I almost died
You probably read the title and thought "click bait!!", but unfortunately it's true. One week ago today, I almost died.
I thought about not sharing this story, but it seemed crazy to go on with business as usual without at least acknowledging what happened last week. I was home visiting Massachusetts from Asheville for the weekend to be with my family. It was my dads first birthday since he passed away in April. Ironically, his celebration of life was at Mass Maritime just minutes from where our boat nearly sank in Buzzards Bay and the mouth of the Cape Cod Canal.
Please do not read on if you are offended by strong language (aka- the F word) or bad grammar.
My brother wanted to take us out on his boat and bring us to Martha's Vineyard for the day to honor our father. I'm not a fan of speed boats and I had texted my fiance in the morning that I was scared and didn't want to go, but I was going because my older brother was trying to do something nice for us and I knew how much it meant to him. My father had loved being on the boat with my brother.
If you follow us on instagram you might have seen some of the stories I posted earlier that day, clipping along the water with music blaring, complaining about how fast we were going, or just enjoying the views.
On the boat was my 73 year old mother, my brother and his daughter, and my brothers two friends whom I had never met. The ride back from the Vineyard took longer than expected and we barely made it back before dark, the sun had already slipped away, but there was still some light. As my brother slowed down in the cape cod canal he gave me a high five "made it back before dark!".
Not a second after the words escaped his mouth, a giant wave crashed over the front of the boat. As he had slowed, the front of the boat had dipped down like a spoon, scooping up the rouge wave. It was probably just a mile left to the Marina where we put in to go to Marthas Vineyard. Water filled the boat and rushed over our feet...and then it started to tip to one side. Thinking quickly my brother made one last maneuver to even out the boat, right before the engine cut off. Then I was in the water.
It was around 6:35pm. Just minutes before at 6:31 I had texted my fiancé a video of me steering the boat, showing the speed at 10mph- the water had been a little choppy then, but not so bad. I texted something like "HA! I figured out how to keep my brother from driving fast, I've taken over at the wheel"
When I hit the water I still had my phone clutched tightly in my right hand, raised up like lady liberty's torch. Immediately I was being pummeled by 4-6 ft tall waves. I swam to the side quickly to move out of the boats way as it came crashing down with another wave. Just minutes before the ocean had been calm so I was shocked by the chaos churning around me.
Now I know that the mouth of the Cape Cod Canal is (and this is quoted from the internet) "Notoriously dangerous". The rushing current from the canal meets the current from the ocean and the two powerful currents slam into each other like giant fists- resulting in towering waves that have caused multiple boats to capsize in the same exact spot we were in.
At first I thought I could get back to the boat, but as I watched it got further and further away.
A few seconds after I hit the water I had a silly thought "What if I'm eaten by a shark?!". The day before just miles away, a great white shark had been photographed behind a man on his surfboard at Nauset Beach. My next thought was "You fucking idiot! Sharks are the LEAST of your worries, YOU ARE DROWNING!".
I realized that I was going to die. I wouldn't survive this and I was absolutely certain of it. The water was incredibly rough. I tried to dial 911, but hitting the buttons on my phone wasn't working because it was wet. I used hey siri and an emergency call screen came up and asked me to hit call- I was able to hit it to get the call through.
Now I now that you can actually hit the side button three times in a row and that will also dial 911.
I heard the dispatcher come on the line and holding the phone above my head, I screamed that I was drowning in the cape cod canal near the bourne bridge- I am unfamiliar with the area and couldn't tell her exactly where. I described my brothers red and white boat. I told her I wasn't going to make it, but that my brothers boat was sinking. She kept asking "where in the canal?! Where in the Canal!?l" but knowing I couldn't answer and that I needed my right hand to swim, I dropped my expensive iphone into the water.
In that moment I was all business. Normally a very anxious person, I told myself that if I allowed myself to panic that I would die right away.
As I tried to swim for the boat, I realized that my heavy sandals (chaco's) were weighing me down and creating more resistance as I struggled to kick and swim. I tried, but I couldn't reach down to unstrap them while struggling in the waves. I used my toes to push them off- chanting in my head "stay calm, stay calm, stay calm".
I looked across the water and realized that I was the only one off the boat. I also saw that the boat was getting further and further away, pushed by the waves. I tried to swim towards it but waves crashed over me and filled my nose and mouth with water.
The realization came again: I was definitely going to die, it was only a matter of how long now.
The sun was gone and it was starting to get dark.
Like my chaco's, my jeans were also heavy and I thought about trying to get them off, but how could I? I saw myself dying trying to struggle to get off my skinny jeans. The waves were massive and I envisioned getting my jeans half way down my legs and then not being able to swim at all.
I screamed at the boat "I'm not going to make it!" but they couldn't hear me. I could tell that the boat was taking on more water and sinking. The speed boat was tilted to one side and just getting knocked around by the constant onslaught of waves, moving further and further away from me. Later they told me that in the confusion and panic they didn't yet realize I was in the water.
My brothers friend John, who can not swim, was calling 911 on his phone. I could hear him screaming into the phone "WE ARE GOING TO DIE, PLEASE HELP US, WE ARE GOING TO DIE! PLEASE PLEASE SAVE US!!" I couldn't make out anything else- I just hoped he knew where we were in the canal so he could tell them what I couldn't. I could also hear my niece screaming and crying.
I thought "this is really how it ends, all these years of living like a homeless person, being frugal, not going on vacations...and I'm going to drown in the cape cod canal on a boat trip I never wanted to go on...while in the middle of closing on our house!".
When I had moved from Massachusetts to Asheville North Carolina I was 21 years old and I spent my first year there working and living in my 1992 Dodge caravan with makeshift curtains, tupperware drawers, and a sleeping bag in the back. It was before living in a van was cool (#vanlife) and when it just meant you were "homeless". I spent years putting all my money into Asheville Glamping
I could have afforded rent or a mortgage over all those years, but I opted to live rent free instead so I could funnel 100% of my income into my dream of creating a glamping camp without business loans.
Whenever I felt like giving up during those years or signing a lease, I'd think of this quote: "Entrepreneurship is living a few years of your life like most people won't so you can spend the rest of your life living like most people can't"
Now I was reflecting on how all of that sacrifice was for NOTHING. NADA! How stupid was I to have wasted my 20's and half of my thirties living like a pauper and putting my money into my business? "YOU FUCKING IDIOT!" I thought. "STUPID, STUPID, STUPID!". I then shifted my thoughts back to what it was going to be like to die. How long would it would take before I lost consciousness?
Ever since my Dad passed less than 6 months ago, I have been pouring over articles about near death experiences hoping to find some kind of proof of the afterlife. I had never believed in a "heaven" before my father's heart attack, but now my heart was broken over thinking that the best person I ever knew was just "gone". How could he just be gone? Would I just be gone too? When I finally got too tired to swim, would my dying/ oxygen deprived brain produce some kind of hallucination that I thought was "crossing over" like some of the articles I read had explained away near death experiences as being? Is drowning really peaceful? That last thought seemed impossible as I struggled to breathe. Drowning is not peaceful- that is BULLSHIT. I now think it must be right up there with burning alive as far as the most unpleasant ways to "pass go".
The waves came at 3 second intervals as I continued trying to get back to the boat. In spite of their consistency, they were coming from behind me and surprised me every time. I was inhaling salt water through my nose and mouth as they struck me. I knew then that I wasn't going to drown from slipping under the waves, I was going to drown from inhaling the salt water into my lungs.
I turned over on my back and started doing the backstroke so I could see the waves as they came towards me and try to hold my breath as they crashed over me. That way I could still try to make it to the boat. I thought about all the swim lessons at the YMCA growing up. Changing into my bathing suit in the back seat of my parents Corolla when we were late.
I didn't know it until the next day, but I had been struggling alone in the water for around 15-18 minutes at this time. If the water had been calm I could have floated for days, but the water was raging and the minutes that passed seemed like lifetimes.
By this time everyone on the boat knew I was in the water and I could hear them all screaming at me, mostly incoherently. Any progress I made swimming was lost though as the boat was being pushed further and further away from me by the waves.
My brothers friend was sceaming, "CAN YOU SWIM TOWARDS THE BOAT?? SWIM WITH THE WAVES!" and I screamed again "I'M NOT GOING TO MAKE IT". I thought about trying to yell some final words to my family- that I loved them etc, but just yelling that I wasn't going to make it took all of my energy. I knew they couldn't hear me anyway.
"CAN YOU SWIM??" I couldn't yell anymore so I shook my head back and forth as hard as I could so they could see - I was already exhausted from swimming and knew there was no way I was making it to the boat- the distance had already doubled---That's when my brothers friend Todd jumped in with a life jacket on.
When I saw him leap into the water: Instead of thinking "I'm saved!", I thought "Now we will both die". I knew that he didn't know how impossible it was to swim in any direction and how the waves would be pounding him as he tried. He didn't realize why I hadn't made any progress towards the boat and I thought there was no way he'd be able to swim us both back. It took minutes for him to get to me.
I thought back to my white water kayaking days and what I learned in my swift water rescue crash courses "the person who tries to rescue the drowning person often drowns as well because the drowning person latches onto them in a panic and pulls them both under" I had been forcing myself to remain as calm as possible from the moment I fell into the water, and I reminded myself to stay calm as he reached me. At the same time, I knew I was exhausted and couldn't make it much longer.
When Todd made it to me I didn't jump on him. He told me to grab his life jacket and I did, with one hand. He tried to tow me in and I used my right arm and legs to swim with him, looking back at the waves and warning him to hold his breath whenever another one was about to crash over us. He quickly realized why I had never made it to the boat. Progress was nearly impossible and he was out of breath and told me so. Together we watched the waves push the boat further and further away from us.
Todd told me he couldn't swim anymore and that help was coming (we hoped). I told him he had saved my life, I was completely exhausted by the time he reached me. He rolled over on to his back and gulped air and I tried to reassure him. "We are going to be fine, you saved my life, we are alright, hold your breath- another wave is coming, we are going to be fine, here's another wave- hold your breath".
I coudn't beleive that a total stranger had risked his life to come save me. During the whole ordeal I never once yelled at the boat for help because I knew none of them COULD help me. What were they going to do? My brother needed to stay with his daughter, my mother is elderly, and my brothers other friend can not swim. If Todd had not have been on the boat with us then I know I would have died for sure. He knew when I shook my head that I was in serious trouble and that he was the only strong swimmer in the group. He didn't have to, but he took action. I had never been more grateful for anything or anyone in my life. Though I didn't know him before this day, I'll now never forget his name: Todd Lopes.
Todd and I bobbed helplessly in the water like that for another 6 minutes or so. Then we saw the lights of a boat coming towards us. Todd said "We're saved, we are going to be ok, they are coming, hang on- hang on". I just repeated over and over again "you saved me, you saved my life, I was going to die and you saved me" I wasn't crying yet- still trying to focus on being as calm as possible and conserving energy. They were close but the waves were still pummeling us.
The bourne and Onset fire departments had reached us with their boats before the coast guard could. They came up to my brothers boat first. They couldn't see us, we were now at least 200 ft away from the boat. I heard my brother screaming for them to save us first (I had measured the distance in my head by thinking "how many 100ft water hoses would it take to get to the boat? I know it takes two hoses to get from the one of our airstreams to dome 4 at camp to fill the hot tub so we must be about 200ft away")
The boat came up beside us and a metal yellow staff with a hook was extended out as we frantically tried to reach for it. Todd reminded me to not let go of his life vest. Two men pulled me up onto the boat and I laid on the deck on my stomach crying hysterically. When I was able to get up I hugged and thanked Todd for saving my life and then thanked all of the men on the boat. My brother and niece were loaded onto our boat and a second boat arrived and loaded my mother, and my brothers other friend onto their boat.
The waves were still massive and crashing onto the fire department boats deck. They had us move towards the front. I cried into my brothers lap the rest of the way in. They asked me how long I had been in the water "I don't know, it seemed like forever, but it was probably only 10 minutes, I don't know". They took my temperature on the heated ambulance and wrapped more blankets around me. He said something about me being hypothermic. I said I was fine and looked down at my bare feet which had gone from tan to white.
The next morning I called dispatch to thank them and to get the exact time I called 911 and the exact time the fire departments boats pulled us out of the water. The dispatcher told me that a call to 911 came through at 18:35 (6:35) - she couldn't see the other dispatchers log to get the time of the first call, which was mine that had come in a couple minutes earlier.
The fire department pulled us out of the water at 18:57 (6:57) so based on that I estimate I was in the water for around 22 minutes.
My family is so grateful for the people who acted so swiftly to save our lives- from the dispatchers who answered our calls to the folks who responded. I can not believe I am here today and if it wasn't for Todd Lopes and the Bourne and Onset fire departments we wouldn't be.
So what's the take home message here? Life is incredibly precious and no day is promised. I'm not as scared of dying now that I've been in deaths jaws and spit back out again.
You might not fall off a boat into the ocean, but you could just as easily be killed in traffic. We never know what's going to happen. In the day to day it's so easy to get distracted by the stress and daily dramas of our lives. Please don't get so distracted that you forget to enjoy your time here on earth.
Earlier that day I had quoted my brother in my instagram story, thinking about it gives me chills:
"Life is good!!! Suck it all up like a sponge, it's here today and gone tomorrow!".