dispatched a jet-ski to the rescue.
Yes…I was actually rescued by the surf patrol. How the hell did this happen on my third day away from home?
I hooked my fingers into the netting on the back of the jet-ski, and as the lifeguard expertly timed his driving to avoid rolling us in the waves, I was actually in and out of consciousness. I felt an overwhelming desire to just escape the madness of the situation by going to sleep. When I reached the beach and limply shook my rescuer’s hand, my legs were so wobbly that I couldn’t walk. I lie in the sand unable to move. My headache made a migraine look like fun in the sun, and even though my eyes were open, I could only see shades of gray and black; no colors!
I stumbled into their little shelter and had to fill out some paperwork for the government. As I was doing it, the loudspeaker blasted up and down the beach: “Swimming is closed! Come out of the water!”
Wow — I managed to close the busiest and most famous beach in Bali on my third day, damn. That must be a record. A little embarrassing to say the least.
Now, 24 hours after the incident as I sit here and type this, I am still getting sand and water out of my nose, ears, and little secret cavities in my head. The headache is gone, and I can’t stop smiling. The flowers are just a little brighter and that fried rice never tasted better. I’m hoping that yesterday was God’s way of giving me a heads up early into this trip so I don’t do something even more stupid later.
But I probably will. It’s a tradition.
So before they figure out that I’m the “American guy who closed the beach,” (people were talking about it!) I think I’m going to book a ticket and head to the mountains tomorrow.
I think I’ve had enough of the sea for a while.
Greg is a full-time vagabonding writer and adventurer who escaped the corporate world. Now he helps others begin a life of travel.