Rip Tide

Trouble at a Spanish beach

Illustration by Matt Rota
Illustration by Matt Rota

The word apuro is Spanish for “trouble” or “problem,” and it is often used when the difficulty is of one’s own making: a predicament, nothing terribly serious. You tell a lie and suddenly find yourself caught in a contradiction, which requires another lie to cover it up, but rather than solve the problem, the second lie requires more invention and devolves into further contradictions. Soon you are in a tangle. As with a snare, everything gets worse when you try to pull free and the encircling strands tighten. Extricating yourself one loop at a time from the consequences of an initial misunderstanding or untruth is often the action of a sitcom episode. The fun comes from seeing how much more stumbling is required. No one seems the worse for the experience. But in real life? A happy outcome is not guaranteed. In real life, we might not become entangled bit by bit. We might fall into some disaster as if into a pit, with little chance of climbing out.

In early June, I spent a night in the fishing village of Puerto de Vega, not far from my home in northern Spain. With me were my grown son, my brother and sister-in-law, and two friends, all of us staying at the Hotel Pleamar—the High Tide Hotel. Before going to bed, we four family members agreed to walk down to Frejulfe Beach the next morning, for an early dip in the sea.

The morning dawned cool and overcast. We left at eight in search of the beach, about two miles away. Running past the hotel was a road with fields on the other side, and beyond the fields, the coast. Turn left and follow the signs, we’d been told. We did that, walking on the sidewalk until it disappeared, and then on the shoulder of the road. The first turnoff looked promising, and we took it. A car right behind us also took it, so we asked the driver whether this was the right road. It wasn’t the most direct, he said, but it would work.

On we went, moseying along, admiring the houses, checking out a hotel and agreeing that it was grander than ours but not as inviting, and laughing at a boy who cut across our path to enter his garden at full tilt, his little dog bouncing behind him like a toy on a string, a half-grown cat hurrying after them. We began to wonder if we were still on the right track, so we asked a fellow walking in the opposite direction. He shook his head and with a wry smile said no, the beach was in the opposite direction. He was headed there himself and we could follow him, but he was going a paso, at a good clip. We were up for that and joined him, clipping at his clip, chatting with him and among ourselves as we went. Thus we reached a bluff and saw below us the sea and beside it a very long and empty stretch of gray sand between two verdant slopes. The man said goodbye and continued, and we took the path down to the water.

We saw this same man again an hour later, on our walk back to the hotel. The second sighting, like the closing parenthesis on our morning adventure, marked the whole episode at the beach as an aside in the story of a weekend trip to the coast. The episode was just an apuro, a bit of trouble, with no lasting effect. It could be cut from the story and forgotten, as if it hadn’t really happened. Did it happen? I almost doubted the reality of our morning. Did we really leave the hotel, arrive at the beach, go heedlessly into the frigid water, discover we were in a rip tide, and fight to save ourselves? Did we really? I was still in a strange state of disbelief and exhilaration from having nearly drowned. The sight of the man in the unfamiliar countryside was like the spotting of a landmark that proved where one was, despite all doubts. Yes, it really did happen. It wasn’t a dream. But how did it happen?

When we got to the beach, we left our towels and phones, our clothes and shoes, in a neat pile on the sand. Then we all went in. I was the last to do so: while the other three were cavorting, already immersed, I was steeling myself for the cold. I went in gingerly, a step at a time. The water was indeed frigid. I shivered. My brother, waist deep, looked back at me, and I waved before he took the plunge. Out I went a few more steps, bracing against the cold water, which was a force more than a sensation. Then I dived in. After a mere half dozen strokes toward my family, just ahead of me, I was already cold through and through and ready to get out. Five minutes was my limit. As I turned toward shore, I called out to my brother that I was going back. I was already swimming in that direction.

Only I wasn’t, I discovered, feeling the suck of the ocean pull me away at the same moment I realized how terribly far away the beach was. I perceived that my strokes toward the beach had no effect whatsoever. Maybe, at best, they slowed the outward sweep. But little else. “There’s an undertow,” I yelled to my brother. He had turned to watch me swim to shore, and I saw his surprise. “You’re right,” he called back.

My son, 30 feet from me, turned to look. On seeing my fear, which was already verging on hysteria, he laughed and started toward me, perhaps to reassure me, maybe to tease me about my alarm, maybe even to pull on my leg for fun, to give me a real scare. Then he too realized we were in a rip current. He kept on, heading toward me, and I kept on with my swimming motions toward the beach. Neither of us made any progress. He said something, and I cried out that I wanted to get out of the water and that I wanted him out and the others out, too. I wouldn’t be at ease until everyone was again on land. I had concluded that the situation was dangerous, but I hadn’t yet thrown all my will into swimming and hadn’t yet realized that swimming against the tide was impossible. And then I did, going from frightened to desperate. But by then, the others had also seen how far out we were, made their own first attempts to swim, discovered that they could not, and begun their own reckoning of their strength and resources.

That was the closest I came to seeing my life flash through my mind. I was lost, the end was written, we were drowned. But I still had to fight because that was also part of the story. You couldn’t jump ahead to the end. Not even to get the torment over with.

My brother and sister-in-law are practiced swimmers. My son is young and strong. I am quite fit, though not a swimmer. What were our chances? Later, upon staggering ashore and turning to see that the others were also getting closer, I wondered what would have happened had I not gotten chilled and turned back so soon, thereby drawing everyone’s attention to the apuro we were in. Or had I not—after two or three moments of trying to swim straight in, with hysteria almost upon me—remembered the advice I’d heard about swimming into a rip tide at an angle. That’s what I did, aiming not for our towels but for some point down the beach. And why down the beach and not up the beach? Did that matter? Had I instinctively chosen the right direction? What if I hadn’t?

When I changed my tactic—tactic seems too meditated a word for my very frightened floundering—and began to make progress, I could look around for the others. My sister-in-law was the farthest out. She was on her back, doing the backstroke. My brother was also doing the backstroke, but he was not relaxed. He was turning his head to watch me, calling out to tell me to get on my back. “I can’t, I can’t,” I called back. I could have rolled over, but doing so would not have improved my chances. I have one stroke, the breaststroke. I kept on. I felt a hand on me, my son’s grasp from behind. Was he trying to help? Was he drowning? His hand fell away almost before I registered it. But not before I said not to touch me. I needed full focus on swimming. Any distraction seemed like the pull of the water, away from my goal of the shore. My vision narrowed.

Ahead, impossibly far, I saw the beach and the steep hill beyond it, a deep dark green. It might as well have been a painting—I would never break through.

My son was to my left, my brother somewhere to my right, my sister-in-law, too. “Put your feet down,” my brother called. I tried. My toes touched sand, but then I was swept back. “I can’t,” I yelled. I kept swimming. I touched bottom again. A wave crashed over my head, knocking me off my feet. I came up, swallowed water, gulped for air, felt another wave, and was rolled under again. When the third wave came—and the waves were not big, just strong—I managed to surge forward with it more than be swept back when it receded. The outward tug was always there. I tried for the bottom again, and found it. I got out. I did not throw handfuls of sand over myself in exultation as does the hero of Ambrose Bierce’s story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” a condemned man who, on escaping a hanging when the rope breaks, swims to freedom. I watched the others instead. They were not yet touching bottom. But then they did. They came out, too. We all came out. We all lived.

I have no memory of how they looked, or who came first, as they emerged one after another. No memory at all of the end. Images only from within the water: the hand on my flank as my son tried to push me shoreward before he realized he would be lucky to save himself; my brother yelling to me; my sister-in-law with arms raised, not in supplication but in a slow steady backstroke, face to the sky.

Cold through and through. That had saved us. Another five minutes of swimming away from shore would have required an extra half an hour of stamina to reverse course. I would have been even colder, more frightened. Perhaps I wouldn’t have remembered to swim at an angle. I would have died in the water, drowned, becoming as cold as the water itself, cold through and through. At one moment during the ordeal, I had a flash of understanding of what was upon us. “Oh shit,” I said, realizing we’d made a mistake. Oh shit is what you might say when you forget a friend’s birthday or miss an appointment. Oh shit, this can’t be fixed, I had thought. I had believed it. That was the closest I came to seeing my life flash through my mind. I was lost, the end was written, we were drowned. But I still had to fight because that was also part of the story. You couldn’t jump ahead to the end. Not even to get the torment over with. Oh shit. Exactly those two words. My very ordinary, common, last words.

Meeting the man on our return trek provided the proof that we were back in the world of before. The man had continued his walk after his encounter with us and was going home when he spotted us again, damp towels over shoulders, hair wet. How different his day would have been if instead of seeing us again and calling out a kindly remark about our having had our swim, he had heard on the radio the news about the tourists drowned on Frejulfe Beach. While we had been in the water, fighting for our lives, that man had walked on and made his circle and started back. That little boy with the dog on a skinny leash, the thin, half-grown cat trotting at the dog’s heels, tail straight up like a flag, making us laugh—he had gone on with his life, starting with his breakfast. The guests in the grand hotel would have opened their windows onto a warming day. Back at the Pleamar, our friends had started their breakfast.

How did we survive? Bad luck comes in threes. We got our mistakes over with quickly, two wrong turns and the third and principal mistake of walking into the water without a thought or a backward glance, and we had no others we were bound to make. Good luck comes in threes, too: here comes my son, here my brother, and here my sister-in-law, saved from the watery depths. And what about me? Sure, I seem to have survived, as well. But then I recall the man sentenced to be hanged at Owl Creek Bridge. In the 1961 movie based on the story, the man crawls from the river. He’s lucky to be alive. He rolls on the sandy bank, laughs hysterically, throws handfuls of sand around, and, on his back like a baby, kicks his feet in the air. He’s that glad to be alive. He’s a dead man. He’s alive. Both seem to be true. Is that a contradiction? It’s a contradiction. We’ve all survived. We’re about to open our eyes on waking from a dream, the waters closing in on us.

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Clellan Coe, a writer in Spain, is a contributing editor of the Scholar.


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