Opinion: Musings on the Coast


Feeling Stupid in a Rip Current

During the last month, the ocean waters have turned seasonally warm and unseasonably, big waves have rolled in almost after day. When they do, our beaches are quite dangerous. Two Sundays ago, I watched the lifeguard at Diver’s Cove rescue 25 tourists in three hours—I know because I counted.

My favorite beach/cove—not Diver’s—is small, has a rocky bottom, and has points on both sides. One point is sheer bedrock and tall; the other is low with razor-sharp rocks. About 75 yards offshore is a small reef upon which waves break and is good for surfing.

When the surf is running big, the millions of tons of water being pushed to the shore will swiftly return to the ocean in strong riptides. They are so powerful even really strong swimmers cannot fight them.

When the waves are big at my cove, they break on the reef and the resulting foam races toward the point at the south end. Once they hit that point, they bounce in a side rip straight across and parallel to the beach toward the razor rocks point on the north end. If you happen to get caught in this side-rip, you either will slam into those razor-rocks or get swept out to sea by another rip heading straight out. Once you are outside, there is yet another side rip running the opposite direction that carries you right back into the surf line.

It is a big circle of waves and rips-—a giant washing machine—and it is very dangerous. 

I know all of the above. I have been a waterman for years, surfing, body boarding, scuba diving, snorkeling, even sailing. I know the ocean and I certainly know if you forget how capriciously dangerous she is, she can—Ney, probably wil—kill you.

Nevertheless, and this shows you how very stupid I can be, a week ago, a stupid friend at the beach named Steve convinced me and another stupid guy, Paul, to swim toward the reef even though the waves were running. We all dove in, swam a few strokes, then glanced toward shore and noticed the rip already had carried us out 30 yards. I thought, “F… this is stupid” and yelled at the other guys to swim straight in, which we all did. However, my personal positioning was within the side rip and it carried me straight toward the razor-rocks on the north point. I thought, “F….” again and fought against the side rip as hard as I could. This went on for about 10 minutes and quickly drained my energy but I finally made it to shore and was so tired, I barely could stand.

So, ok, I was stupid. But what happened two days later was even more stupid. The ocean looked calm—hardly any big sets—and I swam out yet again.    

And yet again, I was wrong. Three sets in a row, some 10 waves, roared through, and I was caught in the side rip, but far enough out that I could fight it if I swam with all my strength. I did, but when I finally made it to shore, I crawled out.

So there it is. I was careless and it was stupid, stupid, stupid.

If you think maybe you will be safe in the water during big surf, you are wrong. Do not do it. It is treacherous. In one minute of panic struggling, you will be exhausted, and absent a lifeguard, you will drown.

So be safe. Do not do it.

Michael is co-founder of Orange County School of the Arts and The Discovery Cube.


  1. Great warnings, Mike. If you have never “crawled” out of big surf and rip tides you can’t imagine the power the ocean can have over you. I still vividly remember wondering if I would make it out.

  2. Nice piece. I like to call the ocean/sea a she. And she will always win, if you don’t respect her power. Such a good reminder to those who might think we are invincible.


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