Shit, I'm drowning

Playa Guiones, Costa Rica
There are worse places to drown

One day, we will be visited by our last breath.

What is unknown is whether we’ll be lucid for that moment.

The thought is so harrowing that many wish to die in their sleep rather than witness their one-way slip from lucidity.

The Tibetans wrote a whole manual on how to prepare for that moment.

Unfortunately, I had not yet read it last summer when I nearly drowned while surfing in Costa Rica.

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I grew up with a fear of open water so one of my goals on sabbatical was to stay active by learning to surf.

My fear came from ancestral trauma - a great uncle drowned in a river on a school trip and three generations later we were still being reminded that water could kill you.

Even if you didn't grow up in my family, drowning remains one of our greatest collective fears.

When I moved to Canada as a kid, my parents were advised that all kids should take swimming lessons because the land is dotted with lakes and we would inevitably require the skill.

Before that, my only exposure to open water was wading to knee depth in the beaches in the UAE and fishing from shallow water in Goa.

I still remember walking to the back of the community centre where the pool was where I grew up.

With every step, the sting of chlorine grew in my nostrils and the cold dampness of the pool water reached through my clothes and taunted my skin.

While some kids raced past me, squealing to get into the pool, I walked steadily as I steeled myself for the cold water.

Far from being a pastime, I slogged through this ritual for years until I progressed enough to earn my Lifesaving Certification.

Over the many years that followed, I famously became a water-adjacent guy instead of an in-water guy.

I could not be counted on to join friends on water expeditions, preferring to watch from the boat, the dock or the beach while they bounded in fearlessly.

With time and the lure of the most beautiful beach I had ever seen, I was determined to break the spell in Costa Rica.

My early lessons were a struggle, but the surf allowed me to fail safely.

After spending weeks in the white water - the final froth of a wave - I started venturing out to the green water where the big kids surfed.

It was a whole different scene out there!

There was a social club where new and old friends bantered while waiting their turn in the line up. Everyone was there for a sip of union with the surging waves passing through us.

One evening, I worked up the courage to take my twin-sized mattress of a surfboard (baby steps) for a sunset surf.

If the beach was the destination for sunset each day, then actually being in the water was theeee place to catch the final lightshow of the day.

On this day, I caught a couple of nice green waves and felt pretty good about myself.

Maybe I had actually broken the spell. Maybe I was a confident surfer now!

So I went back out and straddled my surfboard while I caught my breath, feeling high on life and losing myself in the pink and purple sky painting the water, the hills and the people on the beach.

Ofter a minute or so, I turned back and noticed that the sun was no longer where I expected it to be on the horizon.

In its place was a wall of water that was going to land directly on me and my 9 ft of foam :(

I had made the cardinal sin on this beach when I turned my back on the ocean and drifted into the wave's impact zone.

There was nowhere to hide and little that could be done in this moment but to brace for impact.

When the water hit, I immediately lost my surfboard and could feel it pulling away from me by the leash on my right shin. The crashing wave pushed me under and rolled over me, stirring up sand that made the water go dark and heavy.

In that moment, I thought: silly boy, you were warned about this

I didn't know how long I would be under or how long I could hold my breath, so I flailed in what felt like wet cement to go somewhere. But the washing machine still had me and I couldn't even be certain that I was moving toward the surface with all that effort.

I felt profoundly alone and wondered what to do next. My surf training had not covered this and it was a terrible time to notice the missing chapter.

I wondered: is this my last breath?

After allowing hundred of millions of visitors to pass through me inconspicuously, all of a sudden, this was a treasured dignitary.

I wondered in that moment if this is how people drown - whether they panic and make wrong decisions, blacking out before they can make the right one. Or whether they choose to inhale the water so that they give their life by their own power rather than having it silently pilfered from them when they blacked out.

Which path should I choose?

Fuck that - I'm not done living!

So I paused and started swimming in the direction that my body floated, hoping that it was in fact toward the surface and that my bet would yield another breath.

As luck would have it, I made it to the surface with enough time to exchange air and check for the proximity of my surfboard before waves two and three of the set had their turn with me.

The whole experience must have only taken a couple of minutes but time slows down when you think you're on the precipice of life.

After the third wave, I pulled my surfboard toward me and flopped on top of it, now much closer to the beach and out of the impact zone.

A surfer casually paddled by me, seemingly unaware of my near-death experience.

When I caught my breath, I paddled to shore to rest but also stubborn that I wanted to go back out to catch another wave.  

As I sat on the beach and watched the last of the sunset, I couldn't help but notice the scene's indifference to the fight for my life.  

The day carried on just as I had left it.

The people were still laughing. Dogs continued playing on the beach.

My experience and every decision I made in the water was mine alone.

Noted.

And here I was, still alive to witness it all.

I don't think I understood what gratitude meant until that moment.

When the adrenaline wore off, I had one of the biggest headaches of my life so I went home to dry off and lay down.

As it turned out, I had planned to have dinner with my surf instructor that night, so I told her the entire story of my ordeal.

She half-smiled as I spoke. She was glad I was ok, and then shared her stories of narrow misses.

Over the following days, I couldn't shake my near miss and shared it with more friends from town, many of whom were regular surfers. Every single one of them had a long list of near misses from being pushed under by a wave, being hit by errant surfboards or landing on coral reef.

And yet they joyfully returned to surfing. Each experience seemed to deepen their commitment rather than scaring them off it.

Unwittingly, telling my story was proof that I had actually surfed and taken some risk in the pursuit of experiencing the bliss that comes with catching a wave. I

Instead of expressing of sorrow for my experience, the reactions were always that of a knowing smile and a sort of post-baptism celebration.

On that day in Costa Rica, I went out for a postcard surf and came back with a sense of gratitude and purpose that remains a touchstone to this day.

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Jamie Larson
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