The only time I came close to dying while swimming was in Australia.
That seems appropriate -- the vast country is still wild and untamed and people are used to living with a certain degree of danger. There are birds in downtown Sydney that attack you when you approach their nests and nobody thinks twice about them. There are sharks in Sydney harbor, and the Australians string long nets along all the eastern beaches to keep the hungry predators out.
Further north, box jellyfish near shore can kill you with one sting, and children wear full-length lycra swimsuits for protection both from the tentacles and from the blazing sun.
You can’t drive too fast at night in the outback, because you’ll hit a kangaroo or a wombat and destroy your car. And along the marshes and beaches there are saltwater crocodiles that crawl into campsites and chew up drunken clods who falls asleep in the sand.
But the risk is part of the fun, and downplaying the danger is part of the cultural identity. Sure you can get hurt -- you’re in Australia. It happened to me on the Sunshine Coast at Noosa Head, which is a large peninsula with a hundred acres of remaining rainforest that juts out from the perfect straight coastline.
There are hotels on the beach to the north and condos and private homes on the hundred kilometer beach to the south, but right at Noose Head you can walk into the rainforest and in less than an hour find a completely isolated and unsheltered wild beach.
Coves and points are good for swimming and surfing for a reason. Swells come in from the ocean and their energy gets funneled over the reefs and rocks and focused into regular steady waves that pass the point and leave the cove sheltered. Nature becomes orderly. But if the beach has no reef, no sandbar, no point or cove to focus the energy, then all the power of the ocean hits the beach head-on. It’s chaos.
The waves seem small and predictable, and then become huge. Sandbars build up in sections on the beach, and then a week later are gone. Because the water energy coming in makes little sense, the water going out makes even less sense, so there are strange currents and undertows that pop up and disappear.
I walk through the rainforest and find my beach -- a mile long stretch of sand that faces the full force of the Pacific. I’m the only person there. That happens a lot in Australia. Getting off by yourself is not a hard thing to do on a continent with only twenty million people, most of them in cities.
Signs are posted that there is no lifeguard on duty. The water is rough, so I go in with flippers to help me power under the waves. I’m breaking one of my own rules -- no one is there to see me and none of my friends even know I’m out here doing this. But I just hiked all this way and I want to get wet.
I rely on my standard procedure. I dive under the first line of breakers and about seventy-five yards out I turn and swim parallel to the beach. Further out there are even bigger waves, and I’m swimming in the hundred yard clear area between where they first break out at sea and then reform again into new waves that crash onto the beach.
After five minutes of easy swimming, a wave approaches and instead of breaking it keeps getting bigger. I swim out to meet it, sprinting up its face before its tower of water topples over and crashes on me. I'm ten feet high at the top and then it breaks just past me, sending up mist, and I feel the tail end of the wave pull at my fins like a hand that just missed grabbing me.
I see another one coming that’s not as big and I decide to ride it, turning sideways and kicking hard with my fins until I feel its power catch me. I scream down the face and try to tuck back into the wave at the last moment but the wall is too thick and I can’t break through. A wave is like a moving barrel full of water that must keep turning to empty itself, and now I'm stuck inside.
The barrel rolls me off the bottom, up the backside, over the top, and flings me down against the bottom, knocking the wind out of me and driving my shoulder and cheek into the sand, and still it keeps emptying more and more water onto my back, making it impossible to move.
Then suddenly the barrel is empty, all the force is gone and there’s no resistance at all, just foam. I flail with my arms in a mixture of water and air with no sense of up or down. I find the surface and fight to fill my lungs, then gasp air and head out to sea, rushing to get under or over the next wave before it catches me and tosses me into another rinse cycle. I make it past the next wave but when I pop up there’s another one right behind it. The clear area between the outside waves and inside waves has disappeared; it’s all huge waves now, crashing, reforming, and then crashing again.
Going in won't work, so I head out as fast as I can, kicking madly up some waves, diving deep under others. Four hundred yards out I finally find blue water again. The swells moving under me are enormous, and I must keep kicking to stay in one place and not get pulled back in. At the peak of each swell I can see the entire mile long stretch of beach -- but between it and me is all white crashing chaos. Going back in right now would be suicide.
I’m so happy I have fins on. I'd packed them at the last moment, not sure I wanted to ruin the purity of my swim by wearing them and now I know they saved my life. But I'm not safe yet. I could swim a mile around the point and try to find a way into land that way, but I’m exhausted and this set of waves might be just as bad over there, so I wait until my strength returns. After forty minutes of bobbing and treading water the waves shrink back to a size I can manage and I swim into shore on the backside of waves, spinning my arms as fast I can before the next one forms.
I limp back up the beach and I'm amazed that my towel is still in the exact spot where I'd left it, as if I've been gone for a year instead of an hour. I notice for the first time that it's bright blue; in fact, everything around me is clear and vivid. I feel changed, but no one is present to witness what I went through. I collapse on my towel and rest for a full hour without moving. The sun sets and I have to hike back through the rainforest on a pitch black trail, but by now I’m afraid of nothing. I emerge into brightly-lit Noosa, and I rejoin the crowd.
I also swear I’ll never swim alone in again in place I’ve never been before.