Yesterday my kids (Ryan 5 and Sabrina 3 years) and I had an important learning moment and a serious scare. I experienced the unpredictability of the surf in the pacific ocean at Half Moon Bay, California.
The surf and waves along the beaches here are incredibly dangerous. I now think of it as a huge monster waiting for the moment to snatch my kids away and drown them. It lulls me into complacency by methodically lapping at the beach in a semi-predictable manner and then suddenly lashing out far up the beach to grab my children and consume them.
As I walked to the beach the first thing I noticed was the whitecaps far off shore. This was my first warning that the surf would be dangerous. The next was the waves themselves which were towering as they broke, well over 10 feet high. When I got to the beach It became clear that the surf was very rough and the waves were huge.
What threw me off was that the waves were breaking about 100 yards off shore and it was clearly fairly shallow a good way out. It appeared that the waves were getting decapitated and that the rementents that were making it to shore were muted because of a shoal. My 5 year old son Ryan began playing right at the waters edge paying no attention to the incoming waves which were predictable. My 3 year old was content to play about 25 feet up in relative safety where we placed our beach supplies. I immediately began scolding Ryan and imploring him to stay further away from the waves. I was worried so I kept a constant watch for the massive wave approaching that would cause chaos. But it never came. Each time the biggest waves would hit the shoal and weaken. They would tumble in harmlessly and then retreat within a constant area. Yet I kept watch and began to feel rather silly like an overprotective parent.
Suddenly I noticed a wall of water approaching. It wasn’t from a huge wave which was threw me off. Now I realize it must have been a series of waves that came together instead of the usual one after another. The group as a whole suddenly appeared as an enormous wall that was approaching quickly. I yelled to Ryan to run, which he and I did. But the wave kept coming. As if in slow to fast motion it appeared slowly but then moved in quickly. By the time we made it to the top of the ‘safe’ area the wave swept up and knocked Ryan down. I grabbed him and looked for Sabrina who was fortunately high enough away so that she just got her legs wet. A friend’s boy was also knocked down but the Father was right there to pluck him out of the powerful flow of water. In an instant the water was gone and everyone was safe but very shaken and wet. Everything was soaked because the wave went far beyond the active (damp) surf line by about 25 feet right up to where we had dropped our stuff. This was far, far higher than I had expected.
The scary thing is that Ryan would have been swept away if he had remained where he was playing. I am now haunted by the terrifying thought of him floating away while I frantically try to move through the receding wall of water to save him. Clearly once a small child loses his footing there is nothing to stop them from getting swept back into the ocean, other than a close and attentive parent. I feel sick when I think of what could have happened.
This was the “rouge wave” or “sleeper wave” that I had read about when I have seen warnings about the beach surf. This was a child robbing monster wave that could have killed my kids. The key is that it didn’t appear abnormal until it was right upon us. It must have been a series of smaller waves that moved in phase to become one unified wall of water. The wave seemed to only hit our area, immediately to the right and left people seemed to be unaffected. Truly a terrifying moment for a parent.
In hindsight, I shouldn’t have allowed Ryan anywhere close to the water. But what happened was entirely unpredictable. I had no idea the water could come up that far, 25 feet beyond where it had been before. What would have happened if I had stopped paying attention for the moment just before the wave hit, if my phone rang or somebody started talking to me? A truly horrifying thought.
I learned a lot and I hope my kids did as well. I hope if you are reading this and you have kids you will think about how horrible it would be if the ocean snatched your kid away. Be aware, stay back from the surf and never turn your back.
The waves and surf on the pacific ocean are like a patient monster lulling us into complacency with a yawning consistency while waiting for the moment to lash out and grab our children and pull them into the boiling surf. Will you be ready?