One summer the family of a good friend rented a beach house in North Carolina for a week. I was invited along, the only non-family member staying in the house. This was, if I remember correctly, the summer after 8th grade. The house was on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, near Nags Head. Some of the exciting, but reasonably safe, activities of the week included exploring sand dunes, riding jet skis, and hang gliding at Kitty Hawk Kites (we didn’t get more than 10 feet off the ground). We also swam in the ocean and saw the wild horses which live on the Outer Banks.
My friend and I also tried out one other activity which we are probably lucky to have survived. He had brought along a small pool raft, one that was slightly too small even for two young teenagers and we had to hang our legs over either side to fit in. It was inflatable, and I believe mostly transparent. It came with a couple small paddles. I think his parents specifically forbid us from taking this raft into the ocean, even though they had no problem with our swimming in the ocean, and only a slight hesitation at our riding the jet skis.
Of course we took the forbidden nature of the activity as encouragement and took the raft out the first chance we had. Even the fairly small waves that day threatened to overturn the small boat and we were quickly pushed back to shore on our first attempt at paddling. I don’t remember exactly how long it took us to decide to try to go further out, but I don’t believe it was long at all.
We swam out with the boat until we couldn’t touch the bottom anymore and then scrambled in. We were somewhere between the point where the waves began to break and the shore, and the waves were still pushing us back towards land. We decided to try to paddle out past the breakers. It is hard to believe, but somehow with those tiny paddles we did manage to get far enough out that the waves became gentle swells and we were no longer being dragged back to our launch site.
The only problem, as we soon realized, was that we were being pulled quickly away from the shore.
Quickly is, of course, relative. I have no idea how fast we were actually moving. I don’t know if I would have considered our speed quick in most other circumstances. I think that, once we realized that we were moving away from shore in that tiny raft, any speed would have felt fast. I do know that at the moment that we realized our situation I could still pick out the spot we had swam out from, but before we could do anything about it the spot became a small point and then disappeared.
We started paddling back as fast as we could. I don’t remember feeling fear, in fact I remember noting a lack of it. I do remember knowing that I wanted to paddle as hard as I could. It was a calm determination not to get lost at sea. Unfortunately I can’t claim to always respond to stressful situations with such cool collection. (In fact six or seven years later I nearly drowned in the South Atlantic and was on the edge of total panic).
It wasn’t obvious at the first few strokes that we would be able to row ourselves back. I couldn’t tell if we were making any progress at all. But it soon became apparent that we were, in fact, moving towards the shore. In all I believe it only took us a few minutes to make it back to the breakers, and so in the end we could not have been far out to sea at all. When we got back we were tired from paddling, but we simply put away the raft and went on with our day.
I have no idea if we were actually close to dying. I don’t know if we could have gone a little further out and still been able to make it back, or perhaps gotten lucky and hit another current which would have taken us to shore. I do imagine that if we had been pulled out too far, it would have been incredibly hard for searchers to find two boys in such a tiny boat.
Although I didn’t feel fear in the moment, I do sometimes have particularly vivid images of dying at sea. (I can’t say for sure that these images started that day, but it wouldn’t be surprising if they did). More than that I have a feeling of the ocean being a vast living creature, but one which not only cares nothing about my survival, and would crush me without noticing. These visions include the sensation of seeing the surface of the water recede as I sink and a feeling of constriction around my chest. There is also an intense cold, but a cold that I associate with a melancholy feeling rather than an actual temperature. This has not discouraged me from entering the water again, or going further out in more sea worthy vessels.
All these memories are quite clear for me, but the one thing which I can’t remember is whether the sky was blue or gray that day.