December 9 – 11, 2012
[Note: This post was an emotionally difficult one for me to write. My heart still races and I get nauseous when I think back through the ordeal.]
My entire family was in danger and there was nothing I could do to help save them. Thanks to a French dive instructor, and Wil’s strength and determination, we were all able to return to the boat with only minor injuries and bruised egos.
After departing Nassau, and spending another day at Rose Island, we sailed across the Yellow Bank to Allan’s Cay at the northern end of the Exuma chain. Allan’s Cay is famous for the many iguanas that live on its beaches, and we were eager to show the kids a beautiful reef we had snorkeled on 14 years ago. Our first afternoon in Allan’s Cay was spent on the beach with the iguanas and snorkeling the nearby coral walls.
It was after school the next day when we took the dinghy around behind the east side of Leaf Cay where we remember having snorkeled so long ago. We also took Cathy from Tangerine Dream with us because her husband, Philippe, doesn’t like to swim, and it would be fun for her to have company.
When we arrived to the snorkel spot, the current was flowing out around either side of the tiny coral rock island, so we decided to anchor the dinghy just to the westside of the rock, away from the current. There was no current tugging at the dinghy, so we all jumped into the water and headed for the nearby coral reef.
Once we had looked at everything on one side of the coral rock island, we wanted to get around to the other side of the rock where we remembered the spectacular reef with so many beautiful fish. As we neared the southern edge of the rock, Cathy indicated that the current was too strong at that edge, and we should turn back. We returned to the back side and swam towards the northern edge of the rock. We really wanted to get around to the other side, but it wasn’t looking possible.
As we neared the northern edge, I saw Cathy suddenly make a fast swim in the direction of the dinghy. A red flag went up in my head, and I turned to swim towards Wil and the kids. I was going to tell them we needed to turn back. Before I knew it, all four of us were struggling against a very powerful current, and everything that happened over the next moments was a whirlwind of chaos.
Wil had been able to make slow progress against the current, so he realized that he needed to get to shallower water where he could plant himself and become a focus for the kids to swim towards.
I was nearest to Colin when he suddenly started crying out that he couldn’t swim anymore because his legs were tired. I started yelling at him to keep swimming and to not dare give up.
It was at that point that I realized I was in a losing battle with the current. I couldn’t get my feet planted on the bottom because the current would sweep them off. I was breathing so hard that I couldn’t get enough air through the snorkel. I’d take the snorkel off, but then I’d get a mouth full of water. My limbs were becoming exhausted. My body was giving out and had no more to give.
I glanced around and saw that both kids had made it to Wil. He had made them focus on small swimming steps, until they were able to grab onto him. They weren’t out of the current, but Wil had them. They were a step closer to being safe.
In my mind, I could relax now and let the current take me where it will. I was giving up when Wil started yelling at me to swim towards him. I wanted to say that I couldn’t, but his look told me I’d better try.
I gave it my all and made it to my family. However, my additional pull on Wil was too much. There was no way he could hold all of us. I desperately wanted him to be able to hold me just long enough, so I could catch a breath. Then I would let go with renewed energy. However, we only had seconds.
So I wouldn’t pull everyone backwards, I was deciding to let go when Wil pointed to the coral rock. That’s when I finally came to my senses and was able to think more clearly. Swim ACROSS the current. In the chaos and panic, everything I had ever known to do had escaped me.
We all swam across the current towards the coral rock. Justine and I ended up clinging to the side facing Exuma Sound, while Colin landed around the opposite side. Wil was somewhere in between. Waves were pushing us against the coral rock, but we weren’t being pulled out to sea. Wil was able to give Cathy a signal to go for the dinghy.
I couldn’t see Colin, but I was able to talk to him and know that he was still hanging on. I heard him crying when one wave broke on him, lifting him up and onto the coral. Not only did the coral cut his hand, but it also went through his wetsuit, nicking his tummy in several places. He was crying and saying that his hand was burning. I just kept telling him to not let go.
As we waited for Cathy (which took some moments because she wasn’t familiar with our engine), the full scope of the situation flashed across my mind. It was surreal. It was what one reads about or sees on TV. This couldn’t really be happening to us! Here we were clinging to a coral rock trying not to be swept out to sea.
After getting all of us together on one side of the rock, we made our plan for getting to the dinghy. Once Wil could see that Cathy had the engine running, we all hung onto each other and let ourselves drift out away from the rock. We had the kids keep their masks on and focus on the bottom, looking at all the beautiful coral and fish, as we quickly drifted into deeper water with the current.
Cathy motored out around the coral reef to come get us. However, once she rounded the reef to the deeper water, she aimed for the coral rock where we had been. She didn’t see us, but we could see her. We yelled to her, but she couldn’t hear us. It took several big arm waves from all of us before we caught her eye. It was in that moment that I realized just how easily people can be lost at sea once they’ve fallen overboard.
I can’t describe how good it felt to know we had all of us back in the dinghy again. The sense of relief was so overwhelming, I wanted to cry. Once we returned to the boat, and were in the privacy of our own family, we all hugged, and I did my best not to cry as I clung to everyone. It wasn’t until later, after the kids were in bed, when I sobbed quietly with Wil.
We all talked about what had happened, what we did wrong, what our options were for our own self-rescue, and how to avoid something like this in the future.
Colin and I were emotionally the most effected. Colin tends to think of the “what if” for worst possible scenarios, and his imagination went wild after such a traumatic experience. It took a lot of extra comforting before he could finally recover.
As for myself, I kept replaying the sequence of events in my mind, causing my heart to race and my stomach to feel nauseous. I felt sick for two days following the incident. My children had been in danger, and I had been completely unable to help them. I couldn’t help but feel so inadequate.
Wil felt guilty for having to leave us in order to save us, but he realizes that it was the right decision. Justine remained calm, cool, and collected through the entire thing. She is our rock.
We are proud of both kids for doing exactly what they needed to do when we told them, and we are both amazed at what strong swimmers they have become.
Now when we go snorkeling, we pay closer attention to the tides and current. We try to swim mostly at slack tide. If that’s not possible, or if we’re in an area of strong current, then one of us stays in the dinghy, keeping near those who are snorkeling.
This was a lesson of a lifetime.
Oh, Jenny! I am so glad you all came through it with only a few coral ow-ies. I am so glad that you bravely planned your next snorkel trip and loved the “swim with the sharks” as a healing event! But this story reminded me of a similar experience we had snorkeling the eastern end of the bay at Norman’s — I never blogged it because I had totally forgotten about it; it was much briefer than your experience. You are absolutely right, the current through those cuts can change in just a few minutes from slight to powerful. And by powerful, I mean we saw a standing wave start up about 20 yards “downstream” from us, we were all being swept toward it, but Grant and Derek got into the dink quickly, Derek got the 15 HP engine started and that held us in place long enough for me to (with difficulty and with their help: I was being hauled sideways by the building 4-5 kt current) get aboard the dinghy; after which we had a seriously hard time for several minutes making any headway against the outflow, even with the most powerful engine our dinghy could carry! I seriously thought while being “dragged” that I’d have to let it take me out to sea and then swim cross-current until I could find a beach on the island and walk back to the bay side, which would have been a major bummer in fins, and even worse barefoot! But because of Derek’s quick action, and the fact that we were already heading back to the dinghy when the current ramped up, the whole incident faded from my mind until I read your post.
Now that you all have that solidly behind you, you’ll have no trouble convincing everyone to go snorkeling at or just slightly before slack low if it’s near a cut (or in the caves at Staniel, where the current is also frisky). You can talk about swimming cross-current and coming into shore somewhere safe (beach rather than iron shore) and you know your kids will be paying good attention! In fact, any safety talk is likely to be taken seriously and remembered now; that’s a good thing.