By Timothy Small A few years ago, I was atEgyptBeachinEast Hampton, off to the edge of where the blankets and chairs were concentrated, about to slip on my headphones, when I heard the scream of a child. I lifted my head up from the sand and turned around. A little girl, maybe eight, was jumping up and down, pointing towards the water. Next to her stood a man, presumably her father, who searched for what was wrong – his eyes turned from the girl to the water and back to the girl – but he saw nothing. There was no sign of a real emergency – no crowd formed other than a few adults, and their lack of reaction almost caused me to dismiss the cries and retreat back into my music.
The ocean can be a scary place for a child, and I figured that this little girl had been hit by a wave, or stung by a jellyfish, or simply imagined she saw something that was not really there. I’ve done so myself many times. But her cries continued and I noticed the focus of the adults shift more alarmingly towards the water. I looked too, and saw a man no more than twenty yards out, flailing his arms, struggling to keep his head above water. My heart began to race. I jumped up to my feet and sprinted towards the water. It was a calm day; the wind was light and there was hardly any swell – certainly not conditions in which I could imagine someone needing help. But sometimes, calm days are the most dangerous for they entice people beyond their means. At this particular point in the summer, the various groundswells and storms of the last couple of months had eaten into the sandbar and paved channels in the shoreline that formed rip currents. Now, the sea bottom was such that one could be standing in shallow water one moment, and then unable to touch the next. What appeared a safe distance at which to venture out, therefore, was really quite hazardous, especially for one who couldn’t swim.
I ran so fast that when I dove into the water my momentum seemed to carry me all the way out to the struggling man. When I reached him, he was deeply distressed and doing everything in his power to keep his mouth above the surface – a fight that was beginning to submerge the back of his head, his ears, and his chin. His eyes were severely bloodshot and I couldn’t quite catch their color, as they too seemed to be grasping for air. But I could see enough to tell that this man, like I, was somewhere in his early twenties.
Despite being a strong swimmer and an experienced surfer, I had no training in lifesaving. I knew how crucial technique was, and knew that using the wrong technique could put the rescuer at risk, so I followed my instinct, wrapped my forearm around his chest, pulling him against my side, keeping us both afloat with my free arm. He clung to me with great force. I could feel his panic pushing my weight down. At first, my body must have felt like land to him, but I imagine it was agonizing not being able to stand on me—everything but his head was still submerged and even his head dipped below the surface when the water splashed between us. I must have been no more a relief than a tiny piece of wood. His body was as slippery as jelly. I struggled to tighten my grip so that his arms were constricted, in part to prevent him from pushing me under, in part to assure that he didn’t slip away. But just as I had established a firm hold, a wave snuck up from behind and knocked him out of my hands. I fumbled blindly for an arm or a leg or even his hair, but the wave’s aftermath pushed us further apart and all I could feel was the churning water. It was like trying to catch a sinking pear l. When I was able to open my eyes, he was only a few feet from me, his mouth wide open as if desperate for air. I grabbed on to him, and he clung to me now even harder than before; had he not been so much lighter than I, I have no doubt that he would have drowned me, and even with my size advantage, I’m sure that the might in which he held on to me far outmatched the might in which I held on to him. For this reason, bringing him in was a lot more difficult than I had imagined it would be and I was humbled by the toll it took on my body. I had always wanted to rescue someone; I had even hoped for the opportunity. But as I struggled to swim him in, having already lost hold of him once, my breathing becoming more and more strained, my arms completely exhausted, I hoped that I would never have to do it again.