*Paul Holte is an airline pilot living in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. Check out his adventures on youtube and blog, Smiling Paul.
I guess it wouldn't be the worst way to die. They say drowning is the least painful. But at 35-years-old, with my wife and 3-year-old daughter playing on the beach, it would have put a damper on our holiday. We were on the quiet, garden isle of Kauai, Hawaii, celebrating my in-law’s 40th wedding anniversary. My father-in-law and I had rented some surfboards from a shop in Poipu. Now, being from Minnesota, I can’t say I’m an expert surfer. But, my job does bring me to Hawaii from time to time, so at the very least, I can impress the other midwesterners.
We’d been splashing around for about an hour in an area that had some knee high waves that were perfect for my skill level. But I was struggling a little and not catching much. Not far away was a break where a ton of locals seemed to be doing pretty well. I decided to paddle over and do my best to blend in with the well-sunned Hawaiian’s.
It didn’t take me long to realize that I was quickly in over my head. Literally. The waves were way overhead. And the end of the break was nothing but coral and rocks. Big rocks. The kind that eat people.
I fooled myself into thinking I had the skill to try for one of these monsters so I paddled hard just as a big set started to roll in. The first wave passed me by but brought me closer to the big rocks. Before I could get turned around to paddle out, another wave pushed me closer to shore. I quickly turned the board around to paddle out and found myself in exactly the wrong spot. A giant wall of water was just about to crash down on me and being an amateur surfer, I wasn’t skilled enough to duck-dive through this torrent of destruction.
As my board and I went vertical, I felt like I was standing at the top of a ladder that I leaned out too far from and was falling back toward the concrete driveway that was the ocean floor. Based on the bruises on my body over the next few days, I must have hit the bottom. Then God sat on my chest and held me under for a few panic-stricken seconds. When my head finally bobbed back to the surface, I scrambled for my surfboard and clambered out of the water.
I decided that instead of facing the next waves head on, I’d paddle parallel to the set and get out of where they were breaking altogether. Just as a I started to paddle, however, another mammoth kahuna was reigning down on me. The first drops of water reaching out like your fun uncle trying to tickle you as a child. Except what happened next was anything but fun.
I clung to my board as the wave swooped me up to the top and I fell, what was probably only eight feet, but felt like going over Niagara Falls. As soon as I was underwater, the world slowed down. I pictured my daughter growing up without me. I could also see my wife sitting in first class watching the airport fire trucks give a water cannon salute, tradition for a pilots final flight. And I can’t tell you how pleased I was that the white light I saw next was me surfacing and not the glow of heaven.
Had it not been for the leash that kept my eleven foot life preserver close by, I don’t know that I would have had the energy to swim to shore. Fortunately, the set had passed and the next waves to come through were more manageable. I got outside the break and found my way back to the beach.
When I coolly paddled up to shore, my wife asked how it was. I could only think of one word.