The Ocean Has Things to Teach Us

The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever
— Jacques Cousteau
Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

Growing up on the South Shore of Long Island, New York, the Atlantic Ocean was the backdrop for many a summer adventure. I spent a lot time at the beach, first as a child with my family, then as a teenager, with friends, and then again as a young parent with children of my own. Yet, until two weeks ago, I had never witnessed a drowning.

I have written about my affection for the ocean before. I love the way it sounds and the way it smells and I love that moment when I first plunge into its cold, salty embrace and it takes my breath away. Bobbing up and down with the waves makes me feel like a child again in a way that swimming in a pool or a lake never could and never will. My whole body relaxes when I'm within range of the ocean, my heartbeat synchronizing to the rhythm of the crashing waves.

On this particular Sunday I sat on a blanket contemplating whether or not I wanted to venture into the water some body surfing and boogie boarding (I am perhaps the only 55 year old with a boogie board).

My hesitation was warranted. The lifeguards were flying yellow "CAUTION!" flags and blew their whistles at anyone who ventured in past their waist but there were plenty of people in the water, including surfers. The ocean was roiling but it was a beautiful Labor Day weekend at the New Jersey shore, and people had come from near and far for probably their last beach visit of the summer. They weren't going to be deterred by rip tides and strong currents. Especially the teenagers.

I went back and forth for most of the morning. I knew this would more than likely be my last beach day this year and there I was, sitting ten yards from the surf with my boogie board, which I had lugged all the way from my upstate New York home. But I also have a healthy respect for the ocean and its awesome power, and I'm not as strong a swimmer nor as invincible as I once was.

As I was contemplating my next move -- unusual for me; I usually can't resist a dip in the ocean when it's nearby -- my mind was made up for me when a dozen lifeguards (at first; soon there would be many more) plunged into the ocean in rescue formation directly in front of us. At first I assumed it was a drill, but soon the water was cleared of swimmers and everyone in the vicinity stopped what they were doing and gathered to watch the rescue.

We were always warned about rip tides when we were kids. They'll pull you away from the beach but you can't fight it; you'll only exhaust yourself, and bad things happen when you're exhausted and in water over your head. We were taught, instead, to swim out of the tide to the side, parallel to the beach, then swim back to shore once you've escaped the tide.

I taught my kids about rip tides and currents from an early age, as soon as I started taking them to the beach. Though I never took my eyes off of them when they were in the water and I was often swimming with them I knew that at some point they would graduate to swimming in the ocean without my supervision. I wanted to impart to them whatever ocean-going wisdom I had. I wanted to keep them safe.

But we can't always keep our loved ones safe. They will eventually wander out into the world and away from our watchful gaze and protective arms. And for some of them their time will come prematurely, before they really even get started with their lives.

By the time the Spring Lake police cleared the beach it became clear that the rescue had turned into a recovery mission. A 15 year old boy* visiting the beach with his family was missing, and soon dozens of lifeguards from neighboring beaches joined the search, along with police on Jet Skis and in small boats. They were out there for several hours, until the sun set. The police continued to patrol the beach in their Humvees, lights flashing, through the night.

The young man's body washed up on the beach three days later, on the following Wednesday, about half a mile from where he originally went missing. I know this because I checked the news online every evening before going to bed and every morning after waking. While this must have brought immense relief to his parents, it also must have triggered their grief all over again. I agonize for these parents, who lost their child on a beautiful Sunday at the beach.

Our arrangements with fate are fragile. Hug your loved ones. Tell them that you love them, often. Make the most of every minute, every hour, every day you have with them. You never know when they might be waving to you for the last time as they plunge into the ocean on a beautiful summer day.

* though I know the young man's name by virtue of tracking the story I'm choosing not to use it out of respect for him and his family and because it would imply an intimacy that wasn't earned. RIP young man.

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