Everyday we make choices that could change the course of our lives or the lives of the people around us. Left or right? Walk or drive? Go kayaking or sunbathe?
We're at the beach on vacation. It's pretty laid back, lots of folks around to help wrangle my posse, so my stepmother and I decided to go kayaking out of Canadian Hole. It's a nice flat area on Hatteras Island, sound side.
Given my propensity to move all the time, whether it's for intentional fitness or just to experience the outdoors, as well as my obsession with beating the rowing machine into submission at least once a week, I'm a fairly strong kayaker. My Stepmother is also really fit. Between us, we're a pair of strong women.
So that the wind was blowing one way, and the current was going another, wasn't a concern at all. We zipped ourselves into life jackets, hopped in the double Kayak, and as we were about to leave, I tossed one of the extra life-vests in the boat. Not sure why I did it. Just saw it sitting on the beach near where we were departing, and I didn't want the tide to grab it while we were away, and my feet were wet so I didn't want to walk it back up to the truck, and it really can't hurt to have an extra life vest on hand on a windy rockin' day. Besides, that life vest was mine from our Hobie 16 sailing days... i.e. about 30 years old of faded orange and yellow nylon.
We paddled out into the wind on our way out. We were moving at a nice clip, making it more of a fitness endeavor rather than a leisurely ride. The two of us were chatting about something, but I'm not really sure what anymore. At some point we decided we'd gone far enough, swung the boat and came about.
Now we were with the wind, but fighting the current. It was much tougher to control the double kayak. I was in the rear, so it was my job to steer and I kept having to drop my foot off either the port or starboard side to make a rudder so we wouldn't get blown sideways. It was on one of these foot drops that I saw something in the water about 50m ahead on the (right) side of our little craft. Land was to the left.
"Jean, do you see that?" I asked, pointing with my paddle.
"Where?" and then, "OH. Do you think it's... a swimmer, or do you think...?"
"Seems to me he's not really swimming... it doesn't feel right." I started to angle to kayak to pass between him and the sand bar.
Then Jean questioned, "I don't know if we should... he could just be playing around, what if he knocks us over? What about that girl on the wind surfer? She might be going there."
"We're going." My rationale was this: If you think someone might be in trouble on the water, you don't leave them until you are 100% sure they are not... as well as the golden rule of first aid, never ever assume that someone else will help.
Besides, I'm all about safety first. Jean and I were both wearing life jackets. If the kayak was flipped, we were going to float. No danger of loss of life. Kayaks are designed to float. No danger of loss of Hobie. Worst case scenario? Loss of paddles. NBD.
As we got closer, he thrashed his arms, and I, being the loud one, called, "do you need help?"
And we heard a weak "yes".
He was in his late 30's, early 40's, dark hair, and large round dark eyes... but other than that, I had no idea what he looked like. Only his face was above water at this point. Now and then his arm would break the surface. I could see, and Jean agreed, he didn't look very good. I reached down in front of me, grabbed the ratty life vest, and hurled it at him. He pulled it tight to his chest, and we negotiated up to him in the whipping current.
"Thank you... thank you..." he professed with a huge smile of relief. He pulled the jacket to his chest and floated up on his back.
Jean and I were cool, cos' we just are, and we paddled in place beside him for a minute while he collected himself. Finally, I asked, "Are you going to make it in? We can't tow you, but..."
"I can make it with this." And he turned toward shore and started paddling. Jean and I called out some Good Luck's and a "Oh hey, when you make it back, if you can, swing by our truck (add boring deets as to where we were parked along the shore line), and let us know you're OK?"
Well we finished our paddle, pulled the Kayak up onto land and the two of us collapsed into chairs with a well earned Diet Coke and Peanut Butter & Jelly sandwichs as our post workout meal. We recounted the story to D-Dad, and I apologized for losing one of his "vintage" life vests.
A while later a young man walked up carrying our vest. With the stress of the moment gone, I realized he was just a young father type, soft but not out of shape. He smiled when he saw us and handed me the vest. "Thank you both so much. I was just coming to realize that I was going to be a statistic out there when you saw me. I have two small kids."
We chatted for a few. Apparently he's not a swimmer. He was walking along the sand bar, was pushed off by the current, and couldn't get himself back. He admitted he panicked. "Thank you again for stopping. I really don't know what..." and he trailed off with an unfinished thought.
So there you go.
Today, my arms are tired.
And today, somewhere between Buxton and Avon, a man woke up and probably had coffee with his wife. Maybe he kissed his two daughters after their sticky pancake breakfast, and then as a family they all went to climb the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse or to explore one of the many trails in the national park.
All this could happen because I picked up some ratty old life vest and tossed it in the kayak.
I'm nothing special, I'm just another person.
But even so, today I'm a person who feels pretty freaking cool.