I got great advice when I was first learning how to surf, at age ten. A Hawaiian local on a long board gave me a few pointers on my pop-up, and then finished his lesson with a short phrase that has kept me alive and safe over many decades:
Never forget -- water always wins.
It’s summer and my daughter Lily now wants to dive into the ocean and swim, snorkel, boogie board and surf, and she wants me to teach her. I plan to pass on the same phrase to her, and hopefully it will keep her safe and alive through dozens of summers, like it did for me.
Water always wins.
This simple truth applies to the ocean, to lakes, to streams, to creeks, and to L.A. streets flooded by storms. Water can be deceiving because it yields and then follows the path of least resistance, but that gentle power also carved the Grand Canyon. If you think you can beat water, or if you don’t recognize the power hiding under its placid surface, you’ll regret it.
To be safe you should stay out of trouble in the first place, but if you get caught in a bad situation you should use focus on another phrase:
Relax and go with the flow.
Let’s break it down. Michael Phelps, swimming top speed, moves five miles an hour, for less than two minutes. While he’s breaking a world record in the 200 meter freestyle, you can walk briskly on the pool deck and keep up with him. A regular lap swimmer can swim two miles an hour, with lots of rest between laps.
Deep water moving just two miles an hour looks like it’s standing still. When you’re in the ocean, you may be in a one mile an hour current, and not even realize it, and then when you fight against it you end up exhausting yourself. Even the best swimmer in the world will lose that fight in twenty minutes or less.
I’ve seen it happen. Someone swims out, plays in the waves, and then drifts too far down the beach. He panics and sprints for the beach -- and doesn’t make it. He’s too exhausted to beat the constant current and he gets into trouble.
The same applies to a mountain stream. You step into the water and you feel an invigorating and brisk current against your ankles. You decide you can cross it. After all, that stream is only moving a few miles per hour. But in the middle you discover the water moves slightly faster, and the faster current has made the creek bed slightly deeper. The water is now at your calves. Your backpack seems heavy, and the cold water has stolen feeling from your feet. You slip and fall -- and suddenly you are moving in a cold current that’s faster than two miles an hour.
I’ve seen it happen. I saw the lead backpacker in a group try to get across the gentle but steady current, and then get swept off his feet and tossed downstream.
Water always wins…
Then there’s the temperature. Our normal body temperature is 98.6 degrees, but even warm tropical water is around 75-80 degrees and saps your energy if you’re in a long time. Ocean water off California is even colder, and you can feel it stealing your calories. Add in a slight breeze while you’re sitting on your board, and that chill happens even faster, even while wearing a wet suit. The longer you stay in, the less energy your muscles have in reserve, and the calorie drain will cloud your brain.
When I’m out surfing or swimming for a long time, I can feel my muscles tighten and my jaw feels thick. I think and speak at a slightly slower speed -- a difference no would even notice -- but that’s my signal to get out. My brain is moving slower and I know I’m one wave away from a bad outcome.
Don’t get me wrong. The water is fun and only turns dangerous if you underestimate its strength, or you don’t read her messages. And the messages are everywhere -- water has been winning battles on Planet Earth since time began and her victories are carved into the mountains, canyons, lakes, beaches coastlines.
You just have pay attention, and ask around!
Don’t be the first one in. Sit down and watch.
A great beach has lots of sand because a current dumped it there over millions of years. Watch where the water flows. Within a couple of minutes you can tell where it’s safe to go in and come out, and what areas to avoid.
If there are rocks at one end and curving sand at the other, it happened for a reason. There’s usually a spot where the water likes to come in, and a spot where it likes to retreat and rush out. Look for where water likes to win, and don’t fight a losing battle by going against it.
Look for tell-tale lines in the water, where it changes color. That line could be a wind line -- inside the line you are sheltered from the wind, but if you go past it you’ll feel the breeze coming down off the mountain or from around the point. It’s hard to fight that wind, especially on a surfboard, paddle board or ocean kayak. Go too far out and you might not get back. That line could also mark a temperature difference, which means there’s a current.
The same goes for a mountain lake. Don’t dive off that rock into that deep dark water. Watch other people do it first before risking breaking your neck.
Best of all -- ask someone who knows the place!
Don’t turn your back on a wave, or think you can brace yourself against it.
An ocean wave is a enough water to fill a house. You can maybe outrun it. You can maybe dive under it. You can maybe dive over it and let it tumble you up on the beach. But you can’t stand still against it, and if you turn your back, it will knock you down.
And girls forget your bikini top! I can remember a dozen times when a girl turned her back or braced against the wave and it knocked her down and the force undid her top or took it right off. To avoid embarrassment the girl frantically tried to stay submerged in the impact zone while trying to re-tie or even find her top -- while getting hit again and again. Rescue was required.
When in Doubt, Get Out
Be aware of that tiny twinge of cold, that slight slurring of words, and that weakness in your muscles, that slight current that pushes you ever down the beach. That’s water winning. Let water win and get out.
Relax, and Go with the Flow
What do you do when the wave knocks you down and rips off your bikini top? Or you get held underwater by a wave that grinds you into the sand?
Don’t panic. Go limp and put your arms up and try to cover your head. No amount of fighting will make a difference. Grab a breath and try to relax. Get out if you can, or go into deeper water and gather your senses and look for a way out. Crawl out on your hands and knees, that way the water can’t knock you down again. And wave and yell for help. Don’t be proud.
What your caught in that rip current that’s pulling you out to sea? Or you’re too far out and you’re drifting down the coast?
Again, don’t panic. You breathe, float and see where it takes you, and wait for the water to bring you to an eddying spot where you can get out. It may be a mile down the coast, but you will have gone with the flow instead of fighting a losing battle. But again, don’t be afraid to wave and scream for help.
On Zuma Beach in Malibu the waves pound into the shore and the rip currents tug you down the beach. The lifeguards may rush in and rescue you, but if you’re calm out there, they may wave and point for you to drift further down the beach to a spot where they know it’s safe for you to come ashore. They will keep pace with you, and then will help you get out where it’s safest.
If you’re in a mountain stream and you get knocked down, you don’t fight. You turn over, get your feet up and point your toes downstream and you flow with the current, waiting for it to push you into some spot where you can get out.
Water always wins...so relax and go with the flow.