January 25, 2014, was a beautiful Saturday afternoon in Surf City, USA—also known as Huntington Beach, California. It was a pleasant seventy-two degrees, with not a cloud in the sky. The weather was especially nice since, just the evening before, I had flown out of Detroit, where it was two degrees with biting forty-mile-an-hour gusts. I had been in Detroit for a week of unavoidable family business with three self-absorbed siblings.

I was exhausted from traveling and hadn’t eaten much in the past two days. But the sun was out, and I wanted to run and dream again on the beach I loved. I headed out from the loft, three-quarters of a mile from the ocean, that my wife and I rent. Reaching Huntington Beach Pier, I headed south along the sandy shore.

The ocean was wild and gorgeous. Plunging eight-foot waves were breaking far offshore, and dolphins were looping through the sparkling crests. I felt like a kid, entranced by it all as I ran the six miles to Newport Beach Pier, where I turned around and headed north into a light breeze. I was thinking about my siblings, and I vowed that no mater how unscrupulous some people are, I’d still rather err on the side of trusting people—even if I occasionally got burned—than live a miserable, grudging life. I also vowed that once I finished my run, I was going to swim out to those towering waves and feel their force as I body-surfed them.

An hour and a half later, I was back where I started on the beach. I was tired and one heel was sore, but hey, you didn’t get waves like this every day. The sun was setting over Catalina Island twenty-six miles offshore, casting a shimmering palette of bright orange and apricot on the sea. I had to seize the moment. The water would also help relieve the pain in my foot, so I kicked off my shoes and started walking bare-chested into the brisk sixty-one-degree water.

It was high tide, and the water was boisterous with white foam and spray. It was also quickly deep, but that made me feel more confident—if I got slammed by a wave, I didn’t have to worry about getting crunched against the bottom. I kept swimming ahead, pleased that the only surfers were far away—no worries about getting knocked unconscious by a board.

I was confident in water. I had taught myself how to swim long ago in a snaky Vietnam marsh after returning from reconnaissance patrols. After my discharge, I swam across the Detroit River from Detroit to Canada. And years later, I swam across the Niagara River from Canada to New York, and then across Lake Okanagan in British Columbia. I had also swum in the ocean many times before, in places as wide ranging as Okinawa and the English Channel. I took pride in being able to swim long distances in fifty-some-degree water.

So I swam ahead as the waves broke closer and closer, enticing me onward. Though the combers were far offshore, I got to them faster than I expected, without having to fight the usual crosscurrent or shoreward surge. And soon enough, without much effort, I was diving into the waves, feeling wonderfully alive each time I popped to the surface, looking left and right and seeing nothing but glistening blue waves and white foam that stretched for miles.

I was all alone, at one with the ocean. I felt at home.

Rip currents along California's coast

I soon passed the waves and was swimming in rolling sea. It was time to head back. But turning around, I couldn’t believe how far offshore I was. I started swimming for shore, but after five minutes I wasn’t any closer. I knew I had to get back inside the breakers, where they would help force me to shore, but as hard as I swam, I wasn’t moving forward.

I kept thinking, what the hell is wrong? And suddenly, I felt helpless in a vast, unforgiving ocean. And just that quickly, I got scared. I could feel my body rapidly weakening, as if the needle gauge on my battery were plunging to zero. I didn’t know what was happening. I had always been in control before. But now, alone in rolling waves, I had to keep swimming just to stay afloat. My arms were losing strength and my body felt heavy, when I just happened to see two surfers maybe a hundred feet away. Confused, I didn’t know if I should call for help. But as the last of my energy began to drain, it occurred to me that if I didn’t holler now, they might leave, and then I would feel pretty silly—maybe for the very last time. So I yelled, “Can you help me?”

The two strapping young men quickly paddled over, and one slid his board to me. “Take a rest,” he said. “You may have noticed we’re in a riptide.”

“Are we okay?” I said, grabbing hold of his board.

“Oh, just fine! We can stay out here all day—we just have to swim to the side to get you out of this and back to shore.”

My fears vanished as I realized I was with guys who really knew the ocean, yet I was baffled how I hadn’t noticed the signs that I was in a rip current—where water rushes in a narrow funnel from the shore. It explained my all-too-easy swim out to the waves and beyond.

The surfer I had hitched a ride with started pulling me parallel to the beach, with the wind, as I paddled with one hand and held the board with the other.

“Get on the board; it’ll be easier,” the other surfer said.

I bellied up onto the board, and we paddled a hundred feet till we were out of the rip. Then we started swimming back to the waves.

As the first wave approached, the surfer towing me said, “Just hold on and don’t let go of the board.”

The wave gently swept me high and slid me down its face. This is kinda fun! I thought as we scudded along toward shore.

Then a large shadow loomed from behind.

“Don’t let go!” the surfer hollered.

It slammed over us, and I felt as if we were in a giant Maytag, on the heavy cycle. But I didn’t let go.

The wave finally spent itself, and the other surfer jumped off his board and said, “You can stand up now. You should be fine from here.”

I slid off the board and said, “Thanks, guys—you know, for saving my life!”

They just grinned and started heading back out on their boards.

“What’s your names?” I yelled as they sped away.

“Mike and Reed!” they shouted.

I slogged my way to shore, and a red pickup truck marked “Huntington Beach Lifeguard” stopped next to me.

He lowered his window and said, “Why’d you go in that water without a board?”

“I just wanted to experience those big waves.”

He shook his head. “You can’t do that when the ocean’s like this!”

“I know . . . it was kinda stupid.”

Kinda? This isn’t the YMCA pool! It’s the biggest ocean in the world! You can’t go in it more than knee or hip deep when it’s like this!”

“I won’t do it again, I promise.”

“Did you swallow any seawater?”

“Nah,” I replied. I had swallowed some, but I didn’t want to create more of a fuss.

“You do realize you woulda’ been dead if those two surfers weren’t there, don’t you?”

“I know. Their names are Mike and Reed. What’s yours?”

He just looked at me and said, “J. D.,” and I shook his hand.

A police helicopter appeared, and I looked up and waved, then walked away. Despite my doubts about certain next of kin, my faith in the benevolence of strangers was restored.