John Kary

A golden sunset barely visible over a tree-line as the sun plunges into the ocean. January 26, 2017 in Playa Bejuco, Costa Rica.

I took this photo from a rooftop terrace where I digested what happened just an hour after the event.

January 26, 2017 – Playa Bejuco, Costa Rica

The sun is plunging into the ocean. This might be the most beautiful sunset I've ever seen. Because an hour ago that was me, awash in the ocean, in danger of going under.

I almost died today.

I'm fortunate to tell this story instead of being its subject. What happened?

I wrap work for the day at 3pm, still high on shipping a new software feature for my work project. How do I spend the last 3 hours of sunlight while staying 250 meters from the beach?

Mike is deep in work but I can't contain my excitement. "Yo… wanna go surfing?"

He hasn't surfed before but after our group's successful surf lessons a few days ago I'm practically a master, right?

Inspecting the two new communal surfboards at our condo, one of the leashes has snapped. That's cool, we can share.

We hit the beach and I do my best Argentinian surf teacher impression, recounting the basics she taught the group: center line, standing up, and holding a martial arts stance for balance. Simple.

The high crashing waves in the distance only add to my excitement. I tighten the velcro-strap surfboard leash to my right ankle and lead us high stepping into the water.

The low tide creates a strong pull that almost sweeps us off our feet. I remain focused on reciting to Mike the tips our instructor gave us.

In position face-down on the surfboard looking over my shoulder, I try timing a few waves. The slick board is difficult to stand up on. Maybe we didn't put enough wax on it? No worries, I'm just warming up.

Meanwhile, Mike idly steadies himself against the unrelenting waves, observing and taking mental notes. He jumps, bobbing up and down to keep his head above each rolling wave before landing again in water cresting at his chest.

Glaring at the shoreline I realize the sun loungers look more like colorful gummy bears than people. We're pretty far out, huh? How did we get here?

The strong undercurrent has dragged us out a meter or two with each wave. And Mike hasn't even had a chance yet. OK, let's get back to shallow water so he can give it a try.

Swimming towards the shore for several minutes the gummy bears continue shrinking. Is this the twilight zone? "This isn't fair," I think to myself. It's not supposed to work like this. I'm a strong swimmer and can't make headway. Mike trails behind.

I have a bright idea: let's both hop on the board and kick our feet to shore. The next wave comes quickly and the board jets out of control towards shore but without us on it. The rubber tubing of the leash tugs tightly at my ankle.

Mike pogo-sticks on one foot, his mouth slipping below the previously chest-high water. Yo, we're way deep, let's get a move on!

The leash ties itself into tangles as we both try jumping on again. Of course, the leash! I rip off the velcro strap thinking the board will be easier to maneuver.

The next killer wave rips the board toward the shore, forcing me under as it crashes, plunging the board into the white crest of the waves.

I exhale loudly as my head resurfaces looking towards the shore for Mike and the board. I feel naked without the leash tugging at my ankle. Surely Mike is still holding on…

Mike is a meter in front of me. "Where's the board?!" I exclaim. "It's gone…"

Early stages of panic start to set in except there is no music like in the movies. This is real life. This is real and this is really happening. We have to get back to shore.

The harder we paddle the harder the waves hit.

Within a few minutes Mike starts losing composure. Lagging behind me he is tiring quickly. His face familiar, like every scary movie where a character is sucked into the jaws of a snarling blue monster.

I give up the ground I have gained to grab his hand. I got us into this mess and I'm going to get us out.

Suddenly I'm responsible for two lives. Trying to swim sideways pulling for both of us I too start to fatigue. The sand gushes up between our toes as each wave reclaims any progress our arms make between waves.

I quickly realize we aren't going to make it back by ourselves. I start hollering for help. Mike echoes me.

A body boarder 100 meters away makes eye contact with us, and seeing how far out we are, waves his arm signaling us to move back to shore. But with the board gone we have nothing to keep us afloat.

Ghastly scenarios begin running through my mind. Not life flashing before my eyes, but the impending worst case scenario. My hometown news recounting my death between Donald Trump outrage and a weekend snow forecast.

I envision my family, coworkers, the woman I'm dating, friends, fellow travelers, all trying to piece together our last whereabouts. The few people that know we went surfing recounting the time they last saw us. Their descriptions of how excitedly we bounded to the beach. Maybe they would even remember us fondly…

I snap out of it. Back to Mike. He's 30 seconds from full on panic, his eyes darting everywhere looking for certainty. Another worst case scenario appears: Mike dipping below the surface and not coming back up. Could I swim after him and save us both?

"Amigo! Amigo! Amigo!" we holler to the body boarder. It's no use. Our voices are swallowed by the same roaring waves chomping at our heels.

Our hands remain clasped. Their tight grip says, "Stay with me," and "I'm not leaving you." We're each left with one hand switching between treading water and waving for help, as if we're not sure which one is more likely to save us.

I'm going to die out here.

What feels like a hundred waves later, two men appear wading towards us. An older man has our surfboard that must have washed ashore. He is flanked by a shirt-less bronzed man, his long sun-bleached gray hair and thick dad-like handlebar mustache somehow signal he is calm and collected in this otherwise emergency situation.

"What the fuck are you guys doin'?!?!" His English is impeccable.

"We're fuckin' amateurs…!" I exclaim. He barks at us to grab onto the board and ride a wave back in. It sounds so simple, now.

The same waves punishing us a moment earlier are now our golden parachute to safety. We thrust toward shore on a wave that rolls all the way into shallow water. The surf angels that lifted our travel-mates into standing position during surfing lessons earlier this week are working overtime.

The sand becomes more sure-footed with each step. The waves less strong. Baby waves splash our ankles.

We share a glance. The silence between us says more than words could.

"I'm really sorry, Mike," I say breaking the sound barrier.

"It's all good, dude…" he says, way less casually than such words normally warrant.

Walking back to shore our tails remain firmly tucked between our legs. Judgment quickly follows us from behind.

"You guys are lucky…" The bronzed man's words trail off over a cliff. "We pull a lot of dead bodies out of here." Our eyes lower.

"Thank you…" He's heard my sheepish appreciation many times before today.

"How much longer you guys down here? We teach rip tide courses." He gestures toward a lookout tower up the coast. "It's how the volunteer life guards make their money." Somehow the $40 fee pales compared to saving our lives.

The setting sun shines brightly behind him, outlining his towering stance in a golden halo as we sink against the driftwood log peering up at him.

"My name's Bob." Is there a Saint Bob? There is now.

Bob leaves and certifies our reckless optimism. Mike and I hold silent a few more minutes to catch our breath. I apologize several more times.

"Welp… this will make a great story at Shot, Show and Tell later tonight…"

Lessons Learned

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