Brigantine Summer Challenge
The pier - Brigantine, NJ
Fright and Fight
During the summer of 1980, I found myself in a bad situation, in
waters that were far from safe. But the fate of three girls, complete
strangers to me, challenged my endurance and abilities to push beyond
fear and defeat a cold watery death.
was seventeen in the summer of 1980, hanging out around Atlantic City
and Brigantine Island. It was the sort of summer that blurred the days
together so time seemed distorted and unimportant. It was a time of
surf, sand and summer fun!
But one day shook me up and stripped away the innocence of that time. Death was swimming out in the beautiful waters, beneath the seemingly serene surface. It wasn't embodied within a dark creature of the deep, but in the very waves that called so softly, like a siren's song to come play in the cool clear waters...
The sign at the boardwalk stairs said "No lifeguard on Duty. Swim at your own Risk." But being an experienced swimmer, I merely glanced at it. If only more parents would pay attention to the importance of a skilled lifeguard on duty. If they did, there would be no tale to tell. Frankly, I would wish that the events had not happened, but I do hope that the impression left upon the others involved was as profound and life changing as it was to me.
The beach was perfect, the sand not too hot and the water not too cold, the perfect elements for a great day. I lay out my blanket and tossed my things onto it. I'd purchased a new one piece that I thought was quite fetching. The low cut back, the thin straps, the fancy elastic belt to spice up the purple and white with a bit of black. My sun bleached blonde hair was secured in a braided ponytail. I was eager to enjoy the tingle of cool salt water and headed in. On hindsight, I recall a few scattered patrons laying out on there claimed bits of sand. I'd heard the laughter of children too, but it all was white noise to me. It blended easily with the crying of the gulls, the swoosh of the waves washing upon the sand and the distant murmer of the boardwalk.
At first I knew no danger, the pleasure of cutting through the water, diving down and just enjoying myself filled my senses. But if you've been around water long enough, there is a sense of something being wrong that starts to pull at you. Those little red flags started flashing like crazy and made me stop to get my bearings. The beach seemed a bit farther away than I'd thought it had been and that made me start taking notice. First thing that I realized is that I was a heck of a lot closer to the boardwalk pier! My blanket was nearly forty yards away down the beach and as I drifted, treading water I felt the cool pull of the water below me. That slight chill to the water as you enter the deeper parts, it was then I'd realized I'd been tricked by the riptide! Far below the currents were pulling and moving and I was just a bobber being led off to sea. I realized if I didn't get back to shore, if I past under the pier which was the only thing between me and the open sea; the only way I'd survive is if I grew some gills real fast!
It wasn't easy to stay calm, but knowing what I was facing helped me plan my next move. Fighting the current and trying to head straight for the beach was out of the question. I'd wear myself out and drown before I got half way to shore. But angling myself to swim towards the beach with the upper currents would take me under the pier, but would allow me to reach land. As I got closer to the pier I got a real close look at the pillars that hold it up. Slimy, crusted with mollusks and other crustaceans and algae. But I rode the waves slowly back to shore, keeping the pillars between me and the open sea. Images of newspaper stories filled my head. "Unknown female found on beach, believed drowned." and worse. That made me mad, I was not going to be a statistic! I gathered my strength and focused harder on getting back to the beach. Eventually, I got to shallow waters and was able to walk out from under the pier. I felt elated and glad that I'd made it out of the ordeal in one piece. But my joy and relief was short lived.
I heard voices, the faint cries of young girls. I turned and looked out at the water and saw something that chilled my blood more than the icy waters below me had. Two girls, looking to be about ten or so were struggling in the water. If they hadn't been so near I never would have heard them. Worse, a third girl was caught up in the riptide's slipstream; being carried out further out towards the breakers. Even I had not gone out as far as that!
The breakers added a whole new danger to the situation. You see, at the far end of the pier there had once been a stairway down to a small landing. People could bring a small fishing boat up to it. Some even crabbed off of it. But a bad storm had shattered the stairs, tearing the lower half away and the small landing was gone, leaving nothing behind but broken up pillars that pierced the waters. The city or someone should have cleared that death trap away. But it lay right on the edge of the breakwaters and the young girl was drifting far too close to them. If I didn't act, the girls may go under and their friend could get tossed upon those broken pilings and turned into human chum!
I don't remember making the decision, I just knew that within moments of seeing the girls, I was back in the water. I angled my path the best I could to intercept them, fighting to stay on the safer side of the pier and letting them come to me. I called to them, telling them to let the current bring them to me. I called out that I'd help them. I don't know if they heard me. But they did reach me eventually, very scared and starting to panic. I had to get them to understand how serious their situation was. I didn't want to frighten them too much, but they had to listen to me if they were going to live.
"Quiet! Now unless you can breath underwater you need to do exactly what I say. Understand?" They nodded. But when I got them to the pillars beneath the pier they didn't want to touch them. They whined and squirmed, complaining about touching the waterlogged, slimy, barnacle encrusted wood. "You either grab hold of it when I tell you or your fish food! Got it!" Surprisingly, they shut up and listened.
Slowly, but with more speed than I expected they followed my example and I got them to shallow water in no time. My mind was whirling a thousand miles an hour, trying to calculate the survival chances of the other girl while I was busy with these two. I pleaded in my mind for her to miss the broken pilings and be safe under the pier. Once the girls were on shore I turned away. They asked about their friend and I looked at them, I don't know if they realized how serious I was about going after her. "Stay put! Rest...I'm going after her."
I know I had talked to them while we made our way from pillar to pillar, but I've no memory or even an any idea what I said to them. My thoughts were partially elsewhere, thinking about the other girl; the one all alone in those chilling waters. She'd find no mercy and no comfort out there. The deep waters of the ocean care little for those that are foolish enough to test them.
I could feel my body tiring, but adrenaline was still pumping, I had to go after her. There was no one else around to help her out here. For a seventeen year old, I was still running on a first person perspective, not on the big picture outlook of an adult. I was there, she needed help - there was no time to question the right or wrong of it. Or the fact that my actions could doom us both. That viewpoint is unique, few keep it once they become adults. The flurry of possible consequences of my choice didn't exist in my mind for me then; I acted on what I felt was right.
I started to get warning signs from around me almost as soon as I got into deeper water. Without the girls to distract me, I started noticing that the tide was coming in. The water was rising higher, the waves were bigger and dipping lower. Under the pier I got dunked over and over as the waves went over me instead of by me. I needed to stay in the lull to slip out further and further, keeping between the inside supporting pillars. Thankfully they seemed closer at one point, I knew there were buildings on the pier, but I couldn't recall how far out to the end of the pier they were. I glanced to the side at the broken pilings as I came near, the dark wood jagged, rising like teeth. The water was starting to hide them making them even more deadly. I didn't want to see her there, I refused to believe I was too late!
Then ahead I saw her! She was high on one of the pillars, having rode one of the bigger waves up there I guessed. She had her legs wrapped around it and clung there like a barnicle herself. Her eyes were closed tight and she was shaking. I felt my limbs growing heavy and knew that I was almost burned out. She would have to come to me. If she was in shock, to the point she couldn't help herself, we would be in even more trouble.
As the height of the waves increased the urgency of the situation, I called out to her. If the waves got much higher it would be even harder to get to the shore. We'd be bashed about under the pier like toy boats caught in the power of the larger waves. I called out to her, over and over till she finally responded. I don't recall exactly what I said, but she was soon beside me hanging on tight. Her face showed that she understood the danger we were both in.
"We need to ride the waves fast before the water gets any higher." I could see the fear in her eyes and I didn't really know how much of what I said she understood at that moment. "Hold onto my belt and put your arm out, ride the waves like your surfing. Keep your body stiff and let it carry you like a surfboard."
Somehow, we got through the first couple of waves, with me bashing my side into the pillars to keep us from drifting too far. I had to keep us under the pier, I couldn't let us get to close to the far outside pilings. I got cut by the sharp growths and such on the pillars. The salt water stung my legs, arms and side. I knew that the cuts would bleed some before the salt stopped it.
A part of me realized if she'd been clinging to that pillar long she most likely got cuts on her legs and arms too. That got me to push even harder to put more distance between us and the end of the pier. I had to get us closer to the shore. If we were bleeding even the smallest bit, it could bring us some deadly attention that I was in no shape to deal with.
I could tell suddenly that she was tiring, the waves now were washing over us far faster than we were able to ride them. I kept hold of her at first, but then I realized that if we were going to get out of this I had to move faster. If I could get her to just hang on long enough...
"We're almost there, about half way. But the water's getting stronger, hold on tight and don't let go. Ok?" She nodded, I could feel her shaking really bad. The beach wasn't far, but it felt like it would take forever to get there. My shoulders hurt, my legs cramping and that cold chill was seeping into my bones. I could have just given up, but that chill just made me angry. I wasn't going to give up without a fight!
I pushed myself upward into a rising wave to meet the head of the it and let it pull us through the water. We were a lot higher than before and I noticed they were getting longer too and focused on using each one to get us closer to shore. My mind and body were on automatic, the rhythm of the waves and the steady pain of her grip my only true focus. Then I suddenly felt sand below my feet and was jolted out of that place I'd been. Sound was loud and all around me, as if I'd been deaf for a while. We both stumbled forward, falling as the other two girls came running over to help us get higher up the beach.
They'd stayed beneath the pier, waiting. As I looked over, all three girls huddled together, hugging one another. I lay there exhausted, I felt like I could just pass out right there. I could hear the music from the castle above, the sea gulls and the waves too. I didn't want to move, but I had to get out of there. I couldn't stand listening to the water still so close by. I'd had my fill of the sea and wanted to get away from the chill that still clung to me. My mind only now informing me of what could have happened out there.
I don't know where I found the energy to do it, but I did. I got up and noticed the cuts on my arm were welts, white from the salt. I now had a few tears in my suit, knowing I'd find more salted injuries beneath. I went over to the girls and scolded them, telling them how lucky they'd been and to never go into the water without an adult or to make sure a lifeguard was around. Or at least I think it was something like that. I noticed the one girl had some white welts too, somehow the fear and anger just flowed out of me. The adrenaline was up again, but what had fueled it left. It seems all a haze sometimes, but the emotions are still very vivid.
We walked out from under the pier into the sunshine, as if walking from a nighmare into a beautiful dream. I walked away from them, the three girls clung to one another, in a row as they walked. The last one was in the middle and she was still shaking a bit. The other two whispered to her as they walked, though I've no idea what they said.
They were complete strangers to me, just three girls I could have left behind in the water as I ran to get help. But would they all be alive right now if I'd done that? I realized that I could have died trying to save them. At that moment I too got a bit shaky and felt very disconnected, like I was somewhere else. Sorta how you feel when you take cold medicine, only worse. I looked back, watching them as they walked slowly across the sand. It was as if they were afraid to let each other go. I wondered if they would ever tell anyone about what happened, then I turned away...
I finally found my blanket again, picked up my things and headed up to the boardwalk. I didn't look back again; I just let the waves of people pass around me as I walked. I was alive and yet it took a while to shake the chill from my body. It wasn't a physical cold, but it the kind you feel when you've brushed against death. It's there deep inside, a dark icy voice that whispers what could have happened.
Unfortunately, I was going to feel it again, but that's a tale for another time.
I don't know what happened to those girls, I don't know if they took to heart the close brush with death that we all had. I only know that I was tired...I wanted a strawberry chocolate shake and someplace to lay down for a while. I also didn't find the water quite so enticing after that...I chose to wait a good while before I even took a dip in a friend's pool.
It's been thirty summers since then, much of the event is still clear as crystal in my memory. Other things are not so clear. Surprisingly I recall the girls all had dark hair, but when hair is wet it tends to look dark. They were young, too young to have that kind of experience strip away the innocence of their years. Even I was too young at seventeen to face death on terms not my own.
But I hope to this day, that they took the lesson they learned very serious and respected the dangers of the sea. This accounting has been an attempt to purge this from my dark nightmares. Now that I've put it down, hopefully I can put to rest the nagging fears that have haunted me. The fear of what could have happened to us all...