It was the smell of those tiny chunks of flesh-colored corned beef mixed with the froth of pinkish salt water foaming out of the man’s mouth that I’ll never forget. Every time we put a breath in to keep the blue out of his face and the blood in his brain, his breath would bubble back up and spit out those little specks of meat mixed with the froth. I imagine his lungs were about 70% saturated by the time his body floated back into the shallows, all of about 8 minutes from the time he was playing waist-deep in the ocean with his daughter. I gave him CPR for 20 minutes on the beach, and then we put him into a car and continued on the way to SBMA for another 25 minutes, all while watching the color of his face hue with every breath like a mood rock. He died that day along with a 50 year-old fisherman who tried to save him. My friend was able to save another two people, a significant feat overshadowed by the drastic loss of life.
That happened only 10 months ago along the coastline of Bataan, but for years as surfers we’ve seen it happen over and over again. The summer heat fades giving way to heavy rains, and the wrath of the South China Sea storms brought about by the reverse monsoon winds, and people are still in summer mode. Then one weekend, when the sun comes out and the rain subsides for a few days, people flock to the coastline for a weekend outing, not understanding that it’s a different ocean than it was during the summer.
I sat there that night back in Manila rattled by what had happened, thinking about the family members and grief and change as I watched on GMA News as the police and barangay people who were nowhere to be found during the hour-long ordeal in the small town addressed the cameras like babbling kids, passing blame back and forth, then blaming it on the pseudo-resorts and their owners for not having a “lifeguard."
It’s an early one this year. Usually the lightning and thunder creep in around the third week of June and we start getting small showers, but this year we're not even out of May yet and it's started. As a surfer I’m grateful and excited that it’s early because that means another one of those years where the ocean will rage and Habagat waves will last for almost 4 months. As a lifeguard for 12 years in California, and as a Filipino, I’m nervous for the lives that will inevitably change this season, and I'm saddened for the lives the ocean will claim this year.
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If you find yourself visiting the beaches from now till the end of rainy season, don’t be fooled by the weather. There are conditions in the sea that most people don’t understand and that are not obvious but will take your life in an instant, even if you’re a strong swimmer. Ask the local towns folk for notorious currents and conditions of the area and if it’s safe to swim. Don’t just assume that the guy wearing the shirt that says lifeguard can negotiate his way through strong currents and ocean waves. They die too.
Here is where the traditional "take some swim lessons" advice comes in but it's not really applicable here. If the fisherman died, chances are basic swim lessons in a pool won't help. Take a surf lesson when you can because the best ocean skilled “lifeguards” who understand currents are your local surfers and surf instructors, and learning to surf helps you understand everything that is happening in the ocean environment. Check back for my next article which will be about surf lessons and schools.
My suggestion to the local government is to stop passing the
blame and start compiling data, like local statistics of deaths and known danger
spots, so you can understand the problem first.
If you've got any suggestions on ways to address this problem feel free to sound off in the comments section.
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I feel the need to update this article in light of a friend of mine drowning while surfing in La Union two weeks after I posted this. They think it was more related to health because there were no signs of classic drowning struggle. We who knew Gab Gaskell are deeply saddened by this as he was one of our surfing buddies for over a decade now. Either way this highlights the need for real solutions to the safety problems along our coasts. Rest in Peace Gab, you're gonna be missed, buddy. (June 26, 2012)
(June 26, 2012 12:00:00 AM)
(June 15, 2012 12:00:00 AM)