I’ve always been more of a classic rock guy, but last year was definitely my country song year… my dog done died, I dang-near drowned, and my woman done left me. This is the story of my dang-near drowning.
Losing our fuzzy little girl, Scoozi, to cancer was devastating and took much of the joy out of our marriage. By late summer, I needed to get away and chose my favorite place anywhere – “up north” Michigan. My family had a Lake Michigan cottage on Platte Bay, where we could see sunrises and sunsets over the water, Empire Bluffs, Sleeping Bear Dunes, and the Manitou Islands in a spectacular panorama. Although we lost the cottage after the area became the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, the view is still there so that’s where I headed.
It was a beautiful day. Clear skies, 80 degree temps, and calm water. I went wading out to a sandbar and drowned the cell phone in my shorts pocket – a little something we like to call foreshadowing.
After a couple hours at the cottage site I headed north and hiked the Empire Bluffs for a bird’s eye view of the lake. I noticed the waves were picking up. More foreshadowing.
After some souvenir shopping in Glen Arbor, I decided to make one more stop in Leland, aka Historic Fishtown, before heading home. I bought a giant sandwich at the Cheese Shanty and went to Van’s Beach, where the wind and waves had really picked up. There were lots of people on the beach and in the water, so after assessing that there was no danger of sharks, I went in a few feet to splash in the waves.
The water was warm and I went in up to my waist. The waves were about 4-5 feet high and tons of fun. After a while I realized I was in up to my chest so started heading back in when I soon noticed I was moonwalking – walking toward shore but still moving away from it. Suddenly I was in up to my neck and then treading water.
I remembered from the old TV show Baywatch that this must be a “riptide” like on the ocean and that to escape I should swim parallel to the shore and then back in (I always said it was an educational program).
I knew I was a better swimmer on my back and was less likely to inhale water, so I flipped over and tried to swim north. But the big waves were relentless. Every 5-6 seconds another wave would pound me underwater and forced me into a rhythm of holding my breath, swimming back up, making sure I wasn’t in another wave, breathing out and in, yelling for help, trying to wave and swim some more, but then the next wave would knock me back to the bottom.
I knew no one could hear me over the wind and crashing waves, no one could see me between the waves as far out as I must be by now, and I couldn’t tell where I was anymore to know where to swim. I was getting tired and then I had a chilling realization: I wasn’t going to get out of this. This was how I was going to die. Right here. On this beautiful day. In a place where I’d had some of the best moments of my life. And soon.
I thought of my wife and the rough year we’d had and how I was about to make her a widow. I thought of my mom who lost her husband a few years ago and was now going to lose her son. I thought of other family and friends and wondered whether they’d miss me. I wondered whether anyone would come to my funeral.
As I became more and more exhausted, I decided the next time or two that I got knocked down, I’d have to just breathe in underwater and hope it was quick and painless. I wondered whether I’d see my dad and grandparents soon.
Then everything went dark.
And everything went silent.
Then after a few seconds I heard muffled voices. I felt I was being carried.
Then I felt I was being set down on warm sand. I could understand the voices a bit better. They were asking if I was OK. I couldn’t see anything and I asked if I was dead. They said no, I was on the beach. I argued that I couldn’t be because I had just been out in the lake drowning. They said someone saved me. I argued that wasn’t possible. Someone in a kayak had saved me. I kept arguing. Then I heard sirens and was soon taken to the hospital.
On the way I began to see again and I overheard that they were trying to close the beach or at least warn people to stay out of the water. At the hospital I asked the EMT to find out who saved me and thank them for me. He said it’s not like they’d be waiting there to be thanked, and I should just “pay it forward.”
The next day I was fine and drove home. I began to ask, “what does it mean,” “what should it mean,” “what could it mean?” Then someone sent me the local newspaper with a photo of me laying on the beach, which was shocking enough. But then I saw the adjacent headline about a 16 year-old boy who drowned in the same rip current less than an hour later. No one shut down the beach. He wasn’t found until the next day.
Talk about survivor guilt – why was I saved and not him?
But I soon went back to a better question about what I could do to “pay it forward” and help make sure it doesn’t happen to others. After a few more days it hit me – I’m a communicator. I’ve been in the communication field my whole career. I could use my strengths and experience to create an awareness campaign to let people know how to
When in doubt, don’t go out. If trapped, don’t fight the current… flip, float, and follow the path of least resistance – and yell for help. Don’t try to save someone without first finding a flotation device.
avoid, escape, and safely save others from rip currents.
So now I’m working with an amazing group of scientists, first responders, and others all sharing in the goal to reduce the number of drownings, so more people have happy endings. And although my woman still done left me, I do have a new love of my life – my fuzzy little boy, Mackinaw.
Finally, please do everything you can to learn more about avoiding, escaping, and saving others from dangerous currents, and safely enjoy the water and waves.
– Jamie Racklyeft