Don’t turn your back on an angry ocean. It is one of the many lessons I took away from my 1994 encounter at Kitty Hawk, N.C. Hurricane Gordon had just blown through and I was one of many surly journalists milling about the beach amid the wreckage of a collapsed vacation cottage. Actually, I was a 27-year-old news punk running around in a station windbreaker and feeling quite outgunned. All around me, three-person network crews in matching rain slickers roved about with their pistol-grip betacams and looming microphone poles. I however was a one-man-band, on the coastal edge of my rural TV news market and more than a little unprepared. It wasn’t my first time chasing storms, but it WAS my first time at a network-level Hurricane Circus. Maybe that’s why I stuck to the edge of the pack, ignoring the crashing surf behind me as I watched the big boys strut their stuff. In my stupor, I made myself an easy target. Why else would Mother Nature kick me in the ass?
A sharp yell kicked off the waylay. I don’t remember the exact words, but the tone of the distant voice snapped me out of my trance and I looked up over my shoulder. In an instant, I understood why strangers were shouting at me. An avalanche of whitewater quickly filled my view. As it did, I couldn’t fathom was how the Atlantic Ocean had raced up the beach so fast. But in the nanosecond I took the waist-high wall of tumbling seawater to reach me, I realized I was about to get my bell rung. I just didn’t know how long it would echo.
I tried to move. I twisted around to block the camera from the wave’s impact and wondered just how wet I was about to become. That’s when everything around me turned to foam and the rogue wave picked me up off my feet. Holding the camera in a death grip, I struggled to gain control, as the wall of water tossed me around like just another twig it intended to snap. Sand and saltwater filled my nasal passages as I cart wheeled in the Atlantic’s frenzied spin-cycle. I tried desperately to come up for air but the pounding surf planted my face into the sandy bottom and tried to rip the dying camera from my grip. My Nantucket Sleigh Ride had begun.
I’d like to say I tapped my inner Aqua-Man and rode that battered Panasonic into shore like an electronic boogie-board. But what I really did was suck seawater as the forces of nature gave me the Mother of all sand-wedgies. All I could do was hold on to the camera, determined not to lose what was most certainly a mortally wounded piece of recording equipment. But I wasn’t alone in the ocean’s crush. All those broken boards, metal shards and bricks I had been standing by were now part of that rushing river of sea foam. For a second I broke the surface and got a quick, scary look at the jagged lumber swirling around me. A piling the size of a telephone pole bobbed past and I prayed I wouldn‘t come to rest with a stick through my gut. Then the wave pushed me downward and I was break dancing underwater once again.
In times of great peril, time has a funny way of skipping a beat, slowing down to make seconds feel like several lifetimes. Thus, I had lots of time to contemplate my fate as I slow motion tumbled through the barreling surf. I wondered how I would explain this to my bosses, my wife, and my buddies. Mostly though, I thought about how I came to be swimming alongside an expensive TV camera in the first place.
Next Time: Road Trip...