The ocean's fury

Sunday, February 13, 2011
Joe Sullivan

Thanks to the Internet, I scan about a dozen papers a day. If I see something that interests me, I go to that paper's website and read the story.

Sunday morning, there was a headline on the front page of the Eugene Register-Guard in Oregon that made my heart stand still. It was a story of tragedy, and it brought back memories nearly 40 years old.

Eugene is the home of the University of Oregon. It is the largest newspaper near the coastal town of Yachats where my wife and I have been going on a fairly regular basis since 1972. That year we were living in Moscow, Idaho. We had not had a vacation in more than three years. Our son was 2 that summer, and my wife was recovering from major surgery. We were looking for somewhere to recuperate.

The publisher of the newspaper in Moscow, my boss, said his favorite place to relax was a tiny town on the Oregon coast called Yachats, and he recommended the Adobe Motel, which, at the time, had fireplaces in every room and a dining room with a sweeping view of the Pacific Ocean. So away we went.

Remember, my wife and I are Midwesterners, both natives of Missouri, where the largest body of water is a river or a lake or a spring flood. But we both love the ocean, and the Pacific at Yachats does not disappoint. The Yachats River empties into the ocean on the south edge of town. There are some sandy beaches, but most of the incoming tides crash against enormous rock formations, some jagged from ancient lava flows and some smooth from eons of dashing waves.

So, off we went to Yachats.

After checking into the Adobe Motel, we quickly found a path that trailed through the rocky shore. We climbed on the massive boulders as big as a Midwestern house. Little did we know that the coastal rocks are preyed upon by something called sneaker waves. We don't have these in Missouri.

When a sneaker wave blasts from the sea, without warning, it can drop tons of water on anyone or anything in its path. And those house-size rocks? They become as slippery as Missouri ice when they're wet.

We had been on the trail less than 10 minutes when we climbed on one of the rocks to watch the crashing surf. Suddenly, an enormous wave came over the rock. In an instant, our 2-year-old son was being swept toward China. My wife didn't hesitate a second. She jumped into the swirling ocean to save him.

With what we regard to this day as Divine Providence, my wife was able to grab the hood of our son's sweat shirt and keep him above water. But the combination of pounding waves and slippery rocks were too much. Another wave threw her against the rocks, breaking one of her front teeth. She held on to our son for dear life.

I was finally able to reach into the next rising wave and grab my wife, pulling her and our son onto the wet rock. We hugged for a while and, shivering with cold and fright, returned to our motel room. Later, we went to dinner knowing we had just experienced a near-death experience. Everyone around us was laughing and enjoying a fine meal. What could we say? You can't start a decent conversation with "We almost drowned this afternoon."

The Register's headline brought all of that back, and more. It said two teenage boys had been swept from that same rock and had drowned. I know it was the same rock, because the story said the rock was at the south end of the smelt beach next to the Adobe Motel. I know the place all too well.

I also know that if either of the two boys' mothers had been there on that fateful Saturday outing, they would have jumped into the thrashing ocean without thinking. Mothers do that. Instead, they are mourning their tragic loss.

The ocean is a wondrous thing to behold. But its power must be taken seriously.

The next time we are in Yachats, we will go to that rock and think of our experience, and the loss of two teenage boys. And say a prayer.

Joe Sullivan is the retired editor of the Southeast Missourian.

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