underestimating the power of the waves

[this is a guest post from my brother-in-law Dave.  he put into words what we both experienced.]

I pride myself in making good decisions. This last weekend I made a bad one. And it nearly cost me everything.

I tell this story despite the fact that it smashes the image I like to portray — of someone who makes the right decision as often as possible. Someone who takes risks – yes – but calculated ones. Someone who weighs the pros and the cons and always makes the right choice. I tell this story so that others — including my 4 sons — might learn from it.

Many of my brothers-in-law and I have a Northern Michigan tradition every September. Golfing, hanging out, eating, playing, sitting around drinking and talking. Among other things, it always includes a jump off the local pier into the waters of Lake Michigan.

We’ve been doing it for at least 15 years. We’ve jumped in cold water and warm water, calm water and wavy water, during the morning, afternoon and evening. Many times, many variables… never a problem.

So it seemed like a normal thing on Saturday morning, as we climbed across the rocks to get to the pier, intent on introducing a new group of friends to our annual tradition. We had spent the car ride and the walk there discussing the thrill and the excitement of the ~10-foot drop to the water below.

When we all made it out to the pier, we spent some time looking around as the sun glistened off the 3-4 foot waves seemingly bouncing their way out of the north horizon and to the shore. Every once in a while, a wave would crash the pier and spray itself up and on to the concrete. But Thad [that’s me, my2fish] and myself had done this before. We knew what we were doing.

We discussed the plan. Jump off the northwest corner, float about a bit, ride the wave back to the ladder, time it to grab the ladder and climb out. Like we had done many times before.

About 6 guys watched as first Thad jumped and 10 seconds later, I followed. As I was in the air, I noticed a rather large wave passing under me. I realized I was going to land on the backside of it, so I braced for a shallower area of water. I was right. As I hit the water, I almost immediately touched the bottom of the lake.

[the video shows us walking out on the giant boulders to the pier, and the waves crashing on the rocks and the pier.  the video shows us jumping into the water, but I had turned the camera off immediately after that.]

[Dave’s story continues…]

The water was on the warmer side and I calculated quickly in my head that it was probably about 8-foot deep where I landed, about 5 or so feet lower than it usually is on calm days. That was my first indication that this was like no other jump we had done before.

After coming up and floating for 10 seconds or so, I saw Thad farther out than I expected him to be. So I turned to look at the ladder and realized two things: I also was further out then I expected and — more scary — I was almost even with the ladder. My eyes met with Thad’s and I realized that he had already realized that same thing.

Thad was already swimming to the ladder so I turned to do the same. That’s when the second thing happened that make me realize that things were not normal. Thad’s arm crashed into me as he passed me on my right (south). That threw me for a little loop and I decided I better get to the ladder as soon as I could. So I swam. And swam. And swam. When I looked up, I had hardly made any progress toward the ladder. So I swam harder. Although I’m a pretty decent swimmer, I was getting tired. And so, apparently, was Thad.

After what seemed like a few minutes of all-out swimming, both Thad and I were a few feet away, bobbing up and down as the waves moved under us. Thad’s brother-in-law, Clint [the Snark sailor], had realized something was wrong and had climbed down the ladder and was stretching out his arm to grab on to. My mind felt a moment of relief at this sight because I knew Clint was strong and if I got a hold of him, I’d be able to get out.

So, I timed it. And my right hand grabbed his arm, just like they do in the movies. And as I grabbed the ladder with my left hand, I looked to my right and saw Thad lunging for Clint’s arm as well. Our eyes met again and his eyes seemed to match the beating of my heart. He grabbed Clint’s arm and got his left hand on the ladder next to me.

Just then the water dropped out from under me and I realized two things: I would only have one chance to pull myself up the now-5-foot-space to get on the ladder and I better do it quick because a big wave was seconds behind me.

I was right on both accounts. As I used the last of my strength to heave myself up the ladder, a huge wave crashed into me, turning me sideways and throwing me against the exposed wall of the pier.

I have no idea how long I was under water. Probably only 6-8 seconds or so but to my tired and bruised body, it felt like I was in a washing machine for 20 seconds. I hadn’t had a chance to get a good breathe, so when I finally came up, I was gasping for air, and getting a mixture of water and air in my mouth.

Later, Clint would tell me that one second he had us both and the next second we were gone. Washed away. He had no idea where we were. After the wave came through, he scanned the bottom of the lake, saying to himself that he would try to save the first one of us he saw and that the other one would have to fend for himself. But he saw neither of us.

It took me a few seconds to realize I could breathe again. What a luxury. I took full advantage, pulling in as much air as I could while I tried to tread water. I heard a faint yell from above, “more waves!”, and all of a sudden I was under water again. Disoriented. Flailing. Thinking to myself: “Am I really going to be one of those guys? Is this really the way it is going to end?”

I decided it ought not to end this way. So I continued to struggle, catching air as often as my dead-tired limbs could get my head out of the water, realizing that my best shot was to get behind the break wall and  get on to the huge rocks.

As I felt like giving up, my foot made contact with something slippery. I pressed down and it pressed back… the first solid footing I had found myself on since I jumped off the pier however many minutes ago that was.

As I stood up to breathe in as much air as I could, I heard the voices above again, shouting: “You can’t stay there! Waves!”

I finally had the ability to speak and yelled, “I have to breathe!”

And, again, Lake Michigan proved them right, pummeling me yet again with a wall of water. At least now I was only pushed into the rocks. As painful as that was, I was grateful to be above water… breathing. The last wave had moved me a little further down the wall of rocks and I found myself standing in front of another good-sized rock when the next warning yell came from above, “big wave!”

I instinctively gave the rock in front of me a bear hug, took a deep breath, and held on with what was left of my strength.

Later, the guys above told me that I disappeared under that next wave. When it receded, they didn’t know where to look for me next. By the grace of God, I was still there, bear-hugging the hell out of that rock. So I gained a little energy back and the waves got a little smaller. And I took a step up the rocks toward the pier. And I gained a little more energy back. And I took another step. Before I knew it, I was high enough on the rocks where I could lie down without fear of the waves doing any more damage.

So, after taking a look around and seeing Thad 15 feet down the rock line — not on the rocks yet but at least above water and apparently safe — I lied there for a few minutes, grateful. That is where I said my first prayer of the whole incident. One of thankfulness.

I noticed my bloody feet and legs but didn’t really feel the pain. It would be 48 hours until the deep bruises on my knees surfaced. It was 72 hours until the dozen bruises up and down my right side appeared. As I was making my way down the rock line, I passed the rock where Thad had laid down after getting out of the water. The pool of blood scared me anew. Thad’s feet were shredded and he was rinsing them off in the lake.

picture of Dave’s feet – cuts from we assume zebra mussels on the rocks

We made eye contact once again… this time with a sense of relief buried behind the steeled intensity acknowledging what had just occurred.

As we made our way back to our car, we asked ourselves how had we gotten so complacent that we allowed ourselves to be in that much danger. The answer, of course, is found in the question itself and provides a warning to all of us. Which danger in your life — whether physical, mental or even spiritual — have you become complacent to? If you answer that question and acknowledge that answer by changing how you approach that danger, than our struggles in Lake Michigan on a Saturday in September 2012 will have been worth it. Please do.


22 Responses to “underestimating the power of the waves”

  1. 1 clint g September 12, 2012 at 9:16 am

    Well told! We will always have a well thought-out safety plan for now on.

  2. 3 Richard G September 12, 2012 at 12:11 pm

    Even more scary the second time through. Glad you’re both safe.

  3. 8 Tillerman September 12, 2012 at 1:13 pm

    Dude. Die on your Sunfish by all means but don’t die jumping off a pier. Pleeeeease.

  4. 10 Gretchen M September 12, 2012 at 2:27 pm

    Cried the second time reading this! So glad you dear brothers of mine are safe!!

  5. 11 Laura G September 12, 2012 at 3:41 pm

    Thankful for the angels guarding you all!

  6. 12 alli September 12, 2012 at 7:15 pm

    Wow! Q left this up on the computer for me to read. Thankful you made it out safe.

  7. 13 M.J. Eldridge September 12, 2012 at 9:46 pm

    Currents off the piers and in the channels of the great lakes are too unpredictable and therefore never safe to swim from! Many have posted $500.00 fines for anyone caught doing it!

  8. 15 Kyle April 15, 2013 at 5:19 am

    Wow, I know what you mean about complacency. I was racing last summer on my father’s Cal-27. Heading downwind wing on wing because the chute would be overwhelming. I was on the low side idly stopping the jib sheet from running in and out slamming the rig. We went into a low trough and as we came out the righting momentum of the wave threw me into the upper lifeline. It broke and the lower one flipped me over so hard that my head slammed into the hull hard as I hit the water. Everything went white and I swam to the surface as the boat streamed away. My dad went hard over with the helm and they picked me up. I have a great respect for the power of waves – now.

  9. 17 William P. Anderson August 22, 2013 at 11:33 pm

    I joined the group in the story once to jump from the pier. Very fun but even then I said that is the last time I will do it as I had a hard time pulling myself up. We had calm waves that day but what a story. I am glad all is well.
    Keep writing David.
    Bill Anderson

    • 18 my2fish August 23, 2013 at 12:48 am

      Thanks for commenting Bill! I remember jumping off the pier with you too – it was fun that day!

      Cheers, Thad (my2fish)

      • 19 William Anderson October 8, 2016 at 11:10 pm

        I read this story again…gives a sense of the awesome power of waves and graciousness of God to spare you precious young men. Praise God again!!
        Great writing Thad
        It was fun to remember again.

  1. 1 pier jumping with the boys « my2fish: a blog about sunfish sailing Trackback on November 2, 2012 at 5:59 pm
  2. 2 the point of no return | my2fish: a blog about sunfish sailing Trackback on January 13, 2015 at 8:44 am
  3. 3 drowning doesn’t look like drowning | my2fish: a blog about sunfish sailing Trackback on May 23, 2017 at 4:55 pm

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