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Out With the Swells, Getting a Break

August 05, 1993|T. Jefferson Parker | T. Jefferson Parker is a novelist and writer who lives in Orange County. His column appears in OC Live! the first three Thursdays of every month.

July proved once again that our misnamed Pacific Ocean is stronger than politics, life, and perhaps even God himself.

The waves ran four to 10 feet for the better part of the month. They were generated by a low-pressure system that began somewhere between New Zealand and Antarctica and silently propelled the swells up the globe--some 10,000 miles--where they finally hit land in Southern California.

The first few days were all watery confusion. The waves came hard and fast, and Rockpile--the north end of Laguna's Main Beach--looked more like Hawaii's Sunset than the postcard-placid beach it usually is. The agitation was impressive, even from shore. You could see the newly arrived swells advancing through shallow water, rising up in great thick peaks and charging toward the beach as if in some hurry to get there first.

On the second day, I watched a bodysurfer swimming confidently toward a huge Rockpile right. The swells were lining up outside. As a bodysurfer, I'm always curious how someone will handle a wave, what his or her idea of grace under pressure might be. My main thought upon watching this young man head for the wave was he's got more guts than I do, that's for sure.

He rose up to the top of the wave, positioned nicely. But just when a strong scissor kick and a lowering of the shoulders would have let him into the wave, he apparently lost heart, tried to back out and ended up embedded in the great downwash of sea. He didn't come up for a long time.

The lifeguard jumped from his tower and sprinted toward the beach. The next wave of the set rose up--farther out than the first--just as the hapless bodysurfer surfaced, his mouth agape.

The wave crushed him back under. Another long submarine wait. Then he sort of shot up into view, like a cork released from far under, his arms akimbo and his mouth yawning for a precious load of air.

The lifeguard was almost there when the third wave hit 50 feet in front of him, unloading the brunt of its power directly onto his submerged bones. There was the usual soupy chaos after the wave broke, and from it emerged the lifeguard and the bodysurfer clinging to the lifeguard's orange float. A few seconds later, the bodysurfer stood shakily in two feet of water, wobbling like a foal finding its first legs. The lifeguard sped off to the next rescue.

Headlines over the next few days were a mix of the tragic and the cautionary. Ali Mayasami of Anaheim drowned off Laguna Beach on Monday the 19th, just a day after his 21st birthday. He was described by a family member as "not a proficient swimmer." Police and marine safety departments up and down the coast implored people to stay out of the water--as usual, to little effect.

I thought of the several times in my youth when I braved large waves in Newport, took a severe pounding and found myself using the very last of my strength to kick off the hard bottom, struggle upward through the murk and--just when the world was going red behind my eyelids--burst through the surface for that lifesaving inrush of air. It occurred to me as I read the stories--as it had occurred to me back then--that there was more than a little good luck involved in my salvation. And I was young, strong, and experienced then. When I read about Ali's tragic fate, I understood the ease--if not the reason--of it all too well. Innocence and bravado are equally unforgivable by mother ocean.

Even powerful Republicans are not immune to the will of the Pacific, as evidenced by Rep. Robert Dornan's rescue on July 17. Dornan and his grandson were pulled from the surf at Salt Creek after they were mauled by four consecutive waves. "If I wasn't a good swimmer, I wouldn't have made it," Dornan was quoted as saying. I might add that he should have said, "If I wasn't a good swimmer and there weren't lifeguards, I wouldn't have made it."

Ever since Dornan slipped away from his Vietnamese escorts in Hanoi and tried to follow a secret map to imprisoned American soldiers, I've had a soft spot in my heart for him. (His Communist escorts rescued him--much as the lifeguards did--proving that competence has no ideology.) At any rate, I believe that Dornan was handed a clear mandate by the sea: Help save this ailing republic from itself, or don't think of coming near me again. I felt better knowing that nature now is keeping a keener eye on our House of Representatives.

Old pleasures die hard, however, so I donned my Duckfeet one gloomy Saturday morning and waded backward into the forbidding waves of 17th Street in Newport. It was a solid three-to-five feet, very hollow, very thick. The water was gray and smooth, deceptively calm, but the power of the swell was evident in the strong current that moved me up to 19th Street in the blink of an eye and in the eager riptides that fattened out into the sea after big sets. There were two other bodysurfers out, a young man and a young woman.

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