Open Water: That Sinking Feeling

I damn near died this weekend. That’s a fact.

As I write this, I’m not even sure if I’m going to post it. This experience was very physically and emotionally intense.  The entire ordeal was, if I can be a little dramatic for a moment, life changing. I’ve never experienced the sensation of drowning before. It was filled with really awful feelings. The pain, the frustration, the complete and utter helplessness and, it pains me to say, the full and absolute acceptance of my inevitable death.

I’m hoping that by writing about it, I’ll be able to verbalize some of the feelings I’ve been having. I haven’t quite felt right since this happened. I’ve felt anxious, scared, and most disturbingly, calm. My head’s just been, well, fucked up. Having something like that happen to you almost has to change you somehow. The scary part is trying to figure out just how exactly it is you’ve been changed, because for me, it hasn’t really hit yet.

I guess I should explain how it all happened, eh? I’d like to be candid about the whole thing, if I may. I tend to think that I am not an overly dramatic person, typically, so when I say that my head’s been “fucked up”, know that I’m not saying it lightly.

I guess the story begins at 5 PM on Saturday. My ex-roommate and very good friend, Gordon, got married at 3 PM. I felt really bad, because I missed the ceremony due to the opening of my play in the Atlantic Fringe Festival, and a mix-up with my transportation. So when I arrived, at 5 PM, to the reception in Mahone Bay, he was quite shocked to see me, thinking that I had totally bailed on him.

Like every good Nova Scotian wedding, beer was plentiful and, in this particular case, free. It was a lovely set up with the dinner in a circus-style tent right on the beach of Mahone Bay, with a cottage and a decently sized sailboat (moored to a buoy about half a kilometre out in the bay). As we sat through dinner, the speeches rolled on, and with each one came a new drink. (Nova Scotia folk like to “cheers” after their speeches…) The Alexander Keith’s IPAs were going down very smoothly.

After dinner when all the speeches were completed, we all emptied out the tent to make room for the dance floor. Still, the beers remain smooth. We danced well into the night. The alcohol was bringing out the exhibitionist in some of the guests. Shirts became optional, and (being right on the beach) eventually the entire “skinny-dipping” concept had come to fruition. Naturally, everyone’s blood alcohol level made them think this was a great and hilarious idea, myself included.

So let’s have a look at the numbers at this point:

  • it’s 3 AM when we get into the water
  • I’ve been drinking for 10 hours
  • I’ve had approximately 20 to 24 beers
  • I’ve had 1/2 of a bottle of wine
  • There are 8 drunk naked adults in the water
  • We’ve been in the water for the better part of 1 hour

Eventually, someone has a brilliant idea of swimming out to the boat moored in the bay. I honestly do not recall whose idea it was, but that’s kind of irrelevant. As I mentioned, the boat is about 500 m (or half a kilometre, to add perspective) from shore. If you look at the numbers and do the math, you realize that not only am I absolutely drunk at this point of the story, but to add to the dehydration factor,  we have been in salt water for quite a while. I’m really drunk, and tired. I do not want to swim out to this boat, initially. I just want to go to bed. With my plan of sleeping in the trunk of a car, I realize that the loud music playing in the tent (right beside the car) would make that impossible. By the time I decide that I’m going to join these folks in their quest to swim to the boat, about a minute has passed. They all have a significant head start, so I begin to swim extra energetically.

For the record, I’m a very good swimmer. I’m very confident, capable, and I tread water very well. Clearly, these are sober skills. A drunk, naked, 230-pound man thrashing about the water is more accurate for this particular swim. It was kind of funny to me at the time how graceful I was being… which is to say not at all.

Then things stopped being funny.

A little over halfway to the boat, my extreme dehydration caused my left calf to seize up very painfully in a cramp. As any of you who have been swimming before know, this causes major issues in one’s ability to propel forward in water. So I stopped swimming, and began to try and tread water with one leg, while fighting off the cramp I was having at the same time. This resulted in me taking in a very large breath of seawater. Having seawater in your lungs makes it very hard to breathe air, as you might imagine. I started to cough. This caused me to take in more water. Now, I’m drowning. Somehow, I managed to let out a yell of “help!” before falling below the water’s surface, but I could’t be sure how loud it was and if anyone had heard me.

As I sank below the calm gentle waves, I flat out panicked for about 3 very long seconds. It was then that the “life changing” thing happened. I didn’t keep panicking. I became very, very calm, despite every fibre in my being telling me to freak the hell out. I, in that moment, accepted that this was the end for me, and that I was about to die. I really let go.

Open WaterIt was when I let go, and I stopped struggling that I started to sort of resurface. Then it occurred to me, “Salt water,” I thought, “just don’t fight… just float.” So I kicked up my feet, held what little breath I had left, and floated. After what felt like forever, but was likely only 4 or 5 seconds, I reached the surface. I tried to keep as still as I could while coughing out the water I’d swallowed.

And there I was, floating on my back in the middle of Mahone Bay. But I was alive. Once I caught my breath and my heart rate came back down, I started back-stroking, very slowly towards the shore. I did this for a while before the thought occurred to me that my friends were probably wondering where I was. It being 4 AM or so by now, it’s really dark and I don’t think they can see me. I’ve yelled for help, then disappeared on them. Because I’d been floating on my back this whole time, I also can’t hear them yelling to me.

I abandon my backstroke for just a moment, long enough to pop my head above water. I immediately hear them yelling for me. I call back to let them know that I’m alive. Turns out, while I was having my “alone time” with the bay, Will (another guest at the wedding whom I’d met once previously) had grabbed the life preserver off of the boat and swam with it all the way back to me. By now I was only 150m or so from shore, but I’m MORE than happy to take the preserver and gently float back to the cottage’s rocky beach. I owe Will a drink or six.

Once there on dry land, I downplay the whole thing as “not that serious” and blame the backstroke for my ears being underwater. Truth is, I was embarrassed. Very embarrassed. I’m a 30 year old man who considers himself to not only be athletic and physically fit enough to have swam that distance, but also smart enough never to have put himself in that position to begin with. I have nobody to blame but myself. It wasn’t peer pressure or any other outside factor. I, Mark Adam Lardner, made that really stupid decision.

I think that might be what bothers me the most; not being able to blame it on another human being. JUST before the moment of “acceptance” I thought to myself, “how stupid am I? What have I done?” And in that acceptance I thought about my family and friends. Who’d explain to them why their son/brother/friend drowned in Mahone Bay, totally hammered, and full monty naked? What a dummy!

A funny-in-retrospect thought I had was about who would feed and take care of my cat, Lex. That’s likely the most random and light moment I remember, thinking back.

And that’s it. That’s the story. The next day, I woke up, still embarrassed and hung-the-hell-over… but I woke up. I went to breakfast with everyone and joked about the whole thing (still downplaying how serious it was), got in the car, and came home.

Now that I’m done typing it all out, I think I will post it after all. It was therapeutic putting it all down into words. Thank you for sharing this with me, and I hope that lessons can be drawn from my mistakes to help others avoid the same terrifying events.

Happy to be alive,

10 thoughts on “Open Water: That Sinking Feeling

  1. Bless you for being honest about this! Now go kiss your Mom and your Dad and tell them you love them! You ARE loved so much by so many! Listen to your very loving Aunt Carol!

  2. Wow, that’s quite a story – I’m glad you grabbed the cahones to not become a statistic. Most others would not have survived I think.

    1. You read about those “statistics” all the time. Nobody has to tell me how lucky I am… The fact that I’m having this conversation is evidence enough to me.

  3. Really glad to hear you’re OK man! I almost drowned when I was 8, and though not mature enough at the time to fully understand how close I was to dying, I will never forget that sensation of being underwater, completely helpless and no breath to yell for help. Scarry indeed!

  4. Was the first shower after this ordeal almost as traumatic? Can you ever see yourself swimming in any body of water again? PTSD can be a debilitating thing.

    1. Surprisingly, other than some hand-shakiness, I haven’t been afraid of the thought of water. In fact, I may try my hand at surfing if I ever get the time…

  5. I’m glad this ended up the way it did. As the sister in this scenario, I read this a few times and had some trouble imagining the ‘what if’ of it all. You were very lucky to make it through and very lucky to have learned from it. It makes me realize that sometimes people just don’t appreciate each other enough. I only have one brother (even if I include all the in-laws!) and it’s never crossed my mind that someday I may not have one anymore, or you may not have a sister… Again, glad this worked out as it did. I don’t say it much (or at all…) but I love you.

    1. Thanks. I only have one sister, also.

      I’m not much for the gushy stuff, but I love you, too.

      The “learning from it” part is going to take a while. Every time I think about it, I feel a new lesson reveals itself.

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