I have an uncanny ability to turn peaceful outings into dangerous ones. I’m also quite skilled in convincing others that joining me on these endeavors is a good idea. By the time two French couples and I reached the resort town of Esperance, Western Australia, I hadn’t endangered myself or others for nearly two weeks. So, it’s fair to say I was overdue.
One afternoon, the five of us drove above the empty beaches of the Southern Ocean, looking for a spot to relax. We stopped at a place called Twilight Cove. There, rock outcrops and dunes encased a half-moon beach of white sand. Hiding nothing beneath them, the cove waters were clear and turquoise. In the center of the modest bay, a jumbled mass of granite formed a small island. Immediately, the girls laid out towels on a large flat rock. I stayed on my feet, looked at the sun and then back to the little island. Relaxing was the obvious choice, but there was that island sitting smugly out in the bay, mocking me. What was I supposed to do?
At first, the other guys in our group, Damien and Sofen, were reluctant to come along. But, after grossly exaggerating the benefits of my island-conquering mission (I may have hinted at treasure), I convinced my friends to commit. In ceremonious fashion, the three of us leapt off a small boulder into the ocean. As Damien took off for the island, I yelled for him to swim further to the right, in order to compensate for the current. But Damien didn’t hear and Sofen followed his countryman.
Swimming away from the coast, we soon found ourselves above a deep channel. My thoughts turned to sharks as the ocean floor grew distant beneath our flailing limbs. As the swim progressed, Damien and Sofen fell behind in their strokes and drifted further from me. I swam harder until reaching an outlying rock some fifty feet from the main island. Although it wasn’t the most inviting spot to crawl out of the sea, I latched onto the large piece of granite and looked back. The blinding sun reflected off vacant waters; there was no sign of my French companions. Were they in trouble? Stranded? Eaten?
I spent an anxious couple of minutes alone, straddling a large boulder just above the lapping waves. Then two silhouettes appeared from behind the island’s massive rock face. I shouted, trying to direct them away from the water-bashed rocks, but they didn’t hear me – Sofen swam right into the dangerous waters. The current matched his every stroke as I watched his bobbing head move further away and closer to the rocks. Meanwhile, Damien managed to reach my sea-battered perch, but had trouble getting on. I helped him up to a more stable position, but the waves were relentless, frequently overtaking the rock and washing Damien back into the choppy sea. Thrusting out my arm, I’d pull him back up, allowing him to cling to the rock until the next big wave.
By the time Sofen reached our rock, both of my friends were exhausted, distressed and on the verge of panic. I saw flashes of genuine terror run across their faces. It almost felt like we had just abandoned a sinking ship in stormy weather, they, my faithful crew, and I, their brave captain. But that feeling was fleeting. In actuality, they were two misguided French guys and I was an American with no maritime experience and little common sense. But by this point, it was clear even to me: we had done a really dumb thing.
Knowing that staying put was no good, I still wanted to swim to the main island. From there, I hoped to find a more suitable place to enter the water for the return swim. (So, yes, I wanted to swim towards the island in order to eventually swim away from it. Trust me, it made sense at the time.) After scanning the steep shoreline, I spotted a section where the island sloped gently into the water. Although the current seemed less formidable, it still looked pretty risky and out of the realm of what I’d conventionally consider a good idea. Near my desired destination was a large crack where incoming tides shot white water ten feet into the air. It was not an area I wanted to get swept into, to say the least.
This time, my French friends declined to join me; I couldn’t blame them. As I stood up and peered down into the deep waters below, I saw giant schooling fish and large black shadows on the bottom, which I had to assume were just rocks. I swear I’ve jumped off forty-foot cliffs with less hesitation – I had to really psych myself up for the swim. Finally committing, I dove head first into the rough water. I swam with hurried and erratic strokes, until I neared the algae and snail-covered black base of the island, where a wave washed me up onto the heap of stone. Then, much like the crabs that were scattering everywhere, I made a mad scramble to get off the tide-polished portion of the granite. Once on dry ground, I gave a victorious wave back to my marooned French pals. They didn’t share my excitement.
My new plan was to reach the highest point on the island where I could scout the best location to re-enter the ocean. Unbeknownst to myself, this feat required crossing several tight chasms between huge boulders. Many of the cracks plunged several stories into dark sea-filled abysses. And the tops of each boulder were rounded like the tips of giant fingers. So when making the jumps, maintaining forward momentum wasn’t just a good idea, it was the only non-lethal one. As it turns out, the only thing dumber than swimming out to this island was climbing to the top it.
From the summit, I saw my friends still clinging to the same rock. I got their attention and they indicated that they were about to try swimming back. I scampered around to find a good point of entry. But this part of the island sloped into the sea at an angle too steep to climb down, but not steep enough to leap from. As they jumped back into the ocean, my search became more frantic. With no luck, I ran back to the top. Damien and Sofen had turned into little black dots in the expanse of water that separated me from shore. Panicking at the thought of being left out there alone, I ran down the face, and about fifteen feet above the water, leapt into the waves.
Upon hitting the sea, I thrashed, kicked and pounded the water like it was out to get me. I only looked up to take the occasional breath and confirm that I wasn’t paddling in circles. My desperate swimming approach was neither wise nor graceful, but it caught me up to Sofen in due time. He, too, was struggling and tired. “Don’t leave me,” he said before admitting his deep fear of sharks. Like any captain would, I stayed with him until, eventually, we crawled out of the sea onto white sand. Damien had also reached the mainland further down shore. I sprawled out for a moment, rested my cheek on the sand and recognized that it was a small miracle that no one drowned. The three of us walked over to the women, who were still lying out on the rock. One of the girls laid on her front side motionless; the other stirred to life, sat up and said, “So how was the swim?”
Reviewed and edited by Katie Chassaing