On the first Saturday of August two years ago, I put a small brown towel around my neck and headed to the beach for my late afternoon swim. A modest paved street called Avenue de la Chapelle leaves the village and slopes gently and directly down to the beaches, but I like to go the long way, taking a footpath that heads to a rocky stretch of shore known as “the cliffs.” Walking the footpath is meditative for me. Time slips away, hiding among the brambles that crowd the stone walls lining the path. At the shore, stirred from my reverie by the sound of waves on rocks, I turn left onto a hiking trail, toward the beaches.
It was two hours after low tide, so the first beach was still dry. The second beach, known as Ty Bihan, is just a few minutes farther. To the west, a granite promontory guards the entrance to Plouharnel Bay. The beach’s fine grey sand stretches east for a few hundred yards, facing the Atlantic. (Ty Bihan is Breton for “small house,” so presumably there used to be a small house nearby.)
I could swim here, even close to low tide. The bottom drops away at a steeper angle than at neighboring beaches, so the water doesn’t run far.
It was the first day of the busiest part of high season — the first 15 days of August — when nearly all of France is on vacation. It was an exceptional summer for southern Brittany, with non-stop blue skies and a beating sun. I had never seen so many people frolicking in the water.
I left my belongings on the stone wall along the back of the beach, and found my way through the sun worshippers. I pushed away the thought of how I had felt after swimming the day before. After an extra effort to make landfall, I had staggered up onto the beach, weak with shortness of breath. The walk home had seemed remedy enough.
Clinging to the comfort of habit, I planned my usual back-and-forth swim, parallel to the beach. I started not too close to the rocky point. My goal was to the left, a line of buoys about 80 yards away. On this Saturday, it was so crowded in the water that I had to go out farther than usual before I started my traverse. Like many swimmers of a certain age, I’m more comfortable swimming on my back, often stopping to look around.
I picked a heading and started to swim. After a short time, I stopped to reconnoiter my position, using the tall pine trees behind the beach as reference. I was essentially in the same place where I had started.
I remembered how hard it had been to get back to the beach the day before, so I abandoned my usual swim and headed, diagonally, for land. In hindsight, perpendicular probably would have been better. I thought I was being smart, reducing the fight against the current.
The next time I stopped to check, I saw that not only had I made no progress, I was farther from the beach than ever. What a strange mix of emotions, to be worried and at the same time frustrated. The beach was not really that far away. But Ty Bihan’s steep bottom was sloping away from my feet, and I couldn’t touch bottom.
Also not far away was the rocky point, a barnacled, granite mess I had always respected with a wide berth. The barnacles are sharp and infectious. I swam toward it anyway. If the current wanted me there, so be it. At least there would be something to hold on to.
But the incoming tide wasn’t as interested in the rocks as I had hoped. It wanted to fill the bay. The current started to curve around the point and took me with it. It’s hard to say how much time elapsed, but in short order I was directly off the end of the rocky point. A few unmeasurable minutes before I arrived there, I started to have trouble breathing, like the day before, when I was already on the beach. It had gone away, and I had dismissed it. Now I was in the water, feeling winded and weak. I had barely enough energy to tread water, and with the little energy that remained, my brain rattled through a list of looming possibilities.
I decided to look down. Through the lovely, clean water, I could see the sandy bottom, sparkling clear, probably 12 feet beneath my feet.
After all these years coming to Brittany, how ignominious to end up in a heap down there.
Raising my head, I saw a young guy sitting out on the end of the point, facing me, listening on his headphones. He was about 20 or 30 yards away. I waved, realizing I would have to ask for help in French.
“Monsieur!” I found a breath to call out. “Vous pouvez m’aider?”
While he was dropping his headphones and taking off his shirt, I noticed that off to his right there were a few people on the rocks with a paddle board. He took off his shirt, but even from a distance I could see his look of despair. I pointed to the board.
“La planche! La planche!”
He got the idea, and started to call out to them. I thought they were a little too far away, and realized they would be paddling against the current.
I turned around, giving my range of vision one more scan. Quite far out, a small Zodiac was buzzing west, heading toward the bay. I waved some good, energetic waves. The boaters were paying attention, and cranked around toward me, stepping on the gas. I turned onto my back. It felt like there was a granite block on my chest, but I was sure my slow-motion strokes would keep me afloat until they got to me. When I glanced up to check their progress, I saw that they were lifeguards — a tall, sturdy fellow and a blond woman who also had a strong look about her, especially dressed, as he was, in a full wetsuit.
They pulled up alongside me, and just as I had learned in life saving lessons, the guy jumped in with his legs bent and spread, to stay on the surface, and twirled me around so he could put his arm diagonally across my chest. With just a couple short strokes, we were at the boat.
Now they had to get the old guy aboard, an effort akin to heaving a sack of potatoes onto a farm wagon. He pushed, and his colleague pulled me by the arms. My belly rubbed across the rubber gunwale, and I collapsed onto the boards along the bottom of the Zodiac. I was once again on my back, face to the wide, blue sky, already breathing a bit easier.
We headed straight for an adjacent beach, called St. Colomban, to a lifeguard station I walked past every time I went swimming. There are lifeguards at St. Colomban but not at Ty Bihan. I had taken this difference for granted, never thinking it would have anything to do with me.
We made landfall and my two wet-suited saviors were kind enough to let me walk up to the station under my own power. After a thorough examination, including an EKG right in the station, I was pronounced in good health. The weakness? Chalked up to hypothermia, or, I hate to say it, panic.
By the time we had reached the beach in the Zodiac, I knew Isabelle would consider me AWOL. And I soon realized I could not be released just because the station master had given me his stamp of approval. There was protocol to follow. Les pompiers, the firemen, had to come, driving an ambulance, with siren wailing.
The sirens worried Isabelle, so she set out to visit Ty Bihan, hoping to find me chatting with a friend on Avenue de la Chapelle, my usual return route from the beach.
I never take my phone to the beach, and I had never memorized Isabelle’s French number. I finally got the lifeguards to call her. We called her American phone, and sent an email. But she had left her American phone at home, and in her distress, the unusual email address looked like spam. Having seen no sign of me at Ty Bihan, she returned to the house.
I had arrived a few minutes earlier. The firemen had delivered me — as protocol requires — by ambulance. This time without the siren. I was just about to call her when she came through the garden gate. I remember the worried look on her face.
So… the moral of the story? I thought I could swim at Ty Bihan any time I wanted, because there is always water there. But to get away from the crowd, I had gone too far away from the beach. And it was two hours after low tide, when there’s a lot of water moving — much of it racing around the rocky point on its way into the bay. I had my own agenda, but the tide has its own, too, always trying to wrap itself around the moon.
Since that day two years ago, I’ve returned to swim at Ty Bihan only rarely. I go there at slack water, close to exact low tide or high tide, when there is no current. Most of the time, you’ll find me at St. Colomban Beach close to high tide, swimming back and forth in front of the lifeguards, with the flat bottom close beneath my feet.
* Driftin’ Too Far From Shore, by Bob Dylan, appeared on his album Knocked Out Loaded. (Not all of the lyrics are appropriate to my story, but a lot of them are!)
Photo: I took this picture at Ty Bihan last Wednesday morning, two hours after low tide. Beyond the rocky point is the entrance to Plouharnel Bay, and in the distance you can see the Quiberon Peninsula, which stretches over eight miles out into the ocean.
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