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The Swim: Man’s struggle with the sea leaves him high and dry

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Dr. Kolasa shared this photo of a storm rolling in over Atlantic Beach.

bobby burns

By Bobby Burns

Sunday, August 12, 2018

The ocean pounded the shore when we arrived at Atlantic Beach on July 22 for a seven-day stay.

“Pounded” really doesn’t capture its character. It churned and roiled.

We rented a beachfront cottage at Ocean Ridge, a knotty-pine paneled, weather-tested but well-kept home owned by the Roberson family from Tarboro. The beach was a little more than first-down yardage from the porch. A few steps over the dunes brought our bare feet to the water’s edge.

The first morning I awoke about 8, and without even washing the sleep from my eyes I exited through the basement door and walked by myself to the sea.

Because it was not raining — rain and rough weather was expected through the week — and the clouds had cleared around that section of the coast for at least the moment, I decided the time was right for a swim.

The steady wind driving the ocean to the shore — low tide never seemed to come our entire stay — also drove in the warmth of the Gulf Stream. I might have turned back had the water been cold.

A swath of rolling gray seawater gave me enough space past the first set of breakers that I could frog kick against the current pulling me to from east to west, parallel to the shore.

I love the density of ocean water. It allows even a 230-pound man like me to float with ease. I turned from my stomach to my back then to my stomach again as I kicked and pulled through the chest-deep sea as if I were on a treadmill.

The swim is a spiritual renewal that I have honed through the years. My first beach was Holden, when I was 2 and 3. Later we lived in Jacksonville, Fla., and a bit farther south at Ponte Vedra. As a young man after college, I swam the rugged coast off Nags Head at the invitation of a friend who was with us at Ocean Ridge and who still shares my affinity for the sea.

I cherish such friendships even more at 52 because so many of the people I loved the longest are gone. My brother and I tried to surf on an old double-finned board when were kids. My father threw us both over the waves. My mother scoured the shore for sharks’ teeth and over decades filled a Mason jar full of them.

She was the last one to die. It was on Sept. 3.

Several weeks later I took a large box full of shells that she had collected to the Greenville Goodwill after no one would buy them at her estate sale.

I should have brought them to the ocean with me to return them from where they came.

I came to the ocean that day carrying it all in my heart and wanting to swim away the hard edges. After chugging against the current for a while, I changed directions and churned freestyle to the west. I pulled my head up for air every other stroke and quickly swam several houses down from the Roberson cottage.

I was the only one in the ocean and the beach was empty.

I stopped and treaded water for a moment then allowed myself to sink. The water was over my head before I hit the sandy bottom with my toes.

Three people had drowned the day before on different parts of the North Carolina coast. I knew about the red flag warnings. I decided to swim for shore.

The strength of the current and the extent I had exerted myself heretofore began to set in.

I swam to the north as hard as I could and made very little progress. I told myself not to panic but fear visited me still.

I pulled hard at an angle and caught the cusp of a wave and then another to push me closer to shore. I finally could touch bottom, but I didn’t stop swimming until I was rolling on the sand.

On the beach I dried off the water and shook off the fear.

I felt a little old and out of shape, and a little silly for being scared, but I was glad to be alive.

Bobby Burns is executive editor for Cooke Communications. Contact him at baburns@reflector.com and 252-329-9572.