This is what I learned:
1. Rip currents on calm seas are NOT the same thing as rip currents in choppy surf. All that advice about staying calm and just swimming or letting it push you out actually do not apply when there is 3 feet of surf crashing over your head. When people drown in rip currents, it is not because they panicked. It is because you are being beaten over the had with loads of water, and sucked down, and beaten back and forth, by the undertow and smashing waves, but every time a little bit, down and out. Under such conditions, it is almost impossible to stay afloat for more than a couple minutes, even for a good swimmer who swims every other morning (e.g. my father); and for someone like me, nearly impossible. The water alone was sucking out the beach–my mother found around two cups of sand in each of the pockets of my father’s swim trunks–the beach was disappearing where we were. Rough rip currents don’t just “push you out” to sea to be conveniently rescued. They basically keep you almost in the same place (just move you out to sea about 3 feet a minute), and beat you to death with water.
2. In white-crested, choppy surf rip currents, you drown in 6-8 feet of water, 40 feet from the shore. It sounds crazy, but it is true. I used to think, “how can you, when you are so close?” But that is the most dangerous part.
3. You can be in only 4 feet of water, and the rip current will still drag you out into it easily. A huge wave will suddenly come in and lift you up and drag you out.
4. This is redundant, but in rough water, DON’T GO IN THE WATER. A rip current in rough seas (yes, the pretty surf and the grey skies and lovely breezes) will knock you around so much you can’t swim or breathe, and it will kill you 40 feet from shore. If the waves are coming in at odd angles (not parallel to the shore, but 45 degree angles), and if the waves are coming in at different angles, DON’T GO IN THE WATER.
4. Survivor’s guilt is a very real thing, it is extremely powerful, and it is irrational. I was only out of the water for 2 minutes before my father got out, and he is alive. But it hurt so bad inside for a long while, for a couple days actually, that it was somehow “my fault”, because he’d gotten me out, and gotten sucked in. Two days for two minutes’ difference. And when people actually are survivors where the other one doesn’t make it, it must be infinitely worse. God help them. Whenever I hear about natural disasters or tragedies again–pray for the survivors. They need it more than anyone. It must be so painful, possibly the most traumatic of all the traumas.
5. The behavior of women in traditional male chauvinist societies (e.g. scrubbing floors, tending wounds, cooking food)…suddenly seems very understandable….when those testosterone, headstrong, hot-tempered boys are the ones who have the raw physical courage to jump back into such terrors and save people. Sweet-and-sensitive types don’t have it in them. Yes, they are just as courageous, but there is a difference between courage, the mental kind, and raw physical courage. Mental courage, the courage of the political dissident and the martyr–yes it is courage, yes it lays down its life for the good of others, but it is not the same thing as that….raw physical courage. The kind that can run back into the fiery inferno of a burning building or the crashing waves of a mad sea. My father and my 14 year old brother are nerdy and dreamy, and I always held it against my 20 year old brother for having a strong temper and a strong will, for working out, and for being so protective of us sisters. In our modern age, there seems to be something “defective” about being too much of a man. I can’t count the number of times I’ve lectured and harangued him for it over the years.
But maybe we are an egalitarian society that frowns on such macho testosterone, just because (in our cozy technological world) we don’t need them to protect us women and the old men and kids from the lions and tigers and mongols and rip tides. When you do need them…and when they do risk their life like that…suddenly everything looks very different. They don’t seem so “defective” after all. And maybe some of what I thought was unfortunate subordination of womenfolk was really…gratitude?