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HomeadventureDominical: Despite alarmed lifeguards, son’s drowning was not in the cards

Dominical: Despite alarmed lifeguards, son’s drowning was not in the cards

DOMINICAL, Puntarenas — Near-death experience? Pshaw. Jordan was nowhere near losing his life — just his pants.

But that didn’t stop two lifeguards from dashing along the beach toward him, and one from swimming out to check on him, after he was pummelled by a giant wave so powerful it pulled him underwater and rolled him over twice.

“So, spun over once, hard, spun over again, hard, grateful that I wasn’t close enough to shore that my body was striking the sand but disoriented because of how much force was used to spin me around and around,” Jordan recounted later, “I took a moment to figure out where up was, which I think I did by a combination of looking to the light and feeling gravity tugging down at me, but there’s a sense of weightlessness that makes it difficult to tell where up is sometimes.”

Playa Dominical
Karl Kahler/The Tico Times

It was a moment of unexpected drama on Wednesday, the first full day of my older son’s unexpected return to Costa Rica after his visit in August. Jordan Kahler, 25, graduated from Berkeley Law in May, took the bar exam in July, found out he passed in November, and four days later was hired as a deputy district attorney in Santa Clara County, California.

This gave him one month off in December, between his clerkship at the same office and the start of his career as a prosecutor. Vacations would be rare after this, as most new prosecutors bank their vacation, sometimes for years, to avoid forcing others to handle all their cases.

View from Pacific Edge.
Karl Kahler/The Tico Times

To Jordan this added up to a single imperative: Go back to Costa Rica to visit his dad now, while he can, because this opportunity won’t arise again soon.

So on Tuesday night I picked him up at the airport, we had a happy reunion, and on Wednesday we got in the Blue Demon and headed for the Pacific Edge Hotel in Dominicalito, a place I chose as a stopping point en route to Drake Bay, where we would be going Thursday.

Pool at Pacific Edge.
Karl Kahler/The Tico Times

Pacific Edge, built 25 years ago and still operated by George and Susie Atkinson, turned out to be a charming four-cabin complex with stunning views of the coast from the swimming pool, the decks and hammocks in front of every cabin and the two elevated observation platforms. The all-wood cabins are rustic but elegant, featuring kitchenettes, good ceiling fans and safes, and the bedspreads and curtains are made by Susie from colorful Guatemalan fabric.

Our room at Pacific Edge.
Karl Kahler/The Tico Times

Susie also supports the local Boruca indigenous group by selling their hand-crafted and beautiful painted masks and woven objects at great prices, and I couldn’t resist buying a colorful Boruca mask for $45 — the start of my Christmas shopping.

Boruca masks.
Karl Kahler/The Tico Times

Then Jordan and I drove into Uvita to visit an ATM and a grocery store, and while we were at it I gave him a lesson in how to drive a stick shift. Jordan is a good driver but has always driven an automatic, and it turned out that driving a manual was no more intuitive to him at 25 than it was to me when I first learned how to drive one in Arkansas at 14.

Jordan stalled the Blue Demon several times, and with other cars piling up behind him at a simple right-hand turn, and then going around him, I could tell that the sweat beading on his face was not just a result of the humid heat.

View from Pacific Edge in Dominicalito.
Karl Kahler/The Tico Times

But Jordan did manage to drive us back to our hotel in Dominicalito from Uvita, the last stretch on a steep uphill gravel road in 4-wheel drive and first gear. (Dad: “Go fast enough that you don’t lose momentum, but not fast enough to spin out on the rocks.”)

Jordan climbed the hill expertly, without using the clutch once. But when he had to stop on the uphill so I could open the gate at the hotel, he found it extremely challenging to make the car go uphill from a dead stop. Knowing the degree of difficulty of this task, I took over from there.

A white-faced monkey at Pacific Edge.
Karl Kahler/The Tico Times

After we chilled our purchases from the store in our convenient minifridge, Jordan suggested that we go swimming in the ocean before we made our way to dinner at the restaurant recommended by Susie, the Porqué No at the Hotel Costa Paraíso (which would turn out to be outstanding).

Jordan takes in the view at the Por Que No? restaurant in Dominical.
Karl Kahler/The Tico Times

So we changed into bathing suits and drove to the beach in Dominical. This is a cool little surfer town where the beachfront road (in the process of being paved with brick) is full of stands selling clothes, food and souvenirs.

We parked the car at the end of the road and walked to a place where there were other people in the water (though all of them were either surfers or waders or splashers; no swimmers).

We found two gigantic pieces of what you might call driftwood — basically fallen trees, though weathered smooth by the wind and the waves, and here I volunteered to sit and watch our stuff while Jordan got wet in the ocean.

I’ll let Jordan take over from here, in a verbal account I recorded on my phone over dinner afterwards.

Jordan looking none the worse for wear after a dip in some rough surf at Dominical.
Karl Kahler/The Tico Times

“At first the waves were very small, because the water was so shallow, so I swam past them or let them roll over me, and as I swam deeper, I started to notice that there were surfers in the water, and I wanted to be careful. My principal concern was that I did not want to be closer ashore than the surfers and force them to surf around me….

“And I was concerned that I was bothering them or that otherwise I might be in their way, because I noticed that I was starting to draw looks from them. Their faces were turned towards me; I couldn’t see their expressions, but I was wondering what was going through their heads — probably ‘Where is his surfboard? What is he doing? Only surfers come out this far.’

“I didn’t realize why this might be the case until I’d made it out past the breakers so that there were no waves anymore, just placid water, rising and falling around me, and what was formerly shallow was now so deep that when I dove and swam down … I couldn’t find the bottom anymore.

“And I returned back to the surface, grateful and feeling free and surrounded by water in all directions, and I looked back at this half-crescent of bay with the trees moving and the sun was setting, just impossibly beautiful.”

By this time, having lost sight of Jordan, I jumped up onto the fallen tree, which took two or three tries because the upper branch was head-high, and I had to jump onto it stomach first and then wriggle up the rest of the way. I actually developed a spot of blood on my chest from the effort, which hurt a bit for some time afterward, but it seemed a small price to pay to check on whether Son One was still alive.

Jordan said he actually spotted me standing me on this branch, and this was what made him decide to come back.

“I looked back perpendicular to the shore and I saw the little branch with a little man on it, shading his eyes, facing toward the sea,” he said, “and I thought, oh my gosh, he looks like he’s on a widow’s walk, pacing back and forth, waiting for the son to return from sea.”

“Or the body to wash up,” I said.

(There’s a joke about Jewish pride in their offspring’s accomplishments: A Jewish woman on the beach looking out to sea starts screaming: “Help! My son the doctor is drowning! MY SON THE DOCTOR IS DROWNING!!” I could just picture myself screaming, “Help! My son the lawyer is drowning! MY SON THE LAWYER IS DROWNING!!”)

Back to Jordan: “And I thought, well, I’m enjoying myself out here in this tranquil water, but Dad should get a chance to swim, and he obviously thinks I’ve drowned, or he wouldn’t be looking out towards the ocean. And it’s not going to do any good calling to him, but I’ll swim back now.”

So he did.

“And then I started coming back. And as I did, one of the surfers was a little bit close to me, he was coming out, swimming on his board, and he said something to me, I thought it was a pleasantry, I said, ‘Hello!’ and he said, ‘Are you OK?’ in English, and I said, ‘Yeah, I’m great!’ He said, ‘Oh, OK,’ a little hesitantly. And I swam past him and I thought, I wonder what I’m doing that makes him wonder if I’m all right. I certainly feel OK. And I looked back towards this guy, and I didn’t see him.

“What I saw was a wall of water that had risen up behind me, and it towered over me, and the water beneath had fallen away, dropped down, so that it felt like this great wall of water that was about to engulf me. And I knew that as hard as I swam forward, I was not going to be able to keep pace and stay up. So I prepared myself mentally to be taken by this thing. And boy, was I taken.

“I took a deep breath, I closed my eyes, I put my arms out in front of me in a diving posture facing forward toward the shore, and the wave took me from behind and launched me forward. And at first there was this incredible sensation of velocity as I was thrust toward shore like a bullet, but now with my eyes closed because I knew I was about to be in the water. Soon I was.

“And I felt myself start to turn. I realized I wasn’t going to stay oriented the way that I started. And I went over hard. And I felt my bathing suit pulled down hard around my ankles, and I remember thinking, oh, I hope I don’t lose it, picturing the walk back to shore.

“And I distinctly remember being unable to kick the way that I usually kick because my legs were tangled together,” he said. “So flopping my legs like a mermaid or a fish with my ankles together, and using my arms to pull myself up to the surface, I breached and took in a deep breath of air, and then went back down below the water as the waves came overhead, righted my wardrobe malfunction, returned to the surface again, breathed deeply, and began the slow process of swimming into shore.”

This is when I saw a barefoot lifeguard with a flotation device running in front of me on the rocky beach, left to right, toward where Jordan presumably was. I wondered what was going on, but incredibly, I could not connect this to Jordan, because how could some random lifeguard have even spotted him?

“And that was the most nerve-wracking part, was feeling that every stroke forward that I made towards the shore, as the waves broke, they would pull back towards the ocean, as the wave came forward to push me forward,” Jordan said. “And so I would feel myself pulled back further out and then thrust forward by the wave and then pulled back and then thrust forward by the wave. And there was an eerie moment where I wondered if I was making forward progress, since the beach was far enough away that it was difficult to get a landmark.

“But I looked toward the forked tree where I had started, and that looked a little bit bigger than when I had started, and that was encouraging, so I kept swimming, pushing hard along the surface, keeping my head up above water. And a lifeguard came out and asked me, ‘Are you OK?’ And I said, ‘I’m great!’ He said, ‘It’s very dangerous to swim here! There’s a rip current.’ I said, ‘OK, I’m going in.’ And I pointed to him that I was going in toward shore. And he said, ‘OK,’ with a long look toward me, like he was making sure that I was all right.

“And soon I was able to touch the bottom again with the tips of my toes, and bouncing up and down a little bit, bounding and swimming, bounding and swimming, so that I was striding along the sand, walking back along shore, experiencing a little bit of vertigo, but feeling very triumphant and grateful for a day at the beach.”

I laughed and said I was grateful Jordan had survived this adventure, because I had gotten a little worried when I saw him so far out to sea, and then couldn’t see him at all. I told him of course I would have plunged into the ocean to try to save him if I knew he was in trouble and knew where he was.

But I didn’t know he was in trouble, and I didn’t know where he was, and if I dove into the ocean looking for him, the chances were good that I would drown while Jordan ambled safely back to shore.

“That would suck,” I said, “for you, but of course also for me.”

“That would be a sad trip to Costa Rica,” said Jordan. “For one, because I’d have a hell of a time working that clutch to get up the hill.”

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Contact Karl Kahler at


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