I’m the Sea King’s Daughter

Six weeks ago, I almost drowned.

I was alone in the vast, mysterious wetness of the Atlantic Ocean. I’d never felt so small.

I was so far from shore that the Labor Day tents faded into one bright, distant smear across the sand.

I was so focused, I never noticed tourists grouping into a tight knot of alarm.

I kept swimming, despite the shock of cold water that brushed my toes with every kick. After a time, I floated. Then I went under again.

Eventually, someone called Emergency Medical Services. Two first responders tore down the beach on official black ATVs. They kicked up wild arcs of sand in their rush to save my life.

As for me, I was past the point where anyone could hear me scream for help.

…or wait.

Flip that.

Maybe they couldn’t hear me because I never screamed.

The Bogue Inlet Pier (Emerald Isle, North Carolina)

You know those stupid BuzzFeed quizzes? The ones with titles like, “What Mythical Creature Are You?” Well, I’m a mermaid, every time.

I was raised on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. I went to school on the mainland, but every weekend was sacred. We went to the beach.

To this day, I’m so connected to the ocean that I have a ritual I perform as soon as I set foot near any shoreline. I sprint down to the water’s edge, dip my right index finger in the surf, and trace a heart on my forehead.

Some people prefer their ash crucifixes. I crave salt on my skin.

In those days, my father was my ultimate hero. Ever notice how, in The Little Mermaid, King Triton was just overwhelmingly strong and noble? Remember how he sacrificed himself to take Ariel’s place as a prisoner, because he loved his daughter more than anything in the world?

I saw that movie when I was five. We lived at the coast. My dad was the Sea King in my eyes.

My father’s legend only grew the first time I saw him swim beyond the end of the Bogue Inlet Pier. That pier reaches exactly 1,000 feet into the ocean. It stretches so far, skimming above the briny deep, that fisherman catch sharks out at its tip.

One day, my father said, “Stay here, Jenn. I’ll be right back.”

He stretched his tanned arms to the sun, threw himself into the water, and pulled his lithe, strong body across the surface of the waves. He swam so far out, I could barely track his head as it passed the last row of wooden posts.

I never worried. I sat there and made sand castles.

No one else on the beach worried either. They must have known my father was the Sea King.

Now, back to six weeks ago.

These days, when my husband and I return to my island, we always stay in a friend’s vacation home. It’s strange to cross the bridge over Bogue Sound and know I won’t be sleeping in the bedroom where I grew up. My parents sold their house three years ago to come live closer to me, which is generally wonderful.

What isn’t wonderful is my father’s health. Long story short, he’ll never swim again. The man who could once hold his breath for two full minutes now slumps in a chair and watches maritime nature shows.

At the end of the holiday weekend, with my father in mind, I snuck down to the beach alone. My husband was packing our car when I told him I needed one more swim, and he promised to keep our friends occupied. I flip-flopped across the weathered boardwalk, dropped my towel, and sprinted to the shore.

For the first time in my life, I was going to swim past the end of the pier.

Yes, I knew there might be sharks. But they normally don’t bother people. And, with each stroke toward my goal, I believed more firmly in the cleansing power of a calculated risk.

And yes, I knew the ocean could be fickle. But I understand how to evade riptides; what to do if a cramp attacks. In honor of my father, that day, I chose life over fear.

So… how did we arrive at almost drowning?

Everything I described at the start of this story is true. It just got twisted a bit.

I swam, slow and focused, until I felt frigid water stirring beneath me. When I passed the tip of the pier, I took a break to float and savor the sensations I wished my father could feel. For sixty of the most peaceful seconds of my life, I floated in the arms of the ocean and cried.

Then I turned toward land. I was triumphant, ready to face three more months of full-time work and graduate school and visits to my parents’ house to rub my father’s shoulders while he moans in pain. I could do that now. As I stroked steadily toward shore, I felt alive, and strong, and…

Why are those surfers paddling straight for me?

I’d been so busy counting the legs of the pier, marking my progress toward shore, that I never noticed the crowd clustered on the sand. What I’d presumed were playful shouts between two surfers were really the worried calls of the men who’d come to “rescue” me.

“Miss? Miss! Are you OK?!”

“Me? Yeah, I’m fine!”

“But… you were so far out there. We thought you were in trouble!” — “Yeah! My gran even called EMS!”

“Oh. Oh, wow. Well… thank you for trying to save me. If I had been drowning, you would both be heroes. But, you can see I’m not, so… should we go the rest of the way in?”

In the most surreal ten minutes of my life, I reached land and walked out of the surf like a less graceful Bo Derek. Wringing water from my hair, I assured the members of a large and scandalized family reunion that I was, indeed, fine. I greeted the paramedics with an awkward wave when they arrived seconds later.

“My name is Jennie Saia. Yes, I’m fine. Yes, I know the date. It’s Labor Day, 2014. Really, truly… I was never in danger. It was all a misunderstanding.”

I’ve never had to prove that I was in my right mind before.

And that’s where this story leaves me… wondering what the word “right” even means in this case. I was right about my ability to swim deep. My would-be rescuer’s gran was right to call EMS if she was worried. (Better safe than sorry.)

But gran’s husband, who scolded me in front of dozens of strangers for “scaring his wife”?

That man was NOT right.

He grumbled that no one should swim out so far alone, especially not a girl. It didn’t matter when I told him I was a local or assured him I was a strong swimmer. Eventually, I just said I was sorry and hoped the rest of his day would be much less exciting.

But, looking back now, here’s what I wish I’d said:

Have you heard of Diana Nyad, sir? She swam from Havana to Key West without a shark cage.

Have you heard of Gertrude Ederle, Queen of the Waves? She crossed the frigid waters of the English Channel alone.

Have you heard of Lynne Cox? She set a world record for distance swimming before she turned 17. Once, she swam with a lost baby whale and helped it find its mother.

Yes sir, it turns out women can swim deep.

So thank you for trying to help, but no thanks to the lecture.

Because there’s just one more thing. You’re not from here, so you might not have known…

I’m the Sea King’s daughter.