My friend was no swimmer, so he took lessons before embarking on his snorkel journeys with me in Hawaii. He built up some basic knowledge and confidence to match his courage. He really, truly wanted this, wanted to swim the open Pacific, face down, trusting his breathing apparatus and his ability to handle the current. Who knew floating in water was such a skill?
It is a skill. An art. And one they don’t teach in swimming class, unfortunately. In swimming class, they teach you to swim, to kick and churn water. To go from point A to point B, even when they are completely made-up points. Just keep moving. In my friend’s class the instructor hadn’t even taught how to tread water. Shouldn’t that have been lesson one?
Alas, lesson one was holding the edge of the swimming pool and learning to kick properly. Lesson one may have been the only lesson my friend retained.
We traveled to three of what I would consider to varying degrees “safe” or “beginner” snorkeling spots. The first, Kahalu’u, was actually the roughest right off the bat because by the time we settled in, high tide was coming. The current was a bit stronger than I would have liked. Stronger than my friend felt safe in. This, because he wouldn’t listen to my instructions. I didn’t know at the time how scared he was even attempting to swim, and that was likely a major factor. He just kept “yes-ing” me as if he already knew what I was talking about and I was just boring him now with repetition. So, okay, I shut up. Time to sink or swim.
He swam. Swam recklessly all over the place when what you want to do here is float. And float near the guy who knows how to swim in case something goes wrong and you need help. “Yes. Okay. Got it.” And he was off to the races heading for a rock wall slamming with waves.
I yelled to him, got his attention. I reiterated to him to float more than flap fins. Observe. Watch how the fish react to the current. Watch everything. Piece yourself into the environment like a puzzle. I didn’t say that last part, but it makes sense. What I did say, instead, was, look up every now and then to get your bearings and make sure you don’t go near that wall.
We swam for over an hour. I stopped fathering him and let him do his thing. Kick-splash-kick-splash-kick-splash-kick-splash. Was he even enjoying the fish? Did he hear what I said about not standing on coral? Who knows? Kick-splash-kick-splash-kick-splash-kick-splash.
At one point I lost sight of him. I swam around looking in the direction I had last seen him motoring. No one in the vicinity but a distant paddle boarder. I swam in, figuring he got out and was on the beach. He wasn’t, but he had swum in and was tooling around the shallows now. He wanted to go back out again, though. “You’re not tired?” I asked. Nope. Not tired. Let’s go.
And off we went. Rather, off I went. Out to the coral and my fish friends thinking he was right behind me. When I turned around I saw that my pal had kicked his way to the dreaded rock wall. He was standing up on a rock, in flippers, clasping the wall for dear life while the sea took a break from pounding at the shoreline. Fortunate for him.
I kick-splash-kick-splashed toward him but knew to keep my distance from the vacuuming current. I yelled out, asking if he needed help. “No,” he stated flatly, “I’m okay.”
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Was he there on purpose? Was he trying to scale the wall? His calm demeanor threw me off. Maybe this wasn’t an emergency.
“Yeah. I was looking at fish and then I got swept up here. I don’t know what to do.”
“Can you swim?”
“No. I don’t think so. I’m too tired. I saw a turtle, though. So that was magical, at least.”
“Look, you can’t walk around from there. It’s too dangerous. The waves will be coming back. We’re going to have to swim out from there.”
As I was shouting to him and thinking of the best point of approach, a lifeguard swam out on his longboard. This wall extended into the water from the beach and was a blindspot for the two lifeguards on either side. Thankfully, someone with a vantage point to both guard and my friend saw what was happening and alerted the lifeguard. Rescue was imminent and yet when Hawaiian David Hasselhoff asked my friend if he needed help, he said no, he was fine. The situation was so ridiculous that the guard insisted. We’re both grateful he did. My friend was clearly in shock and feeling humiliated, which is a wonderful combination for bad decisions.
You may think that this was the beginning of the end of my friend’s desire to snorkel, but, oh, no. He wanted to immediately climb back up on that seahorse. A few days later I accommodated by bringing him and some other friends to a different beach, Kapahukapu. Kapahukapu is better known as “Manini Beach.” Kapahukapu was so renamed by a politician who loved to go there and catch manini fish. Knowing that, I am making a conscious effort to call it by its original Hawaiian name. I’ll leave you to figure out the connection to this story. One hint: kick-splash-kick-splash-kick-splash-kick-splash.
Kapahukapu features a shallow, tiny, beach-like cove that opens fairly immediately into the deep blue sea. There is a cold spring meeting the ocean in the shallows, so swimming just beyond the rock enclave and into the warm, inviting waters is its own reward, and one that our mutual friends and I accepted before my timid pal. We watched him figure out his snorkel gear for the longest time and then waited for him to get used to the water in the cove. By the time he decided to venture beyond the shallows a large set of waves roared in. This perfect timing was no accident. I’ve seen it too many times on the island to shrug it off as coincidence. This is Pele and her god friends riding in with a challenge for him: Are you sure you want this? Have you dealt with your issues?
The waves crashed over the rock walls rendering their shelter all but irrelevant. We watched him struggle to maintain his composure as he tried to muscle his way out to play in the sea. Unfortunately, his composure was upright and his coming out meant walking out. He grabbed a craggy rock wall and inched his way to the edge in flippers, afraid to let go and to trust his environment. Disaster was imminent.
“Let go of the rock and swim!” I yelled. “The rock wall is not your friend!”
He wasn’t listening. He was trapped in his head going over his swimming lessons while his reflexive reaction to this danger, standing up and hanging on, guided his body.
Waves come in sets. They can be ferocious to the shoreline, but, at worst, are manageable in the middle of the ocean. I told our friends next to me that if the waves got too rough they should swim out further, where they wouldn’t be a factor, and watch for a lull when they could swim back to shore. Then, I swam back to help our pal. He had lost his grip and stumbled back, getting pummeled by waves and current. He was lucky not to have summersaulted into the rock enclosure. It was a bit of a washing machine in that cove now.
He immediately crawled up onto land and took off his gear. He was done.
“You okay?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said. We sat for a minute, then he added, “I think I figured out why I couldn’t breathe properly in this thing. We learned about it in the class. I think I was hyperventilating the whole time.”
The waves died down and our mutual friends swam in. We called it a day.
For as scared as he was, he was equally courageous. He tried a third time to snorkel and three times was the charm. We parked our stuff on the kiddie beach at Two Step—so named after the natural rock formation that steps you down, one, two, into the depth of the ocean. This was the place where Pele and co. challenged my mother, who, at the time, was considering moving here. First, they immersed her in her dream of swimming with dolphins, by having them pop up all around her, right on cue, as she blurted out, “I want to see dolphins!” Then, after a long period of dolphin play, came the challenge: they made a king’s tide rolled in. These tall, ridiculously scary waves made returning to shore all but impossible. If she had paid attention and respected her environment she would have come in just fine. But she waited too long and ignored the wise one (yep, this guy) insisting that she had no time to take her flippers off on the steps. Her arrogance and unconsciousness were rewarded with being dragged back to sea and pummeled against the cliff.
No worries. My mother still lives. In Massachusetts.
But on this day, my friends and I were not lured out to the depths of Two Step. We were just fine in the placid shallows of the kiddie section. Finally, my friend had a decent snorkeling experience where he could learn to get his bearings and learn to breathe. Here he could come to understand what was wrong with what he learned, what he wasn’t taught, and what worked. He still wasn’t able to remain calm enough to observe his surroundings and learn from them directly. That wasn’t his lesson. His lesson, as was my mother’s in a different way, was about fear and the myth of paradise. Which is also a lesson about experience, knowledge, and observation. Which is also a lesson about conquering and ownership of that which we inseparably are: Nature.
At heart, Pele’s is always a pass/fail class in mind and never-minding. And in the roaring waters of a lesson like hers, you would do well to drift.