My friend and next-door neighbor in Virginia was an accomplished competitive Junior High swimmer. I didn’t aspire to compete because I realized that I didn’t possess the physical characteristics required to become a champion swimmer.
Regardless, I enjoyed swimming pools and swam the overhand crawl sufficiently to challenge friends in informal short-distance sprints. My back stroke was inept when approaching pool edges. I had a slow, competent breast stroke. Side stroke was my favorite—I can swim far, long and slow without being fatigued. I’m weak underwater and can’t dive: limitations attributable to ear injuries. I used a crawl to body-surf three-foot waves when I lived in Huntington Beach, home of the US Open of Surfing in which helmeted surfers “shoot the pier” by traversing its pilings.
I learned, in two different hard ways described below, that if one is familiar with and mediocre at an activity—as is true for me and swimming, then it is easy to overestimate one’s true capabilities when attempting a new variation of that activity. Likewise, it is easy to underestimate or be unaware of associated new potential dangers.
Treading Water in Lake Michigan
I was a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Chicago. It was Saturday in early June, around noon. If the high temperature record for the date wasn’t yet broken, it soon would be. In the hopes of cooling off I donned my California-style body-surfing bathing suit (the only suit I owned) and a T-shirt, hopped on my mountain bike, and pedaled to nearby Montrose Beach Park in Chicago.
Partially shaded by trees, concrete blocks adjacent to the Harbor were not too high above Lake Michigan (a few feet), and water there is deeper than in a swimming pool. It was a nice quiet place to cool off and gaze at the Lake and the Chicago lakefront skyline.
Many people were there, but no crowds: people were alone or in small groups. I found a spot ten feet from a single woman about my age on my left, and from a couple around my age on my right, as I faced the Lake.
It was getting hotter so I decided to take a quick dip and get refreshed, as I used to do in California: get hot; run into waves to cool off; return to beach to warm up; repeat.
I removed my T-shirt and casually jumped in, a little further than an arm’s length away from shore.
The water in Lake Michigan was so surprisingly cold (I learned later, 44 degrees) that I instantly felt as though my exposed skin was on fire, and an elastic band was wrapped around my ribs so tightly it felt like I couldn’t inflate my lungs or utter a sound.
Afraid that if my head went underwater it might not come back up, I spread and frenetically waved my arms, hands and legs, and strained my neck backwards, in a successful effort to keep my nose and ears above water.
I needed to be warmer immediately, so I began making maximum-velocity half-circle turns-in-place—my arms and legs working in unison. After a dozen pirouettes I lunged forward using a frog kick, pulled myself up onto shore, and headed home for a warm shower.
There was no evidence that people who were near me observed these events.
Body Surfing in Hawaii
My wife and I were in Hawaii exploring the Big Island in a rented car. We found a beautiful secluded no-name beach a little larger than an elementary school playground, and framed by indigenous plants and trees. We took a break from driving.
Standing close to the water I watched three foot tubes break ten feet off the beach. First time I saw waves that big breaking so close to shore! I body-surfed three-footers at Huntington, and naively imagined an even-shorter ride would be safe and fun.
I entered the water and stood where tubes formed: it was a bit above waist-deep in-between waves. I thought trying to catch these waves conventionally by swimming would be difficult since they formed so quickly and close to shore. I decided to try lunging into the next tube coming from my right side. It came, I lunged, and I was in the tube!
I tucked my arms behind me into cruise position, looked left, and saw that my wave was about to collide with its mirror image—an anti-wave.
Moments later, when the waves collided with me in the middle, the water which was suspending me vanished! I hit sand hands- and face-first. The white-water remains of both waves then lifted and pushed me onto the beach. I felt a hot burning sensation in my back and only had firm control over my hands—the rest of me was tingling or numb.
As the water receded it began pulling me backwards into the ocean. I dug my fingers into the sand, preventing my involuntary return to the sea.
I recall my wife helping me, and that soon I was sitting and reanimating my muscles, however I don’t recall anything about the rest of that day.
What could go wrong?
Paul R. Yarnold, Ph.D.
January 27, 2021