Updated: Oct 22, 2019
Like at a dance at a Catholic school, I maintained my distance and offered my left forearm, fist closed. My new partner attached himself and blew beer breathe at me in huffs and puffs (just like a Catholic school dance).
I towed him for a few yards and we floated together, but not like friends or lovers.
We were two souls in deep water just past the break at one of 10 Heaviest Waves in the World: Playa Zicatela, Puerto Escondido. We could see the beach just a few yards off -where only three minutes before life was very grand and very different.
One of us had been swimming that mile of ocean for the previous three years; the other was in his underwear with a six-pack in his belly and in severe oxygen debt.
I horse-whispered my clinging companion: "Relàjate relàjate, respira respira...”
In the event this guy got really nervous and needed to be subdued, I reserved my right to pull him into a headlock (again Catholic school dance) and then like sea turtles humping, I’d wrap my legs around him from behind.
But for now, I faked confidence and told him nobody was going to drown today.
(I was pretty sure I was getting out of it alive anyway.)
We were waiting for the cavalry and I was about to informally meet, Godofredo Vasquez, Capitan of the Lifeguards at Playa Zicatela.
And celebrating 20 Years working with the Junior Lifeguards.
There’s a spot in the water off the beach at Playa Zicatela where no one wants to be for more than one wave. If you see someone there, they either know what they’re doing and will get the hell outta there… or they don’t, and they might get dead. In less than a minute.
That’s a fact (you can look it up).
The strength of the wave in Puerto Escondido is like a steam engine rolling downhill for 5,000 miles that charges drastically downhill in the last 300 yards. Then it hits you. For non-surfers? If there were no lifeguards? It’d kill everyone a’ you. For surfers? They don’t all die, but they all felt the fear of death in Puerto.
I felt the fear a’ death every time.
Video by filmed by Jaciel Santiago.
I saw the victim while we were both still in ankle deep water and I didn’t say anything to him. And I should have. I know that now. I could have done Preventative Lifeguarding while we were both on solid ground (which is way easier).
Point is: I was capable of saving this guy’s life while we were still on the sand.
Now, if I see someone whose ability is in question, I talk to them. I recommend you do the same.
I saluted the lifeguard tower with one red Dafin, and although I couldn’t see them, I knew they were looking at me. I looked to my left and saw the guy but dove in anyway.
I took a big wave on the head then went 10-12 meters underwater, like a bullet, and came up past the breakers. That’s when I turned back and saw him.
As I swam towards him I was wasn’t thinking if I could save him, I was considering if he could drown me and more to the core, could I drown him if I had to?
I asked myself that but gave him my arm anyway.
I'm not a lifeguard, I'm an ocean survival swimmer at best. I can’t tow anyone in. Most times I feel like I barely make it in myself. So we floated, practicing Lamaz (minus the belly rubbing) and he held onto my left.
I didn’t even see Godo coming. Just past the breakers, a wave thundered by and he was there, in front of us, like he came from the bottom of the sea and had just dropped the reins from riding a marlin.
In fact, he did come from the bottom. He doesn’t duck dive a wave and pop up, he goes to the bottom, digs his hands into the sand and starts crawling, for a while, until he hears the wave pass over. That’s why it looked like he came from the bottom.
He looked at me and said, "You a bodysurfer," but it was less a question. I never considered myself much of a body surfer but it wasn’t a moment for “Aw shucks false humility,” nor the place for semantics, so I said "Si."
He fastened the soft red buoy around the muchacho. He may have pointed at the guy and said, "You breathe," in Spanish, but I could be making that up.
Godo was attached with a leash to the guy and the buoy, like a horse in harness or a rickshaw runner but in overhead surf, in one of the 10 Heaviest Surf Breaks in the World.
He looked past me to the water that was coming. One look, that was all, swear to God, it was all it took. And there was a look on Godo’s face, he’s a man of intense looks (including one of euphoric joy… I saw that one later).
This was his deadly serious look. It’s a scary one. It makes dogs look for corners.
He saw the accumulated knowledge of 21 years of looking at that spot that lies 172 yards southwest of Lifeguard Stand Principal, Playa Zicatela, Puerto Escondido.
I think maybe he came out through the first wave of the set and this was the last but he could have made his decision to go based on a pelican shitting on the wing. "Vamanos," said Godo, his eyes holding the intensity.
And then his head ducked down towards the shore and he was a ferry wheel of arms and power and knowledge of the motion of the wave. We three fell out the back of the first wave and then Godo sled dogged through the next wave and they were suddenly both standing in waist high surf.
And that guy being towed? He wasn't kicking and helping along, he was dragging like a rusty anchor in double overhead surf.
There are 700 Ocean Rescues on Puerto Beaches every year, so there isn't much time spent glory gabbing or patting backs.
Godo didn't say a word to me and he was gone down the beach.I couldn’t, (and still can't) believe the power and intensity of Godofredo Vasquez, former Capitan de Salvavidas, Playa Zicatela, Puerto Escondido, Mexico.
I didn’t think I’d meet him again and I didn’t even know what he looked like (apart from his right lateral extended in the front crawl stroke of a lifeguard working).
Check out Part of Water, a film by T Burrnham about the life and death of Ben Carson, Newport Beach California Lifeguard who lost his life in the line of duty.
To Donate to the Ben Carson Foundation www.bencarlsonfoundation.org