Ecstatic smiles flashing, my three family members floated to me on bodyboards, toward the Mission Beach shoreline at tower 16, Jersey Court, down which sat our little sandy-floored Airbnb.
I was grateful the place furnished only three free boards: I was exhausted from the year of teaching school in cold and gray Wisconsin, but also I’d just covid-tested negative twice, two days apart. So I came along on the trip, but whatever respiratory illness I’d caught had tapped my last ounce of energy. Lying on the sand in the intermittent sunshine was the best medicine, and I frequently slumbered.
The first time I heard a siren and the beep that preceded a lifeguard announcement, I jolted.
I sat up and spotted the red Toyota truck that had sneakily pulled in and stopped next to me. “If you are swimming in this area,” he called out with the loudspeaker, “please lower your feet to stand, and move twenty meters to either side. We’re seeing strong rip current out there today.”
My family waded down as instructed, and, when they came to shore for a freshwater drink, reported that out in the surf they’d suddenly plunged down off a shelf into much deeper, scarier water. From that day on, we both set up our beach spot several meters away from tower 16 and also witnessed sudden and remarkable rescues from out of the trucks, ATVs, and even the tower itself, the lifeguards whipping off their sweatshirts and throwing themselves into the water at 16, making their way out to struggling swimmers in no time.
It never failed to amaze us how fast the rescues occurred: Like a Wisconsin mosquito to our skin at a June campfire, lifeguards seemed to sense need before actually seeing it. We’d hear a utility vehicle pull up beside us and realize what none of us had noticed: Someone needed help. Lifeguards would achieve a rescue before my family could even climb up the sand to my borrowed beach towel.
The last day of our stay, the 14th of June, my adventurous husband couldn’t give up. He urged me to try bodyboarding. “The saltwater isn’t going to irritate your sinuses. It will clean them,” he claimed.
It was the sunniest day by far of our trip, and my cold was mostly gone, my energy somewhat restored. His enthusiasm roused me. I watched the kids catch waves while I heard lifeguards warning swimmers of rip currents down at 15 now, too. The waves seemed stronger than in the past week, more consistently white-capping. The full moon?
Nevertheless, I caught my first wave and rode in; I’ll admit, it was pure giddy-kid fun. I bobbed out to catch another, and my struggle surprised me. I had to push hard against the waves, harder than in the Indian Ocean near Exmouth, Australia, harder than the shores of Big Island Hawaii, where I dove into surf with friends. It must be my sickness, I thought.
But after three rides into shore and several other failed attempts, I’d had enough. My head actually hurt from banging into waves. My knees were scraped from being pummeled to the water’s bottom.
I trudged forward toward shore but was suddenly powerless to move. I was being sucked backward. Only waist-deep, I managed to take a deep breath, bend my knees, and brace myself. I pulled forward and made it to the hot sand and my towel. I lay drying in the sun for only a moment when I saw a red rescue watercraft begin to pace back and forth in front of us. In just a breath, a muscled blonde lifeguard ran from a vehicle out into the sea. Another save, I thought. Thank God for these workers.
But then we were suddenly surrounded: several red pickups, a helicopter, boats, a white SUV we had never seen before all arrived. A news camera appeared, as though waiting for this–almost as fast as a lifeguard save.
This was no normal rescue.
The water was evacuated, beachgoers now milling around 16. It seemed a couple of swimmers had been brought to shore. But many lifeguards and the watercraft and sky presence proceeded with urgency, diving and circling, clearly searching for someone else.
It looked as though family and friends had gathered at 16 as I bundled up my rented umbrella and carried it back to the shop at the Mission Beach entrance. A tow-headed teen employee followed me in and told the cashier he’d heard it was an 18-year-old boy. A student celebrating with kids from his high school.
I had just supervised teenagers on a school swimming last-day. Not to the ocean, or even a lake. The town pool. But some of the kids couldn’t even technically swim. I gasped.
“The water is really rough today,” the cashier told him. “Makes it harder to see who needs help.” So it had been an unusual day on the water, as I’d felt.
Walking back to the Airbnb, turning at 16 onto Jersey Court, a group of loved ones had tucked away from the news crews and San Diego Fire-Rescue personnel. Their pained faces showed even greater loss than the worry on the lifeguard faces I had just passed. I thought of my husband’s and my experiences, water so strong that we knew it could have taken us if the situation had been only slightly altered.
At our Airbnb, I gathered up prepackaged snacks in the kitchen and carried them out to the family. Touching their shoulders, offering sorrow and prayers, I felt a sudden hollow and cold gap in life force. I felt their black hole of loss.
Up till dark we heard the blades of the helicopter beat at the sky, unwilling to stop searching for the boy, dedicated to a mission of allowing exhausted teachers and families to safely soak in the restorative sun, to feel the thrill of life at the edges, the exhilaration of riding a wave not made by technology or screens, but by some energy and purpose beyond our comprehension.
Jodi McLain is an award-winning essayist whose work has appeared in Grit, Runner’s World, Minnesota Monthly, and Minnesota Public Radio.