By Hilary Jocelyn
The first wave had been bad enough, as it hit us unexpectedly right out of the blue, turning us thoroughly upside down and sideways. Then, right on its heels came the second wave, which was indeed far more deadly and powerful than the first. There we were, caught in its unforgiving grip, and it seemed very likely that we were not going to survive.
Of course, the waves I am talking about belong to the sea. To be more specific, we were on the banks of the Pacific Ocean. It was not, the kind of beach you might imagine when you think of California though, as there were no palm trees, sun worshipers or ice cream stands to be seen. Instead, it was a fairly calm but slightly grey January day, on a stony seashore lined with cliffs and a handful of bedraggled humans.
It was my first foray to this side of the continent. Up until last winter, I had never been further west than the settlement of Wawa on a corner of Lake Superior. We were now paying a long overdue visit to my brother in law who drives a taxi for a living in the town of Oakland, California. After staying with him for a few days, he sensed that we were hungry for some wilderness time, and suggested we go on a jaunt to Point Reyes Park where we could adventure along its remote trails and deserted beaches.
When we arrived at this gem of nature tucked away in an ocean bay, we discovered that although it was not situated very far from a huge metropolis, most local people don’t venture out to enjoy the outdoors in the unpredictable weather that the month of January brings. We met almost no one as we walked along the rough paths, breathing in the huge unfamiliar trees that towered above us, and the lush vegetation that was growing beneath our feet. Were from the North of Wakefield, and had just left the deep freeze of winter, and so we made friends with the weather simply by wearing a sweater, a hat, and packing a raincoat.
One notorious day we decided to take a hike out onto a long peninsular that led to a distant point of land that stuck out like a toe in the ocean. The day before had been wild and stormy and so several trees had tumbled down onto the path which made for some delightful clambering as we made our way along. We had a lazy picnic high up on the cliffs in the sporadic sun, as we marveled at the views, and on the way back, we saw elk munching peacefully in the distance
We noticed a path leading down to the beach and decided to follow it to the waters edge. We giggled heartily as we saw a sign on the fence saying, “Beware of Tsunamis and Cougars” and nipped excitedly down to the sea. I was eager to get my feet wet in the salty ocean and to introduce myself to the comings and goings of the Pacific tide. I grew up in Scotland, knowing, understanding and respecting the sea that surrounded me, and this is something that I sorely miss, and have had to learn to manage without.
I left my partner sitting on the almost empty beach and wandered along the shore. The tide was coming in, but was tucked safely a hundred yards away as it pounded onto the sand. The beach gave way to cliffs and for a while I scrambled up and down the rocks, but then I began to feel uneasy. I realised that while I know my Sea, I didn’t know the swirling mass of water that lay below me and there was something wordlessly unpredictable about its movement. I turned back and joined my special man as he watched the waves.
Suddenly and completely out of the blue, a deviant wave didn’t follow the normal ebb and flow pattern of the incoming tide. Instead of retreating, it advanced aggressively towards us. We stood up quickly, feeling its threatening power, and before we knew what was happening, it hunkered down on us, sweeping us off our feet and blanketing us completely in total wetness.
I was gasping for breath in the icy water. It was useless to swim as my feeble limbs were no match for the wave. I was tossed around carelessly, like laundry in its spin cycle, unable to think or to process what was happening to me. Then, miraculously, I felt its grip loosen slightly as the wave began to pull back. Any sense of relief I dared to feel, was short lived though, because a second wave, far more powerful than the first, hit us forcefully, throwing us right back into the depths of incapacity.
I saw my partner thrashing and gasping as the undertow pulled his head down under. I realised, at that moment, that we were probably both going to drown in some quirky twist of unintended fate. There were fierce and unforgiving rocks behind us and a huge ocean before us and survival seemed impossible. Funnily enough, instead of panicking, I felt a strange sense of calm acceptance seeping over me. I love the sea and maybe it was fitting that I died, cradled in its salty grip.
“So, this is how it’s all going to end” I reflected to myself as I felt another powerful surge. Nothing hurt physically and by then I was totally numb to the cold. My next thought was to feel so sorry for my three lovely adult children who would tragically lose both parents in the one fell swoop. I also wondered vaguely and with some kind of tranquility; about how painful the actual process of drowning might be.
Suddenly it was all over. The wave subsided, and I was lying on the beach. I looked around for my partner and he was there almost unrecognizable, except for his bright blue eyes staring at me from his sand covered body. We were both grasping for breath and I realised I was crying and laughing at the same time. We looked out to see the second wave retiring back to the waters’ edge and saw that it was carrying several bodies with it, dumping them unceremoniously on the sand. It was a handful of youngsters we had passed earlier who were on a school trip and they were shocked, cold, and screaming in fear, but otherwise seemed to be unhurt. We rushed over to them, helped them up, and urged them to run like hell for safety.
Our bag had been dramatically transported out to sea , and our phones and camera are probably now washed up on the shores of the next land mass, but joy of joys we had the keys to the car zipped up safely in a pocket so were able to walk, like mobile shivering sandcastles, up the track to our awaiting car.
Back at the hostel we were told that “Rogue Waves “were an occasional feature of the season, and that sometimes there were indeed drownings. As I warmed up with a shower and a hot cup of sweet tea, I felt deeply grateful to be alive and able to tell my story – about the Second Wave that finally dissipates on the incoming tide.