One of the things I was thankful for this Thanksgiving was not drowning on my last trip.
Yes, you read that right.
I nearly drowned off the coast of French Guiana, not far from the spot in this photo.
I was on a day-long catamaran trip to the Salvation Islands (including Devil’s Island). At out last stop we were given the choice of taking a small motorized dinghy to shore or swimming. About 20 people took the dinghy. The water looked great so I decided to swim with a few others.
The boat was about 50 yards from shore and it looked like an easy distance to handle.
Things went bad from the start.
I jumped in the water and it was colder than I thought it would be. It shocked my system and I got a mouthful of salt water which I swallowed.
I started swimming around the boat toward the shore but couldn’t get the initial temperature shock out of my head. The taste of the salt water was in my mouth despite spitting as I swam. My arms and legs seemed to be affected by the cold. As I swam toward the landing spot it hit me that this could take longer than planned, and that maybe this wasn’t a good idea after all.
My mind started to race. I started to panic.
“Just dog-paddle, Keith” I thought to myself. “Tread water. A child can do that.”
I started to think I might go under.
As I got to the front of the boat I turned around and headed back toward the rear to reach the stairs.
The boat was 50 feet long and it seemed much longer than that as I swam next to it.
It hit me that most people had already gone ashore in the dinghy and there might be no one on the boat to see what was happening to me.
Just then, someone looked over the side at me. I waved an arm and yelled “life ring!”. Then it hit me that almost none of the other passengers spoke English!
The man disappeared for a few seconds then reappeared. I waved again and yelled for help!
I thought for a moment that I should have taken French in high school and not Spanish!
The man disappeared again only to reappear with a broomstick which he reached over the side towards me. I grabbed it and he pulled me back to the stairs, where I sat for a few minutes as I processed what just happened.
After a few minutes I gathered my thoughts and took the dinghy to shore. I couldn’t stop thinking about what just happened. Not having anyone to discuss it with in the moment made me feel especially vulnerable.
That night I did some reading on how experienced swimmers drown. It turns out that my experience was typical, in that the person gets into a situation that causes panic which overrides the person’s ability to swim.
I’ve replayed in my mind what happened and I can honestly say I’ve never come as close to death as I did that day.