Here’s a story from a few years back. It was Christmas Day ’03 and I was out surfing…
Playa Matapalo is a scenic, palm and almond tree-lined beach that stretches the several miles from Manuel Antonio National Reserve to the smaller mangroves of the south. Facing west-southwest it receives a fair amount of swell but the irregular contours of the beach create less than desirable waves and exceptionally strong currents making it unattractive to surfers and dangerous for swimmers.
The playa is however very accessible and, in spite of warnings and local knowledge, it has become the site of a disproportionate number of accidents and drownings of both locals and un-savvy tourists.
Accessibility was inevitably the reason the family from Utah, with four boys and Mom in a wheelchair, chose to stay there and it was the reason I decided to go there for a quick pre-Christmas dinner surf while visiting Stijn DeWitt and Co. at Fundacion Matapalo.
Actually the surf had been flat all week and so I was less than choosy about how good it was. Determined to get wet on my birthday the day before I had to settle for a long swim rather than go home dry.
Waxing up my board I watched the waves repeatedly wash the four boys and their father off their feet. One of the locals I met here last week came over to watch as well pointing out the red warning flag put up by lifeguards earlier that day. The flag and a large dangerous swimming sign were no more than twenty feet from the mother in her wheelchair and their family’s car.
By the time I began to paddle out the father was already caught in the outgoing current along with one of the boys on a foam boogie board. Changing my course to take advantage of the rip I quickly came within reach. “Are you in control?” I asked. The Father, now having something to hold on to, seemed confidant and so I paddled out of the current and towards the waves.
By the time I looked back they had not made any progress escaping the moving water and appeared to be well on their way out to sea. It took longer to reach them the second time and, while not yet desperate, it was clear that they were tired and in trouble.
I asked the Father if he was a strong swimmer. His answer, “I don’t know”, I took as a negative. Unfastening the leash from my ankle I gave him my surfboard and began to direct the two of them towards the breaking waves and out of the channel.
It took a good ten minutes of swimming beside and behind them, pushing and shouting encouragement before we escaped the powerful rip for the incoming waves. Although many rolled over our heads the waves’ momentum helped greatly in the push to shore. Also by now a lifeguard had arrived on the beach, his red shirt providing a focal point and probably some confidence to the two weary tourists who, finally, found sand under their feet.
Leaving them to recover I paddled back out into the waves in hopes of a few good rides but it was apparent that I had already achieved my purpose for being in the water today. Back at my car the Father, still in shock, approached me and asked if he might buy me a drink or something. Although I declined I could feel his need for a debriefing of some sort.
I was glad therefore to see him and his wife later that evening when I came down the hill for last-minute dinner supplies. We had a short talk and he thanked me kindly for saving them. It was a nice exchange and this time I felt there was at least some closure for him.