As my husband, Michael, my son, Jason, and I walked on an Oregon beach on a mild February day in 2005, we were relaxed and worry-free. We watched the seagulls float across the achingly blue sky and listened to the waves rumble while ten-year-old Jason dug tunnels in the wet sand, laughing as they slowly filled with water.
As we walked at the edge of the waterline, we thought winter was a wonderful time to visit the shore. The beach was nearly empty, the shops were not crowded and the mid-fifties temperatures felt unseasonably warm.
As Michael and I watched Jason play, I commented how peaceful I felt. My only concern was keeping our small American rat terrier, Rizzo, from chasing gulls. Jason, sitting about fifty feet from the waterline with his back to the waves, seemed safe.
Suddenly the water behind Jason swelled; a wave lifted, knocking down my son.
“Watch out!” I cried.
Michael stood transfixed, incredulous that a seemingly small wave could flatten his son.
“Don’t just stand there!” I cried as the wave dragged Jason down the beach. “Get him!”
As Michael bounded toward Jason, the wave rolled toward Rizzo and me. The water rose until Rizzo was forced to swim. Still the wave swelled, swallowing the beach. I towed Rizzo toward the rock wall between the sand and our hotel’s parking lot.
As Rizzo and I finally plodded free of the water, splashing noises informed me that Michael and Jason were behind me. I was relieved, but hadn’t been worried. It wasn’t that hard to pull a ten-year-old boy out of a knee-high wave, was it?
I turned toward Michael and Jason and stopped —my mouth open in shock.
They weren’t just wet. Their hair was plastered to their heads. Their clothes were so soaked they looked as if they were molded to their bodies. Sand filled their shoes and dribbled from every crease in their clothing. They looked as if they’d been through the spin cycle of a washing machine.
Michael held a mangled umbrella in one hand. His other arm lay along Jason’s shoulders.
“What happened?” I cried, running toward them.
“I don’t know,” Michael said, “but if I hadn’t used this umbrella to self-arrest, we’d have been pulled out to sea.”
Michael, an avid climber, had been shocked to feel the sand falling away beneath him, making him lose his footing. He’d landed face-first in the sand, fighting to stay on shore. Thinking quickly, he’d hugged Jason against his chest and dug the umbrella we carried in case of rain into the sand.
Michael had learned to stop or “arrest” himself using an ice axe when he climbed Mount Rainier’s glacier-filled slopes. If he lost his footing, he’d drop to his stomach and plant the pointed end of the ice axe into the ground.
When he’d felt the wave carrying not just Jason’s small body, but his adult frame into deeper water, he’d quickly rolled and planted the umbrella as deeply as he could into the sand. The wave pulled them several feet farther, making Michael worry that they’d be pulled out to sea despite his efforts. He shoved the umbrella deeper. Finally, he and Jason stopped sliding. The wave rejoined the ocean and the sand became solid enough for them to stand. Gasping, they trudged away from the unpredictable waves.
When we explained to the hotel staff why there’d be a huge mess in their beautiful bathroom, we discovered that Michael’s quick thinking had probably saved his and Jason’s lives.
“That was a sneaker wave,” the hotel desk clerk explained when I asked for extra towels. “Your husband and son were lucky they weren’t pulled into the ocean.”
“They sure were,” I agreed.
After Michael and Jason peeled off their sodden, sand-encrusted clothes and warmed their chilled bodies in the shower, I hugged them.
“Thank you for being so clever,” I murmured into Michael’s ear.
We’d learned a valuable lesson that day. We’d lost an umbrella, but had gained the lives of my husband and son. We’d also learned two lessons: 1) always bring a walking stick, cane, piece of driftwood or large umbrella when walking on the beach, and 2) never turn our backs on the ocean.
The umbrella that saved the lives of my husband and son rests in a closet as a reminder of how Michael’s quick thinking kept our family intact.
Sneaker Wave Facts
- Sneaker waves kill dozens of unsuspecting beachcombers each year. According to Beach Connections.net, in 2005 sneaker waves, rip currents or getting caught on rocks killed ten people.
- That same year, forty-six people needed to be rescued.
- Sneaker waves, also called rogue waves, sleeper waves or undertow, can strike without warning, at any time of year, in any weather.
- Sneaker waves are larger than other waves, though they may not look like it.
- Sneaker waves are called undertow because they literally tow everything they engulf out to sea, including the sand under your feet.
- Sneaker waves also carry in extra sand, which adds weight to your clothing, making it harder to swim to safety.
- According to the Oregon Parks and Recreation Web site, four inches of water can lift a five-ton log. The same amount of water can lift a fifty-pound child or a 150 pound adult.
How To Survive a Sneaker Wave
- Never turn your back to the ocean.
- Always carry a walking stick, cane, umbrella, or other long, straight object when you walk on the beach.
- Sneaker waves often travel much farther than the water line. If an incoming wave rises higher on the beach than the waves that have come before, quickly move to higher ground.
- Don’t wait to see how high the wave will come up on your body before moving out of the water’s reach.
- If you feel the sand being pulled from beneath your feet, jump plant your walking stick deeply into the sand and hang on. Move away from the water as quickly as possible.
- If you are dragged by a wave, plant your walking stick, cane or umbrella as deeply into the sand as you can. Hang on until the wave passes.
- If you are carried out by a sneaker wave, don’t panic. Swim parallel to the shore until you can swim in safely.