It was one of those mysteries that sparks daydreams about heaven: the blue wallet my friend Jackie lost and that her husband, Keith, returned to her – years after he had died. I especially think of Jackie and Keith and the missing wallet in the summers when we make annual pilgrimages to the coast because it was during the beach holiday season that my friend Keith lost his life in ocean rip currents. What happened to Keith reminds me that our love for the ocean must be accompanied with knowledge of ocean safety, too.
The U.S. Lifesaving Association reports that “80 percent of surf beach rescues are attributed to rip currents.” At Carolina beaches, the National Weather Service has documented 7 surf zone fatalities in 2019, and 6 of the 7 deaths were because of rip currents. This is also what happened to my friend Keith and we could not have been more surprised because Keith was an avid swimmer, accustomed to swimming in ocean currents.
However, when the right wave, tide and beach conditions exist, the combination can create life-threatening conditions that even an Olympic swimmer could not out-swim. Take Michael Phelps, for instance. Rip currents can reach speeds greater than 8-feet-per-second. Phelps, one of the best swimmers in the world, might reach speeds of approximately 4.27-feet-per-second, less than half the speed of some rip currents. In other words, even Michael Phelps could not out-swim a rip current.
To get out of a rip current, do not attempt to out-swim or fight a rip tide. Instead, as geoscientist Chris Houser writes, swim “in a direction that follows the shoreline,” and “then swim back to the shore once you are clear (of the riptide). If you can’t escape the current, float, or tread water until the current stops; then swim back to shore. If you are still unable to reach shore, wave your arms and call for help.” The National Weather Service, the Rip Tide Awareness website, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association provide online resources about how to spot rip tides, how to break free of rip tides, and how to identify dangerous weather, ocean and tide conditions.
Several years after Keith’s death, his widow Jackie received a call from a construction company working in Charlotte, three hours away from Jackie’s home. Inside the walls of a building, a construction worker had found Jackie’s blue wallet. How the wallet had found its way to the inner walls of an abandoned building that neither Keith nor Jackie had ever visited, no one knows.
But the mystery of Jackie’s wallet really started years earlier, one summer day when Jackie realized she couldn’t find her wallet. The couple searched for the missing wallet but without success, and, finally, they blamed their dog “Chief” as the likely culprit. Still, the lost wallet would remain an unsolvable mystery, and Jackie and Keith had joked for years about the missing wallet, promising that whoever reached heaven first would send a message back to the other spouse about the wallet’s fate. You can imagine Jackie’s surprise at the news of the blue wallet and her astonishment that the wallet contained all its original contents.
Jackie likes to think the wallet was Keith’s “message” from the other side, and she may be right, but the blue wallet reminds me of another lesson also – that being knowledgeable about ocean safety may save a life. Jackie’s grandsons are well trained in surf safety. They like to play at the tide’s edge while Jackie watches them from her vantage point under the beach umbrella. The boys are sculpting sandcastles decorated with white shells and the fallen feathers of sea birds. In the right light, the water is as blue as Jackie’s wallet.