Press "Enter" to skip to content

Getting dumped: the humiliating nostalgia of a beachside wipeout

Childhood is an endless series of physical disasters. Experienced as adults, falling over, bee stings and blood noses are day-ending nightmares. But for kids, they’re just part of the general milieu of being alive and having a body. Nowhere is that more apparent than at the beach.

My summer memories are punctuated by a repeating scene: my siblings and me standing on the shore of a Victorian surf beach, accompanied by overseas cousins, who quaked as we passively pointed out the unseen but life-threatening enemies crowding around us. Jellyfish, rips, reefs, obscured rockpools, maybe the occasional shark sighting thrown in for drama.

Being dumped by a wave was harder to describe. Years before the term had romantic implications, getting dumped – usually in front of your friends – was still a singularly humiliating experience. A great equaliser. No matter how cool you were, you could still go arse over feet with the whole beach watching.

It’s been years since this haunting possibility has followed me to the water’s edge. Between the ages of nine and 32, my relationship to the beach evolved. I moved from boogie boards and tankinis to expensive, carefully selected bathers; elegant sarongs; and summer reading lists. When I swim past the break my thoughts are with the prescription sunglasses balanced on my head, not the swirling chaos surrounding me. I may have changed but the ocean hasn’t.

Last year, I joined a group of school friends in Hawaii for a wedding. The week involved all the markers of an adult beach holiday: we compared sustainable zinc sunscreens; sipped hard seltzer; and debated the roles of pilates, barre and yoga in attaining the all powerful “bod”. Then I went in the water.

As a kid, I’d lie awake at night picturing the chilling quiet of a rip, forcing the image to burn into my brain. Schoolyard small talk was punctuated by jellyfish horror stories, and debates over the best way to deal with stings.

Even with all that preparation, surrounded by my equally alert friends, standing strong in my reef shoes, I don’t think I ever felt totally comfortable. All the ways the sea could get me were always on my mind. I knew I only needed to drop my guard for a moment to be dragged away forever.

That first day in Hawaii, my mind was empty of everything except gossip and a vague thirst for more White Claw.

Nine-year-old me could have read the scene before her toes touched the water. The seafloor’s steep decline, a powerful undertow, and the bashing, curling waves were a dead giveaway. But the nine-year-old was 23 years away.

There’s a pleasure in being pummelled by the sea, it feels good to remember gummy legs and stinging eyes. But as the plunging waves grew, throwing us close to shore and immediately dragging us back, another memory began to creep in: being out of control.

My adult life is an ongoing engineering operation. I can tinker with who I speak to, what I see, how I eat, where I go and what I enjoy. I can control my experiences.

We all laughed as I began struggling to stand after each wave. My friends shouted encouragement as my gummy legs shifted from nostalgic to frustrating. After a few minutes they asked if I was OK –my size, location and luck made me a particular target for the rough surf.

I assured them I was, and I thought it was true. I was the fittest I’d even been and quietly confident all those hours swimming laps at the local pool would protect me in the ocean.

“I swam two kilometres the other day,” I shouted to them over the crashing waves. “I’ll get out if it becomes too much.” I believed it, too. Just as I believed in my summer reading choices and new low-back one-piece.

Then it happened, the perfect coalescence of backwash and wave. Finally the nine-year-old caught up to the 32-year-old. I understood what was happening as I was sucked back and down under a ceiling of doming water. The local pool wouldn’t help me. My beach towel made of recycled bottles wouldn’t help me. My adult body wouldn’t help me.

Before my childhood brain took over – closing my eyes, taking a huge gulp of air, and going limp –I had once last adult instinct: I grabbed my prescription sunnies off my face and held them as tight as I could.

As the sea tossed and rolled me, switching the marbled sky for the sand below and back again, I begged it to pull its familiar trick from decades back: spitting me on the shore when it was done.

The sea obliged. Suddenly I was in the shallows, my swimsuit halfway up my arse, sand in every crevice of my body. Around me were cheers and cries: my friends concerned and yelling to check if I was OK, the local kids doubled over with laughter at seeing an adult so totally spun out. I stood up, triumphant and humiliated.

The ocean doesn’t care about your workout routine, bathers, or new beach towel. Blowing burning saltwater out my nose, sounds muffled in my water-logged ears, I was just another idiot who took it for granted. Nothing brings you back to yourself like an ambivalent wave.

Source: TheGuardian