It was a bitterly cold day on the beach. But it was the ocean, and when you have a chance to see the ocean, you see it. We had traveled out to the Washington coast, and after a lackluster day, we drove to a place where we could walk out on the sand and see the ocean in its full glory.
The weather was turbulent. We had been hit with a couple of surprise rain squalls. There were white caps on the water, and the waves seemed particularly explosive.
A group of kids was out closer to the edge of the surf, and I heard their parents getting excited because the tide was coming in closer. The tide crept in toward them, soaked their shoes, and they went running away giddily. The tide kept rolling in, slowly but determinedly.
"Son, we need to get back," I called. "The tide's coming in too fast. We don't want to get wet."
And then the tide devoured the beach. It came up to our feet, and it kept coming. My shoes were suddenly waterlogged; then it was up to my ankles. Then my calves. Then my knees.
It kept coming in, like a bathtub that had filled up suddenly. Oliver began panicking and screaming. I grabbed his hand, and we ran as hard as we could toward the dry sand, while the water roared around our legs.
The water was up to his waist. He was running in slow motion and screaming at the top of his lungs. He was about as scared as I've ever seen him. I just held tight to his hand and I kept shouting back, "I've got you! I've got you!"
"It's trying to pull me in!" he screamed.
"It won't. I've got you, son. I've got you." We ran and ran.
Finally, the enraged wave receded, and we were able to reach dry land. His mother, shocked, raced up to greet us. Oliver was still screaming, shivering from the bitter cold water that had drenched him. We ran back to the car where my brilliant wife had stashed an extra set of clothes for him. (I had no such luck. I didn't expect to need an extra pair of clothes. I had to drive back to town and buy a pair of emergency sweats.)
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They call them sneaker waves. We didn't see it coming; you never see them coming. The tide was actually going out, or so we thought. That's why we were so complacent. We thought we were safe.
Sneaker waves are dangerous things. They are impossible to predict and they take people completely by surprise. They pull people out to sea. It happens. I don't like to think about it now, but it does happen. Sometimes, they pick up floating logs or huge rocks, and then you have a dangerous wave with a weapon. Imagine, seeing a 1000-pound rock floating in toward you, being carried by an out-of-control wave.
I had seen the signs. The signs on the ocean beaches don't mess around; they use phrases like "you can die" and "you will be swept out to sea." But I didn't think about them. I thought those warnings were for people stupid enough to go wading out in the water. I didn't think we were in danger on the sand, so far away from the edge of the water.
I can't even describe how fast that wave came in at us. It moved with the speed of a monster tentacle in a horror movie; you think you're safe and suddenly PHWIP! it's wrapped around your waist. We went from dry and safe to overwhelmed and terrified in a matter of seconds.
If it had kept coming, I don't know what would have happened. I would have picked him up and run if I had to. I would have thrown him to shore if I had to. It hit with the speed and the shock of a car crash, and here I am, a day later, sitting in a warm office, still shivering at the memory of the wave that tried to pull me and my son into the Pacific Ocean.