The Ascension of  Richard McKeon Young January 13, 2004

Most of my days at Little Beach tend to blend one with another. January 13, 2004 would not be such a day.

From the onset the day was to take on attributes that I had only seldom seen at Little Beach. The surf was awesome. Unlike the gentle rhythm of very mellow waves lapping gently on the shore, today waves crested in walls of water some eight to ten feet high. These waves were also different in that they didn't gently lap or for that matter even roughly caress the shore. Instead they broke offshore some fifty to a hundred feet out. In so doing they would draw the water out from shore
and amass it in a wall of water that would run the breath of Little Beach. A beach of some 400 yards. A beach with a very human scale and much smaller than its sister beach, Big Beach over the other side of an ancient lava flow.

On my arrival that morning I had moved down the beach roughly two thirds of the distance from one end of the beach to the other. I being a creature of habit had  usually drifted to this end of the beach since this is where I first hung out with a chap named Peter Rowley in 1987. Peter had invited me over to help him in is clashes with local officials over the nude use of Little Beach.

The beach was not the usual gentle slope to the water. A definite edge had formed where the waves were cutting into the sand as the water was sucked out to form first one wave and then another, and another.

I was not surprised to see this since I had noted the entrance path over to the beach had been cut similarly.  Normally one could walk on sand right to the base of the lava flow where one climbed up the vee in the hillside to get to the other side of the lava flow that separated the two beaches.

Today, however the sand demarcation line that forms against the lava rock where the sand surface had been was a good six to eight feet above the actual sand which today formed the basis of the beach. Massive rock previously unknown to most tourist now stood ominously in the path of the determined beach goer. Even for me who had experienced this phenomena a number of times over the last fifteen years the vast changes that could be wrote by mother nature in a few days was quite a wonder to behold.

I placed my towel on the sand and spent the next few minutes watching the waves form and break. The aftermath of each wave then cascading in frothy foaming liquid to the shore where it dissipated energy by moving bits of sand back out to sea. It was apparent to me that the sand that had once been the shore of Little Beach was now that found offshore. One could walk out a ways and only be in a foot or so of water. Usually a few quick steps an the water is up to ones waist. A few more and chest height is achieved. On such regular days the normal ebb and flow of the surf is quite soothing to the soul. The periodic waves roles by, bobbing the casual bather up and down as it passes. Most of the displacement experienced by the swimmer is ventricle with nominal movement laterally. This was not the water dynamics of the ocean off of Little Beach on January 13, 2004. I looked in awe as the waves formed up and moved skyward and then collapsed as the weight of
water became more than the thrust of the uplifting ocean could sustain. The wave top curled over and dropped in a mix of white foam, spray and blue green water.

waveWith each wave break could be heard the sound of the sea as water strikes water. For an instance the forces at work are like two solid objects hitting much as two hands slapping together. But  after the contact the two solid objects melt and dissolve one into the other. I spent some time watching the waves. I also watched the a small group of surfers sitting out beyond the breakers. Waiting. Waiting for the right set and perhaps the perfect wave. Probably the wave didn't have to be perfect but at the very least it had to have the look of something worth riding and it also had to be connected with in the just the right way to be ridden to the beach or to where the wave would break somewhere off shore. It was desirable that where ever the breaking  point might be that it was not within the rocky shoals that line either side of the Little Beach half moon.

The morning passed to afternoon as I talked with various people on the beach. Over the years I have met many individuals who return year after year to take in the phenomena known as Little Beach. Talking with Doug and Barb from Seattle my attention was taken by the site of two heads bobbing off shore in the surf near where the waves were breaking. I wondered what the two were about and was particularly concerned that there appeared to be a rip tide taking the swimmers further down the beach into the rocky shoals on that end. As Doug and I pondered the situation it appeared that the swimmers were moving forward and were indeed in the process of coming in through the surf to the beach. Good progress was being made and I presumed they would be on shore in a few more minutes with a little more effort. When my attention returned to the swimmers a short time later things had not changed perceptibly.  True they had moved closer to the beach but were still out in the breaking surf. The next wave appeared to be a couple feet larger than the previous one. Instead of rolling into the shore carrying the two swimmers it choose to build and collapse where the swimmers were. In so doing the back flow of the breaking waves took the two out further from the shore and moved them closer to the rocks.

I watched the two heads which had been separated by the action of the wave move back into proximity. It then appeared that one of the swimmers was pulling the other through the water. The direction of travel was parallel to the beach and the wave front. It was the classic maneuver used by all experienced swimmers to outdo the pull of a rip tide. Swim across the tide until far enough down the beach that the diagonal pull of the water as one moves toward the beach will have the swimmers reaching the beach before reaching the rocks. The strategy of the approach is simple enough. It is the execution of that strategy that takes tremendous discipline. As most of those I have talked with will affirm. The realization that one has been caught in a rip tide is exceedingly unnerving. The body reacts with an adrenaline rush and the heart races. In the panic that grips even the most experienced swimmer motion and energy is wasted in erratic moves. Moves that may include the ingestion of unexpected sea water. The unexpected gasping for breath only heightens the anxiety of the swimmer. Just what the state of the swimmers was could not be determined from the shore. How they were dealing with the fear component of being caught in a rip tide would only be determined later. The mere fact that the swimmers were moving down the beach with one pulling the other indicated that something was not right in the water.

Individuals on shore began to develop a collective awareness and consciousness as to what was happening. An individual conducting business on his cell phone was admonished to dial 911. With some reluctance the call was placed at 14:18.

(to be continue)

they need help

dropped by wave


(Illustrations from the sketch book of Michael Raaum of Basalt, Colorado. Click here for his web site.)


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