In college I overpaid for a used, five-foot-two thruster off Craigslist. It pleased me that the surfboard was riddled with pressure cracks, structural fractures created when the previous owner dropped in on big waves. On weekends I greased myself with tanning oil, popped over-the-counter ephedrine, and hit the beach. I made a show of waxing the board shirtless so others could see my shoulder muscles twitch. On hot days I wore a dark t-shirt, not because I couldn’t afford a rash guard but because that’s what many locals did. I swabbed Vaseline on my nipples when they chafed, and took pride when those nipples freckled my shirts with blood. I left wax combs in plain sight on the dash and passenger seat of my car.
In retrospect I must have had the aura of a swindler. I loved the ocean, but surfing was something I’d put on, a pair of skinny jeans that stretched awkwardly over my thick thighs. Though never quite bullied when taking up space in territorial lineups, which I misconstrued as evidence of acceptance, I was routinely greeted with the sort of half-sneer you might give streak marks on your underpants. Once at Ala Moana Bowls, a mid-year Valentine was tucked under my windshield wiper: HEY SURFER BOY! YOU LOOK SO CUTE ON YOUR SURFBOARD. SURF’S UP!
Diamond Head famously houses three main breaks, two at Cliffs and a right at Lighthouses, yet the reefs here scarf the southernmost limb of the island, inviting both south and east swells. When swells and trade winds converge, as they often do, Diamond Head churns out a handful of peripheral breaks that create the atmosphere of a carnival, with rides cropping up all around.
It was these ever-changing, secondary breaks that I preferred to surf, both to avoid crowds in the main breaks and to avoid humiliating myself in front of quick- footed regulars, many of whom were half my age. Trouble is, even these scattered peaks were dropping bombs.
A brief review of wave mechanics: as ocean swells approach a reef, they mount into waves. The rising wave energy sucks water off the reef, creating a rip current that feeds into the wave. The surest way out is to stick to a channel, a deeper section of reef less affected by currents.
The obvious soon became clear: I had no business in the water. I tried heading in but found myself caught inside, stuck between the break and shore. Waves were breaking everywhere, so sloppy, so unpredictable that I couldn’t locate an exit. I made as much forward progress as someone jogging on a treadmill.
So I sat up on my board, waiting for a lull, and turned to watch Cliffs, one of the three main breaks. Whitecaps skittered and sloshed. A man on a yellow longboard was taking off on the peak of a massive crest. As the wave trough hit reef, the crest jutted skyward and the man pushed up to his feet.
What happened next is the man paused.
Maybe he’d gotten a late start or had cowered at the sheer drop of the wave. Maybe crosswinds had whipped seawater into his eyes. Whatever the cause, as the wave stacked and hollowed, the man stepped back too far, too late, and the longboard shot up at the sky, its yellow belly flashing the shore, the tail feather of a territorial bird. The man and the yellow longboard were pitched over the lip of the wave.
The wipeout did not immediately concern me. Surfers get pounded all the time, especially on big waves, a fact I knew well enough. I’d guessed that wave was the set wave—the final and generally largest in a group of waves—but on its tail arrived a second wall as large as the first, followed by a third, the set wave, the largest of the three. No one attempted to ride those last two waves. When the whitewater fizzed out, I saw a stray board, the yellow longboard—in itself nothing unusual. Boards get lost. Leashes snap or people neglect to wear them. But I was close enough to see that the board had a leash, and it skated the water’s surface to a dark splotch of hair, a coconut bobbing in the surf.
At once, my brain read the scene as a joke. The guy on the yellow board was a YouTube prankster who staged his own wipeouts, remaining underwater for minutes with the aid of an inconspicuous snorkel mask. His co-conspirator would be somewhere in the lineup filming the reaction of semi-pro surfers and other hardened water folk. The wipeout was not an accident but a social experiment: Would onlookers try to save him, or would we just gasp and stare?
On a day with such high stakes, this guy was toying with the ocean, more con- artist than magician. In that lapse of seconds, my mind registered annoyance at the stupidity of the stunt: Just what is this asshole playing at?
As quickly as those thoughts had formed, I knew their absurdity, their near impossibility—two waves had smashed down since the wipeout, the man was clearly drowning—and my annoyance bloomed into an emotion that, despite sounding like a non sequitur, felt much like rage, rage at the man’s inability to handle himself in these waters, rage that I was idling within reach of a monster break, rage that no one else had seen the downed surfer or, worse, that they’d seen him and decided not to bother.
Though I’d like to report a more verbose response, I shouted “FUCK!” several times and found myself thrashing toward the yellow board.
The face did not at first seem human. The lips were those of a fish, swollen blue, eyes bloodshot, skin so transparent it seemed molded from wax. Seawater spilled from the mouth and nose. Mouth agape, a terrible gasping noise issued forth. I should have felt compassion but for reasons I’d yet to fathom, the body I faced was terrifying and somehow repulsive.
In my shock, I actually feared I had unearthed a creature.
I am not proud of what I did next. Trembling, I slid off my board, the Craigslist thruster, and approached hesitantly, concerned that in an attempt to save himself, the man may try to climb atop me. Yet his arms did not thrash wildly at me, nor did they grasp the board. They lay limp at his sides. It occurred to me that he may have fractured his spinal cord.
My hands fumbled and shook in their attempt to mold the limp man to my shortboard. The sound became unbearable, the man was not only gasping for air, he was moaning. Head above the surface, he was drowning from the water in his lungs. In my panic, I failed to realize the obvious: strapped to his ankle was a nine- foot yellow tank. For months I would kick myself over this fact.
To my relief the scene drew two other surfers, a bald man and another long- haired. They pulled the drowning man atop the yellow longboard, and again his body slid back under water. In an obvious solution, the long-haired guy hugged the victim atop his board. A fourth surfer joined us, and in a sort of aquatic carriage, he and the bald man towed up ahead. I paddled alongside, hoping to be of some use. On his back, the drowning man vomited more seawater. At one point I shouted, “It’s gonna be okay,” empty reassurance to which no one responded. If this man died, it was not okay; if oxygen deprivation rendered him incapable of rational thought, it was not okay; if another wave ran us over from behind (which would happen shortly), still not okay. Very little about this situation was in fact okay.
A set swept in from behind, toppling us from our boards yet also washing us closer to shore. We converged and for a third time pulled the drowning man from the sea. Soon other surfers began swarming around, faces of regulars, a few sponsored surfers, faces that had never before acknowledged me as an equal, and now they were seeing me in this act of bravery.
I glanced over at the downed surfer in the arms of his rescuer and something rose up in my throat, a wiry silverfish, a thought so selfish, so grotesque, I regret to include it here: That should be me paddling the man to shore.
We used the red longboard like a stretcher to carry the man. His face appeared infected with purple-blue pocks, as if the ocean had crept in under his skin. On his back he gurgled for air. Had we pulled him from the sea just to watch him die on land?
“Did you call 911?” a voice asked at my side.
The words emitted from a plump man in cargo shorts. My mind had yet to register the man or the question as something requiring response. He repeated the question, “Did you call 911?”
Though the concern was valid, obviously someone should phone an ambulance—hadn’t someone already done so?—the question rang absurd. Why ask this of a dozen winded surfers fresh out of the water? Why would he, dry and rested, not immediately take action himself? And of all the people on the beach, why had he chosen me to badger?
The man appealed to the crowd, “Did someone call 911?” and in our collective shock, no one answered. He chuckled, “I’ll go call 911,” and to my relief, he left.
Someone turned the drowning man on his side where he expelled the remaining seawater from his lungs and stomach. Someone placed a towel over his shivering body. Then, as if by metamorphosis, he returned to human form. Color filled his skin. Someone shook his hand. Blue evaporated from his face in the peach glow of the late afternoon sun.
Without a word to anyone, I turned and carried my board through the crowd, past the orange high-surf flags, up the pebbly switchbacks to my car. Near the guardrail hovered a pair of brawny guys, arms thick and bronzed. They gazed out at the surf with amused looks on their faces. As I passed, I overheard, “If no can handle, no go out.” They were actually using someone’s near drowning as a chance to peacock their own toughness.
And that should be the worst of the day, those two men at the guardrail, but it’s not. Envy had begun to fester in my chest.
That evening I spilled the story in a stream of consciousness rant to my friend Anica, a nurse at the local hospital. I wanted her to admire my courage, to tell our friends and families. I wanted her to reverse time to the moment when I’d pulled that blue face from the water, the moment I’d frozen. Of course she did none of those things, and I left our talk feeling short-changed.
For months I dreamt of enormous walls of water smashing helpless surfers on shallow reefs. Sometimes the wave would freeze before breaking, all the urchins and squids twitching in place. In another dream, a whaling ship nets a giant sperm whale, and I cheer when the great beast gnaws free of its ropes. Then just as it bursts back into the sea, a harpoon sinks into the whale’s ribs.
Throughout the day, I repeatedly pulled the dark splotch from the surf. I am not one to get queasy; I do not turn green on boats. The sight of blood does not make me gag. Yet when I first saw the man’s face and when I recalled it, I felt something akin to nausea, the equivalent of seeing slaughter in an animal rights film. The man writhed and moaned, he was spilling at the brim. I pictured myself attempting to jog while carrying two pints of beer. To save itself, the creature might pull me under.
I relived my childhood bout with ichthyophobia. My father and I were fishing on a lake in Nebraska when a bluegill snagged the line on an offshore tree stump. We waded out to the stump where my father collected his line and struggled to remove the hook from the fish’s mouth.
“Hold it!” my father shouted. “Hold the fish!”
I wanted to help but my hands felt locked in place, unresponsive to my brain’s command. That sense of paralysis returned after the incident at Diamond Head. Often I’d lie flat on my board—keeping my limbs above water—and stare down at the reef, certain I’d seen movement.
A more sinister symptom would hatch. That first week, I searched compulsively for a headline. I scoured The Honolulu Advertiser and the Weekly, in both online and paper formats. Someone must have snapped a photo of the long-haired surfer with the half-drowned man. Maybe, just maybe, someone had also caught footage of me pulling the man’s head from the water, of being the one to initiate the rescue. The worst part of all this, of me seeking recognition, was knowing I didn’t deserve it.
In my college classes, I revised the rescue in my mind. I abandon my board, a barter with the sea, and hug the man to his nine-foot longboard, suffering my way through the drop zone. On shore, herds of surfers embrace me. A news crew
captures tape of my bravery. In my interview I say something selfless yet inherently false like I just did what anyone would do. In the eyes of the island, of my classmates and family, I transcend normalcy into the realm of the exceptional.
My search for affirmation continued. Someone must have seen or heard something, a student on campus, a classmate even. I had not dreamt these events. Finally, at the Unitarian church where I gigged on Sundays as a baritone soloist, a young guy in a red aloha shirt pulled me aside after the service. He was among those who’d joined us on the beach at Diamond Head. He had actually seen me help carry the man ashore.
“I’m friends,” he said, “with the guy who led the rescue.”
Those words scorched my ears. I felt scorned, belittled, cheated. The guy who led the rescue? That was me. I got there first.
I learned the man on the yellow longboard was a resident at the hospital where Anica worked. He had a habit of surfing before rounds and hanging a damp wetsuit in his locker, to the amusement and annoyance of those within sniffing distance. He was on bedrest for a week, had no memory of the event, and doctors suspected he may have to withdraw from his second year of residency. He’d suffered a concussion and been underwater, semi-conscious, for about two minutes. I recalled that in his indecision, he’d shifted his weight back, which had allowed a surge of offshore wind to propel the yellow board up into his forehead with concussive force. His spinal cord had been unharmed.
Despite the good news, I spent the ensuing weeks dwelling on my weakness, on how the man’s blue face had affected me, his mouth a seemingly endless spout of water. The universe had granted me a chance to become a hero and I’d balked. The man had lived and still I brooded over how I should have been the one to save his life.
In my mind, envy had birthed a rival: spite. A guy with Tarzan hair had snuck in and taken the glory, he had snaked my rescue.
Surfing became a mission. I paddled out, staring as each surfer dropped in on a wave, hoping for a second chance. Failure had left me feeling pitted, a space that could only be filled by an act of courage. I stalked, too, for opportunities on campus. Surely someone would bully a smaller person or try to rob the Jamba Juice. At the very least a moped would crash. The sad truth is I actually felt disappointment when no one needed my help, when no one got hurt. How could I be redeemed unless a life was at stake?
A few weeks after the incident, Anica reported the man on the yellow longboard had resumed his duties as a resident. He’d asked for my cell number (just the affirmation I needed!) but never called. I’m not sure what we would have talked about if he had. Hey, I’m the guy who almost saved your life but couldn’t finish the job?
In the year after what happened at Diamond Head, I may have been less preoccupied with heroism than with my own cowardice. When faced with overhead surf and the awareness of a drowning person, I felt fearless. On some level I was scared, but adrenaline overrode that emotion without effort on my part. I did not deliberate about paddling toward the yellow board, my body simply reacted; I had gone into caveman mode. So why—and this question haunted me—why after pulling the man’s head from the water had I frozen? Why did my neural response shift?
The shift occurred when danger, and my vulnerability to it, took on a human face. The man was not dead, nor was he fully alive. He was in the process of dying. The sight of life leaving a body frightened me so much that my brain fired with irrational thoughts that the man was not human but a fish, a subhuman life form. I had interrupted a person’s transition, and this was my brain’s coping mechanism, to dehumanize a man into a creature, a regression to childhood, a way to make death less terrifying. Likely it was also a means of self-preservation.
In the way that acrid smells and bright colors often hint at toxicity in nature, my brain’s interpretation of the man as alien was its primitive way of saying Turn around. Get out while you can.
The peace I’ve made with my panic that day is this: in spite of every impulse to run, I had stayed. The crux of the story is what happens next. Three others race to the scene, arranging themselves around the downed surfer. I flank to one side. We four get blasted in the surf and the drowning man slips back under water, but we manage to pull him up. The story gets better. As we near shore, other surfers begin to gather around. They paddle alongside and behind—they form a human channel to our front. When we carry the man ashore, so many hands are lifting that the board feels nearly weightless in my palms.