Things can change very quickly. One moment you can be on firm footing. The next, you are being swept away. In a different direction you never expected. There is a fragility to life, where it can be taken away from us without warning, without preparation. Someone can be here one moment, and gone the next. This does not mean we have to live in fear. In fact, it means the exact opposite. To live with joy and gratitude in the moment. You never know if you will get another one.
Yesterday morning I woke up and meditated in the sun. Sat with my eyes closed, soaking up the warmth. My meditation serenaded by morning bird song. Serenade may not actually be an accurate description. For although it was bird song, it wasn’t overly pleasant. It was more of a screech. But it was rhythmic and constant, and so it simply held the meditation for a while until I went somewhere deeper and the screeching disappeared into the background of my consciousness.
Three words came to me during the meditation. Life is fragile. When I blinked open my eyes, to see my dog loyally lying at my feet, the words ‘life is fragile’ were resting in my heart. Ringing in my ears. I wasn’t sure why these words came to me, but I accepted them. They made sense. I agreed with them. Life is fragile. And then I got on with my day and did not give those three words a second thought, until later, when they were shouting at me from the ocean.
I packed the car with food, water, towels and bathers. With my daughter sitting beside me, I drove to my best friend’s place, to convoy to the beach. Following her there, as she drove with food, water, towels and bathers packed in the boot of her car. Her three daughters sitting beside and behind her, as she drove. In my car, my daughter and I played music, sang and laughed. Made plans for future parties for special birthdays. Our energy carefree, as the scenery travelled passed us, as we made our way towards our destination, Bushrangers Bay. I imagine in my friend’s car it would have been much the same. Laughter and song guiding them toward the beach.
We arrived to find a number of people had the same idea as us. It was a great day for the beach, weather wise. The sun was shining. It was gloriously warm. Not too hot. And the breeze was gentle. We managed to find a park like everyone else, on the side of the road. Unpacked our food and ate our picnic on the tables set for this very reason, under the tall trees, at the start of the beach track. We ate hot smoked salmon, falafel balls, hummus and jalapeño dip (my favourite). We all enjoyed the butter lettuce, walnut, orange and cherry tomato salad I made. With satisfied stomachs and backpacks filled with supplies for a day by the water, we headed off on the forty minute walk to the beach. Admiring the scenery the entire way. Pausing to take pictures of vast landscapes which greeted us now and then, when the trees cleared.
As we stepped onto the beach, after descending a large number of steps, which would no doubt be a hard slog as the start of our journey home later, I immediately sensed something was wrong. Everyone was looking out at the water. Everyone was standing. Everyone looked worried. And with just cause. There, among a large and unruly seven foot swell, was a young woman, being swept out to sea. The waves relentlessly crashing on the surface of the ocean. From the shore she looked so tiny and helpless, as she seemed to be sucked further backwards with every set, disappearing from a community of people watching from the beach, from humankind, to be claimed by nature. She was far away. Alone. Out in the ocean. Her friends desperately calling her, their futile gestures for her to swim towards them witnessed by an audience of fellow beach goers whose collective anxiety was growing as every second passed.
She gave us hope, as she swam across the rip, which was pulling her further out. But this hope was lost as quickly as it was found, when she disappeared behind large waves, and could not be seen. She raised her arm. She knew she was in trouble, a dire situation. We knew she was in grave danger. There was a sense of helplessness on the beach. But people did what they could. Some people quickly scaled the cliff to get higher to see her, to make sure someone knew where she was. A man tried to go out with a small board. He could not get passed the first set of waves. My heart clenched. Had we arrived to watch a drowning? Were we going to see a young person lose their life today? Her friends watched on desperately. I held them in my heart.
Someone had done the hard slog and run up those flights of stairs and back along the path as far as they needed to go, to breathlessly call emergency services. Word reached the beach, the chopper was on its way. But would it get here in time? We could see she was tiring. The waves were relentless. Everyone stood silently on the beach, only taking our eyes off her occasionally to scan the sky for the longed for chopper. Eventually, it got too much for one young man. He grabbed the small board, the only one on the beach. Not a full surf board, it looked like a child’s training board of some sort. He made his way out towards her. Swimming hard against the current. There was applause on the beach when he reached her. A collective sigh of relief. For some of us, we sat down, our legs shaking under the pressure of what we were witnessing. Of the weight of possibilities.
He placed her on the board, instructed her to kick and he started making his way back to the shore, using backstroke to conserve his energy and to watch his cargo was not lost to the waves, which continued to overcome them. She would know the chopper was coming. She would know all hope was not lost. She would be getting some reprieve by being on the board. She had someone with her. But it was not over yet. Nothing was guaranteed. We could all see it was hard work. We all knew the risk. We could lose both of them.
They made it closer to the shore, so close it was like a tease. They were in the spot where she had first been swept away. Rocks were dangerously close. The ocean was unforgiving. They were dumped by waves, she would fall off the board and with great speed she would be pulled back into the ocean, like some force was claiming her. Each time he swam with what we all imagined was focused intent, to reclaim her. He rescued her, repeatedly. It was a relief every time, but was heartbreaking to watch as their efforts to move forward were lost, again and again. They were so close to making it. But the ocean was not letting them go. They must have been exhausted. And I imagine the frustration level we felt every time she was swept away, could not compare to what he must have felt as he saw the current take her, and diligently made his way back to her, duck diving under large waves to once again have her safely on the board. In deeper waters they had opportunity to rest. And we saw them do exactly this. But in this spot, the sets coming in gave them no chance to rest. It was testing. Relentless. Tough. The suspense was overwhelming.
The swell of emotion on the beach when the chopper could be seen in the sky, surpassed the ocean’s swell. They were going to make it. Help had arrived. And we watched in awe as the pilot manoeuvred the chopper above them. As a paramedic looking more like a frogman than a human, was lowered to save them. We watched as he reached them, collected her in his arms for them both to be winched to safety. To the wet sand in front of us. He held her like a husband holds a bride as he takes her over the threshold of their home. And gently placed her on the sand, holding a reassuring arm around her as he signalled with his other arm to be released from the chopper.
The young man was still in the water making his way to shore, a little easier without his cargo, but still with struggle against the force of the will of the ocean. His friends waded out to him, as he got closer to the shore, desperate to help him, to congratulate him for his heroic efforts. As he walked up towards the dry sand, he was met by our applause. We were please that this time he could hear it.
We watched the Westpac Rescue Chopper negotiate and then land on beach. No small feat. We watch an ambulance chopper circle and descend to land directly behind the sand dunes. Landing beside police cars and road ambulances. And then the uniformed men and women, who have trained to do what was unfolding before us, took charge. Wrapped in towels, now on dry sand, surrounded by ambulance and police officers, and her friends, the young woman was being closely monitored and having her vitals checked.
The young man who had saved her, had left the beach with his friends. A humble hero. Not just her hero, but a hero to all of us. He saved all of us from witnessing a drowning. I doubt she would have made it, had he not gone out there. Had he not given her hope and reprieve from the ocean. She had been out so long, it was possible that by the time emergency services arrived, she may have perished. The ocean reminding us of its power, as waves crashed against the cliff to our right with such force it sounded like an enormous thunder clap.
There were a few heroes yesterday. The woman who ran up the equivalent of ten flights of steps and along the sandy path towards the car park until she had reception on her phone to call emergency services. She is definitely one. The young man who risked his own life and faced everything the ocean gave him, to reach a young woman out in the water drowning. He is definitely a hero of the day. Paramedics and policemen, trained to put their own lives at risk to save others, are of course in the hero category.
In my eyes, the young woman at the centre of all this, is also a hero. Yes, there were warning signs about strong currents. Yes, it was not a good idea to swim at Bushrangers Bay. But it could have been any of us in that predicament. My daughter, my friend’s daughters. The ocean is unpredictable. Any of us could have been in the place of this young woman who found herself in deep water, suddenly and unexpectedly. Who was swept out to sea, as she watched her swimming companion make it safely to shore. A bikini-clad, tiny framed young woman, who gave us hope time and time again, as she swam sideways trying to escape the rip pulling her toward the horizon, who raised her arm to let us know where she was. Who was, many times, just a tiny speck in the vast ocean. Who reminded us all of how careful we needed to be in the water before us, even when close to the shore. Who showed us how fragile life can be. Who showed us the strength in her will to live.
Please consider donating to the Westpac Rescue Helicopter Service, to support such an important team of people. At the moment, they are in their busiest time of year. Summer. Please donate and help save lives. I saw it in action yesterday and was so grateful this service was so quickly on the scene. The outcome would have been so very different without the arrival of the Westpac Rescue Helicopter Service.