Out Alive: Swept Out to Sea

Greg Barnes, 28, was swept out to sea on March 30, 2015, while on a hike near Pagat Cave, Guam.

Photo: Jacob Maentz / Corbis Documentary via Getty

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I was hiking with Sam and Kyle, both students in my youth group, to show them a cliff where you could feel the sea spray on your face. I knew the area could be dangerous, but I’d hiked the 1.5 miles to Pagat Cave and beyond to the nearby cliffs many times since I’d come to Guam four years earlier to be a youth minister.

We sat in the sun and watched the waves hurl themselves against the rough volcanic rock. They were smashing spectacularly, but not unlike I’d seen before. I figured it was safe enough to go closer. I crept to the edge, Kyle right behind me, to feel the salty mist. I found a seat-shaped depression with holes for my feet and rigid holds for my hands. When Kyle came down, I looked around but there was no other spot as comfortable, so I gave him mine. He settled in and I moved a few feet over where the smooth rock had no holds. Sam stood farther back, phone poised to take a video.

Sam laughed as the froth licked up and touched our faces a couple of times. Then a monstrous wave reared up before us. We braced ourselves. Seawater surged over our heads. The water was so loud I couldn’t hear anything else. I felt myself starting to slide.

Greg Barnes
Greg Barnes (Photo by Erin B. Miller)

Grab onto a rock! Grab onto a rock! I thought to myself, but there was nothing there. The water slurped me off the cliff and forced me under. The salt stung my eyes. I grasped but felt nothing solid beneath me—no rocks, no shoreline. No safety.

The waves spat me up for a moment, maybe 25 feet from shore, and I screamed for help. I could hear the boys yelling, but couldn’t make out a word.

I shut my burning eyes and swam hard for the cliffs. I’m not a strong swimmer but I tried anyway, battling the warm water with a breaststroke. But when I paused to gauge my heading, I realized the sea had sucked me even farther out. I was about 100 feet from shore.

All I wanted was for the boys to come in and somehow save me, but I knew they would have both died trying. I started swimming for shore one more time before I stopped and thought, This is what a panicked person would do. One hundred feet out and fighting against a relentless tide, I knew better. I felt so alone.

When I first came to Guam from New York, I was terrified of deep water, of losing my footing on the reef and feeling out of control. I forced myself to overcome the fear, snorkeling and then diving, and I knew from my scuba training that panicking was about the worst thing I could do.

Instead, I kicked the way they taught in scuba training—with straight legs and minimal effort. I faced the 15-foot waves and tried to stay on top of them. No group of hikers would come by to save me. Any boats out that day would be near the port on the other side of the island.

“God!” I yelled above the waves, “God, if it is not your will for me to die this way, send a helicopter!”

No helicopter came. After about 30 minutes, I started to lose hope. I was so tired. The sea was dragging at my legs, my shoes, my clothes, with the relentlessness of gravity.

I tried to hold onto the idea of a helicopter, but as the waves came and pushed me under, death seemed more likely than rescue. And wasn’t it useless to keep treading water, to keep fighting what was inevitable?

I thought about giving in, going under, getting it over with. But then I would think, What if help is right over the ridge? What if a helicopter came just as I was going down? I also couldn’t help but think that if I went under and if somehow my body was found and the autopsy showed that it was self-inflicted, my teenagers would forget everything I had taught them about the value of suffering and the strength to be found in it. They would know I was a hypocrite.

I kept praying, out loud, over the waves, interrupted by mouthfuls of saltwater. Whenever the thought of the helicopter came back and I saw there was no one there, I wanted to let go. I’d been in the water for more than an hour, but the instinct to survive is so much stronger than the instinct to end suffering.

And then I saw it. It wasn’t a news helicopter or a weather helicopter. This was a fully outfitted chopper from the naval base.

I tried to wave, but my muscles were so spent, raising my arm forced my head underwater. It took everything I had just to come back up.

The helicopter buzzed overhead—then kept on going.

I made myself believe it would make a second sweep. My swim trunks were orange—the brightest thing I had. I wrenched them over my hiking boots when I saw the chopper coming back around.

I raised the shorts to the surface, but that was all I could manage. Waterlogged and heavy, they were too cumbersome to use as a flag. Again, the chopper passed.

I let the shorts sink and realized my shirt was dark blue, same as the ocean around me. I tore it off and let it fall away.

Naked now, I floated on my back to make myself more visible, my body pale in contrast to the darker ocean. When the helicopter came by again, I waved, moving my arms and legs as if I were making a snow angel.

Rescue Swimmer
Rescue swimmer Ryan Kenne (Photo by Erin B. Miller)

Again the chopper vanished, and again, I turned to face the waves, resigned to another eternity of fighting to stay above them.

A noise rose above the swish and crash of the water. It grew louder, and I soon recognized the whirring of helicopter blades.

The crew had seen me. But as relief surged through me, so did exhaustion. I motioned for them to come down fast; I didn’t know if I could stay afloat much longer.

I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to see a rescue diver spit out his snorkel just long enough to ask me if I was OK. He went under to secure a harness. Thank you God, thank you Jesus, I thought. (And thank Kyle and Sam, I later learned.)

And then I was in the air, looking down at the waves that had just been big enough to kill me, suddenly seeming small and placid with distance. Who knows how I’m going to die, I thought, but at least I’m not going to die today. What an amazing thought!

My pastor back home has a saying: “If it’s too expensive, too difficult, or too impossible, it’s probably God.”

I now know what he means. I shouldn’t have made it an hour and a half in that water, in that swell. It’s a miracle, I thought, as I lay on the floor of the helicopter, vomiting seawater, inbound to safety.

Key Skills: Water Safety

1. Prevent self-inflicted trouble. Check the tide tables and weather before you leave, paying special attention to nearby storms.

2. Tumble with style. Picked up by a wave? Clasp hands over your head and draw in elbows and knees. Stay compact until you either find your footing or feel yourself swept out of reach of any rocks.

3. Stay calm. Panicky breaths are inefficient and energy-draining. Instead, breathe deeply through your mouth.

4. Tread softly. Make smooth circles with your hands and avoid energetic, jerky arm movements. As for the legs: learn the eggbeater kick, the favorite of water polo players, or opt for a scissor kick with slightly bent knees. Calves and ankles, not powerful thighs, are better suited to endurance.

5. Strip. If the water’s warm, ditch your shoes and pants—they’re an exhausting source of drag. Got trousers with tie-able legs? Watertight boots? Fill them with air and upend them to buoy you. Keep on brightly colored or billowing clothing that could hold air.

6. Seek a weaker current. Don’t fight the current. Swim perpendicular to it until its pull lessens, then swim inland.

Originally published in 2015; updated in 2021