My last cold swim

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Alberto V. Da Silva
  • 325th Fighter Wing Safety
On a beautiful Sunday not too long ago in Panama City, Fla., a good day turned into a bad day really quickly.

The temperature was just right. The winds were calm and the tide was super low. Perfect to go walk around finding shells; this is one of my wife's favorite hobbies. It was around 10:30 a.m., and we decided to hit the beach. Florida is great - one of the few places in North America that you can hit the beach in mid-February and not one person would call you weird for it.

We made sandwiches, packed water, extra towels, dog toys, beach toys, kiteboarding gear, drinks, life jackets and a few other odds and ends. The day went wonderfully. We went to the far-end of Crooked Island by the tip where, if you swam across, you would be on the east tip of Tyndall beach. Everyone had an awesome time. Our little girl and our dogs ran and played all day. My wife and I found a large bounty of perfect shells and sand dollars for our art projects.

It was starting to get late and the wind was getting a little cooler and stronger. At this point everything started to go wrong. We piled our puppies into the boat, the gear, the food, the baby and ourselves. Nothing was left behind. We were in shallow water and always playful and curious, I decided to try something different. Instead of pushing my boat out of the shallow water into the deep water, I was going to stand on the bow and throw the anchor out and pull the boat by it until we got to deep enough water for me to crank the engine. The idea worked perfectly.

We got to deep water, boat cranked and off we went towards the tip of Tyndall beach, which is on the way to where we docked the boat. As we were passing the tip, Pam, my wife, asked if we could make a small stop and see if we could find anything "cool" on this side. We were having a great day, I said why not. We came around the tip and I beached the boat in one of our other usual spots. We got our dogs, our little girl, and ourselves out of the boat and dropped the anchor.

We went for a short walk around the tip, far enough to where we lost sight of the boat. On the way back, I noticed that the boat looked much further from where we had originally left it. After a few more moments, panic set in. We got a clear view of the boat and realized it had drifted about a half-mile into the middle of the bay. The anchor was still there on the sand where I left it, with the entire rope attached to it. We didn't take anything out of the boat when we jumped off for this short walk and we were stranded. It would be completely black in less than an hour and something had to be done.

With everyone's adrenaline pumping, I made a few quick decisions that would almost cost me my life. I knew I was a good swimmer. Under good conditions, I can stay an entire day in the water swimming. The boat wasn't too far and it would be easy for me to catch up to it with the wind and current all pulling me in the same direction. This is going to be easy, I thought. I've spent seven hours adrift off the coast of Rio in 2005, and this is nothing.

I calculated how good I am in the water, but not what affect the February water had in store for me on this particular day. I walked as far as I could off the sand bar and headed on a direct course to the boat. I dove in the water and off I went. On a nice steady pace, I began to make great distance from the shore. At one point I could see and feel that I was getting closer to the boat. Behind me my wife, daughter and dogs had begun to get a lot smaller in size. I may have been swimming for ten to 15 minutes.

It was then that I noticed something I had never felt before. My hands were numb and I could not move my fingers. I focused on my toes and felt, or more accurately, couldn't feel them. Then, I looked at the boat and it was still the same distance from when I started. I looked back and to no surprise I was really far from shore. After all my years of training in the art of Jiu-Jitsu, swimming and doing high-risk sports, panic is not something I let take over me, but I knew I was in trouble and I knew this was the beginning of a fight that I could not lose.

Immediately I weighed my options and measured my chances. Even though the boat was the closest thing to me, there was no way I was going to reach it. The opposite shore was another mile and even if I floated I would be frozen before I got there. Going back was my only option.

I turned back, saw the little figures of my family members on shore, aimed in that direction and started swimming. Realizing I was going against the wind and the incoming tide, my best option was to swim at a 45 degree angle toward shore. And of course, this would mean my trip back to shore just got a tad bit longer. It was the best I could come up with at that time. I swam for a few more minutes when I noticed things were really going south, fast.

I no longer had feeling on either of my arms up past the elbow - my legs were moving via my hips and gluteus muscles only. I wasn't able to take a full breath no matter how hard I tried. I had made progress. What was once a long distance was now no more than 200 yards to shore. If I could swim another 120 yards I'll reach the sandbar and be able to stand. This was great news, I can make it, I thought.

I went under. My mind was still not in panic mode, being a good swimmer and having an idea of what I was going through. I began to swim with my arms pinned at my sides and my legs kicking like a dolphin, using my entire body to propel. Within a few kicks I was up getting air and moving forward. I could hear my wife yelling, "You can do it, you can do it!" I knew I had to beat the clock, my body was beginning to shut down and it was doing it quickly. Not being able to take a full breath was making it impossible to keep my muscles moving. My eye sight had become a small shadowy tunnel full of fireworks. And I saw my tunnel close in.

I went under. I knew my heart was still beating because it was so loud it was making my ears hurt. I thought about my wife, I thought about my daughter, I thought about my family, my dogs, my school, my teammates, I thought about not watching my little girl get older, get married and I inhaled water. It burned; it burned worse than any alcohol anyone in the world could ever make. The pain was unbelievable. A funny thought came to my head, out of all the things that have happened to me, am I really going to die like this? I remembered getting shot at, being adrift for hours with my buddy Wagner wondering if our friend was going to call the Coast Guard or were we going to float adrift until we drowned, I've survived so many things and this is how I'm going to die? Then I realized, if I'm down here still thinking, I can still find a way to fight and not give up.

I pushed with everything I could imagine, I want to see my family one last time if this is how I was going to go. I moved and it hurt, it felt like I was moving concrete. But I moved. It felt like an eternity before I reached the top. I inhaled in tiny bits and one word at a time, I yelled "Naomi, I love you, Pam, I love you," I looked at our puppies and inside my head I asked to be forgiven. I kept pushing, but I knew it meant nothing. Pam was standing at the edge of the sand bar; I was now no more than 30 yards from being able to walk. I tried to push some more but I couldn't. I begged and screamed for help, flapping my arms that I couldn't feel and trying to kick with my numb legs. I kept myself above just long enough to yell help a few times. And when I couldn't move, I just said "goodbye" and went under again.

This time the water didn't burn so much. It just tasted weird. I felt my entire body cramp, and it began to shake, it wanted air, but just took in water. I knew these were my last few moments. I think I felt something touch me and pull. I know I heard her screaming. There was a hand under each of my armpits and grunts and moans coming from behind me. I tried to use my limp limbs, but all I managed to do was feel an unbearable amount of pain and pass out.

I came to a few minutes later while I was on my hands and knees trying to get out the water. Finally panic set in. I had said my goodbyes, I had made peace with myself, but she made the choice not to lose. While our dogs watched our toddler, my wife faced the frigid waters and pulled me out. I was crying and screaming something I don't understand. I think I was trying to say, "get me out, get me out the water." I was in water no deeper than three inches at this point, but still it was more then I could handle.

With her help I managed to get my body on dry sand. I looked up and noticed the sky was beginning to turn dark blue and everything became black. I fell in the hole again. Pam tells me I was out for not more than two minutes. To me it felt like an eternity. I opened my eyes, I was able to think more clearly at this point and I began to try to move.

I was able to stand on my own two feet. It felt like I weighed two tons. I could barely lift my toes off the ground, but I moved. Grunting, drooling, watching everything around me spin, my heart beating easily over 200 beats per minute, I was able to walk. My breathing was still shallow, and I couldn't form words. I attempted to exert a little more energy to say something to my wife and that was the maximum my body could take and it shut down. I don't know if I had a heart attack or if that is just the feeling of your body shutting down in order to save the vessel. I truly have no clue. I felt this fire in my stomach, all my joints began to hurt all at once, my heart squeezed, it felt like something exploded in my head and I fell straight over. I was awake, my eyes were open, in my mind I was crying and screaming for help, but nothing would respond. I began to expel anything that was inside my body that wasn't attached to something. I laid there on the ground, not too far from my family, losing all control of my body and not being able to do anything about it. I felt shame.

Pam asked several times if there was something that she could do, I think I waved her back, either way she didn't step too close. My body laid there for the next 15 minutes until I began to feel my heart rate go below 170. Full of pain from cramped limbs, I got up from my sandy bed and walked into the water to rinse off. After 15 minutes of walking around, almost all my cramps were gone and we were making progress. The next 5 hours was uneventful. We walked over five miles in very soft sand, carrying our daughter and singing kids songs the entire way. No food, no water, no phones, no car keys, we finally got to NCO beach boardwalk and took the path. We sat on a bench for a few minutes to rest. Pam, the baby and the dogs stayed behind while I went to find a friend.

I found my friend, hopped in my Mazda that I had let him borrow two days earlier, grabbed Pam and the rest of our family. We got food and went home, but this doesn't end the story. We got home, ate and began the journey to retrieve the boat. Fortunately, we had turned on the "find my phone" feature on our phones and we were able to pinpoint the exact location of our boat. We contacted another friend to help us and within minutes he was at our home picking me up to go retrieve the boat.

My friend Brian and I hopped in his vehicle and headed down to the boat launch. We looked in a few places that looked similar to what I had seen on the GPS map and found our boat, untouched and unharmed in less than three hours.

It ended up being an extremely long day and the next day none of us had the energy to leave the house.

Here are the few lessons our family learned that day:
1. Never chase the boat.
2. If you leave the boat, take everything with you.
3. Take life jackets with you when you get off the boat. (Keep the spares in the boat.)
4. Always make sure the anchor is tied properly to the boat.
5. Two anchors are better than one.
6. Always bring a few pieces of warm clothing to the beach. (You never know when something may cause you to camp for the night.)
7. Never, ever play with boating equipment.

The next day, I realized what had caused the entire ordeal. When we left our original location, I had used our anchor to pull the boat to deep water. I had untied the anchor from the cleat, something I only do once the boat is on its trailer. When I dropped our anchor in the new location, it wasn't tied to anything and the moment we left the boat and started to walk in one direction, the boat was on a free ride in the other.