An afternoon spent not drowning

I wrote this last year about something that happened in November. For a number of different reasons it’s taken until now to post it. (All is fine now, by the way.)

A counsellor told me I have post-traumatic stress. He said it is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation. Apparently my body is still pumping itself with adrenaline every time I think about what happened. That is why I keep flashing back to it. That is why my heart is pounding and my hands are shaking as I write.

Hopefully this feeling only lasts a few more days. I would not make a very good action hero.

Here’s what happened. Two boys, both about 8 years old, got themselves into trouble on a paddleboard that they were sharing. The first lesson here is lifejackets. Always wear a life jacket.

I will call the boys Alex and James. Not their real names, of course. They had paddled a bit further out than was wise, if only by a matter of metres. The water was shallow and they should have been fine but the wind took them.

I was nearby, puddling about on a children’s kayak. I couldn’t fit into the seat so I was sitting on the back of it, my feet dangling over the side. Shorts and t-shirt.

Alex’s dad called for the boys to come closer into shore. Since I was already on the water in my poor excuse for a kayak, I paddled over to them.

Things change fast. Did I mention you should always wear a life jacket? No one in this story is wearing one.

So here comes the wind. It’s not something you notice straight away until you realise it has been building for a while, manipulating things so that by the time I reach the boys we have all drifted quite a distance. Alex is paddling, doing his best, but every stroke is taking them further in the wrong direction. The water is way over our heads and I realise James is crying.

I keep pace and tell Alex to copy what I’m doing with my paddle. He does really well. He manages to swing his board around to face the land but the wind pushes straight back and he is not strong enough to paddle against it.

Suddenly, it seems, we are right out in the harbour. The sky is grey. It is windy, choppy, and we have no life jackets. James is quite distraught and when I get alongside he scrambles onto the front of my kayak. I consider telling him to stay on the paddleboard but I figure anything that helps keep him calm is a good thing. He gets into the seat in front of me and hugs his knees.

I continue to coach Alex. He is silent and he does everything I tell him but his paddleboard is still moving away from me. The distance between his board and our kayak is stretching out. I am getting seriously concerned now. I am trying to get James to sit properly in the kayak. Our combined weight has raised the nose of our little craft. We are wobbling quite a bit and I am conscious of keeping our balance. Waves are starting to slop in over the side.

About now Alex’s dad turns up in an adult’s kayak. He hands me a child’s life jacket and then heads away towards Alex. The wind has already blown Alex even further from us.

I pull the life jacket over James’ head with one hand, holding my paddle with the other. I haven’t yet tightened his lifejacket. Then our kayak tips over.

I am in the water and James is somewhere under the kayak. My first thought is that he is stuck but he pops up. So does his life jacket; it has slipped off. Somehow, with my two hands – I have no idea how I managed this – I grab James, the kayak, the life jacket and the paddle all at once.

James is screaming. I am yelling, “We’re okay, we’re okay.” But we’re not okay. I am not okay. I’m not a great swimmer. I could maybe swim to save my life but I don’t know if I can swim to save someone else’s life.

I am terrified by the sound of my voice. It is rattled and hollow. It is a voice that definitely does not sound okay. It doesn’t sound like my voice at all. I’ve never heard a voice like this, ever.

But I have hold of James. I need to get him onto the kayak because he is panicking and I don’t know if I can keep this flailing kid above the water by myself. I say again, “I’ve got you, we’re okay.” It is pretty much all I say for the next while. I am holding him up with my left arm. This is the moment I often flash back to: I’m in the water, no one is there to save us, and my whole reality has changed in an instant.

I am not even sure how I stayed afloat. Was I treading water? Was I supporting myself with my other hand on the kayak? What I can’t figure out is that when we fell into the water I was at the back of the kayak but somehow James and I have swapped positions and I’m now at the front end.

I have a picture in my mind of the kayak sinking into the black water. That’s not what happened at all, but the image is burned into my memory, perhaps because I so desperately didn’t want it to sink.

That thump of dread – that is where I keep returning. I will be at work, minding my own business, and then wham, I’m back in the water reaching for James with my left hand while clutching for the kayak with my right.

So I have a hand on the kayak. I try to turn it back over, a futile exercise. I push James onto the kayak. He is lying there like it’s a flutter board. I’m really worried it will sink so I edge him further forward to even up the balance.

Maybe it was never going to sink. But it in that moment it was our life support and nothing felt certain any more.

All this time James is yelling, “We’re going to die!” I say, “We’re not going to die, we’re okay.” I position myself behind him like an outboard motor. Now that we are on the kayak I am calming myself down.

I try to look over my shoulder a couple of times to see where Alex and his dad have got to but the movement rocks our precious balance in the choppy water. I have to trust that they have their situation sorted, whatever it may be.

Once I realise that I don’t have the luxury of thinking about Alex and his dad, I completely forget about them. In this moment there is only James and me.

The life jacket and paddle are in my left hand. There is no way I can use either of them. James is still crying. “I wish my Mum and Dad were here. I don’t want to die today.”

I am saying, “We’re not going to die, we’re all sorted here on this kayak. I’ve got you, we’re just floating here and we’re fine.” Or something like that. I can’t see any sign of rescue boats and I am fighting off the notion that James is right, that someone might actually die today. This is all very wrong. I was having lunch with friends just an hour ago. How is it that I am here, in the middle of the harbour, responsible for the life of someone else’s son?

And James is still crying. I can’t use the paddle so I say, “We’re okay, we’re just going to kick our way to shore.” James starts kicking, furiously. He ends up kicking me too and the whole kayak wobbles. I say, “No, you don’t kick. Just me, I do the kicking.” And I kick. I kick like the champion Olympic swimmer I will never be. The land has never looked so far away. I am kicking and I’m wondering how we are ever going to make it because the wind is still blowing against us. I wonder if I should turn and aim for the shore at a broader angle, maybe head down the harbour to get momentum. But James is so upset that I can’t bring myself to point the kayak away from land. Perhaps, more honestly, it is for my own sake that I can’t bring myself to head away from land.

I don’t know what is going to happen. My greatest fear remains that we will be separated from the kayak. James is telling me he is cold. He is higher into the wind whereas I am pretty much entirely in the water. I’m not noticing the cold at all. I’m just kicking.

I am thinking about that policeman who jumped into the harbour to save the guy whose van was shunted off a bridge, how he had to keep the guy’s head above water for 40 minutes with no life jackets. If we lose the kayak, I’m not sure I can do that. Seconds count out here. I still have the little life jacket in my left hand. It’s pretty lightweight.

I have a vague notion that my wife might be on the beach worrying about me. But I have no real thought about her or my own children. I am not thinking about God or death or anyone in particular with any sort of clarity. It’s amazing how your body goes into survival mode. I am detached from everything except water, balance, kicking, not sinking.

I am not sure how long we are there. It might be 5 minutes, it might be 10. It feels like 30. We are on our own. No one is coming. I genuinely do not know how this day is going to end.

It occurs to me that I am supposed to make chitchat in a situation like this, to help distract the other person. This is supposed to be one of those heroic bonding moments. But I can’t think of anything to say to James other than “we’re okay,” and I feel bad about that.

Finally, there is someone else in the distance. He is heading towards us, sitting on a paddleboard. He looks so small and insignificant against the harbour. I’m thinking, do you not realize how serious this is, another flimsy paddleboard is not going to cut it, we need a dingy or a boat or a fucking helicopter.

The next thing I remember is everyone converging upon us at the same time. Alex and his dad have made it back to us. The guy on the paddleboard, who I’ll call Pete, is there. We are a little flotilla of three men and two boys in the middle of the harbour. We are so far out that no one on the shore can tell what is happening.

We get James onto Alex’s paddleboard. This time the lifejacket gets done tightly. Alex’s dad prepares to tow the two boys to shore but first he asks if we should all stay together. Pete and I both tell him no, get the kids in. So off he goes.

I’m still in the water with my half-sunk upturned kayak. Pete hooks it up to his paddleboard. I am irrationally concerned that the kayak will sink and take the paddleboard with it.

It is strange how your brain compartmentalizes information during a crisis, shutting down distractions. It is only in retrospect I realize that until that point I was not once scared for myself. It was all about James.

Pete is towing me. He is working hard because my kayak and I are heavy in the water. Someone else arrives on a much larger kayak. I look ahead to see that Alex’s dad has the boys in the shallows. So they’re safe. And that’s the last I think about them until I am back on land.

I pull myself up onto the front of the new kayak. I barely ask permission, that big blue kayak is safety – I must get to it. I basically do exactly what James did when he first scrambled onto my kayak, which now seems like an hour ago.

There is enough space on the new kayak for me to lie down. It feels like a cruise ship compared to where I’ve just been. My leg cramps. I realise I still have my sunglasses on. We get to shore and I pretty much collapse. My wife is there. She throws a towel around me, later telling me that my whole body was purple. My hands keep shaking long after the cold has worn off. They shake their way through several shots of whisky.

That night the overwhelming burden of ‘what if’ consumes me. ‘What if’ takes on a life of its own, far eclipsing the scope of the event.

All of the clichés are true. I don’t feel heroic. I find the whole thing hard to talk about. If anything, I’m embarrassed and confused. I keep thinking it should have been someone else out there, someone more capable. The best I can attribute to myself is that I didn’t fail.

Ostensibly this was a non-event, a near miss compared with what other people go through. If our little adventure has rocked me this much, how much worse for those in more serious incidents? A entire city was rattled and shaken in Christchurch. I suddenly understand why a doctor friend of mine found it so difficult to process his experience after the Feb 22 quake.

How awful must it be, fresh from tragedy, to find journalists in your face with requests for interviews and photographs? All that attention when you can barely talk about it with your own friends and family.

All week I keep finding myself back in the water, kicking that little sunken lifeboat against the wind, swamped by the feeling that we are not going to make it to shore. A stormy sky and the looming spectre of death. A slow collision with mortality.

It was the strangest, gravest experience I have ever had, yet I can already feel the details slipping away from me. Was it really so bad? We fell in the water, we paddled back. A little fright, but no big deal, right?

My shredded nerves suggest otherwise.

And finally, in case I have not already mentioned this: please, always wear a lifejacket.

Marcel Currin, December 2014