Charlie Souby was wading in the shallows at Kalihiwai Beach and was doing fine — until he had an idea.
Turned out, a very bad idea.
“I’m going to go over there,” he said, as he recounted how he decided to swim across the bay to what looked like calm waters on Sunday.
That decision nearly became a fatal mistake for the California resident who found himself swept out to deep waters and left thinking, “Am I going to die?”
But the response of a woman named Lola on a surfboard, a man who swam out to help, and several other surfers on the beach who joined the makeshift operation, saved him.
“If that’s indicative of the surf community, that’s a pretty powerful group of people,” Souby said, a day before he left Kauai to return home.
Several days after the rescue, a still shaken Souby stopped by The Garden Island to share his story. He wanted to give credit to those who rallied to him when his life was on the line.
“Just tell her how incredibly grateful I am that she was there and she went to all that effort to help me,” he said. “I’m really grateful she would risk her safety, and not just her, but the other guy who swam out.”
It started how most such incidents start on Kauai. The water didn’t appear to be particularly dangerous at Kalihiwai. No big waves, and Souby was just wading in shallow water for a few minutes, enjoying the view like he always does on his annual trips to the island. Others, including surfers, were around on the beach on a cloudy, cool morning.
He looked across the bay and liked what he saw, peaceful waters a short swim away. So off he went, nice and relaxed.
“It looked more swimmable over there,” he said.
Not for long.
“I got caught in a riptide, and I couldn’t swim out of it,” he said. “All of the sudden where I was, every time I could feel sand under my feet, then bam, a wave would come.”
He tried swimming vertically, diagonally — nothing worked. It didn’t help that he’s not a strong swimmer and isn’t in the best of shape.
“I couldn’t get out of the thing I was in,” Souby said. “At a certain point, I was exhausted. I was calling to the beach, no one could hear me. I was waving, no one could see me.”
He knew he was in trouble. Even as he recalled the moments as he trod water, often catching waves in his face and swallowing water, it was frightening.
“It haunts me still,” he said.
That’s when a woman on a surfboard suddenly appeared to his right. Out of nowhere. Souby never saw her coming his way.
“I couldn’t believe I was looking at her. I went from thinking ‘Am I going to die’ to ‘Is this really happening?’”
She stopped short of where he was and asked if he could swim to her and he said he couldn’t.
“It was like I had no physical will anymore,” he said.
At the same time, he worried he had endangered the surfer who came to help. The situation, he realized, might have been worse than he thought since she asked him to swim to the board.
“I hope I’m not risking her life,” he thought.
So the woman, whose name he later learned was Lola, came toward him. Souby grabbed the board and pulled himself up, which is when another man arrived after swimming out to help. He and the woman got Souby on the board, he doesn’t quite remember how, and got him to the beach.
“They got me on the sand, I could not move. They had to carry me up,” Souby said.
He was fighting to breathe. He felt he was passing in and out of consciousness.
“I thought I was going to die,” he said. “I was in a state where I didn’t feel safe, even when I was on land.”
Again, surfers were his saviors.
In a groggy state, barely able to open his eyes, Souby said four or five surfers were massaging him, bringing him back, helping him get air into his lungs. He heard voices around him.
“One woman kept saying, ‘We love you, hang in there.’”
Soon, paramedics and an ambulance arrived. They gave him oxygen and rushed him to Wilcox Medical Center, where he spent eight hours recovering.
Three days later, he was back to normal, feeling good, glad to be alive. He said it was a mistake to try and swim that morning, adding he had angioplasty about four years ago and “it’s slowed me up.”
Souby, a writer and actor, plans to pen a story about what happened.
He estimated, start to finish, he was in the water that day about 30 minutes.
“Really, it’s hard to remember it all,” he said.
Despite nearly drowning, Souby vows to continue to return to Kauai, a place he first visited nearly 20 years ago. He’s especially fond of the North Shore.
“There’s a certain spirit, a power, that keeps pulling me here,” he said.
“Hopefully, I’ll be coming back soon,” Souby said. “My goal is to live here.”
He’ll be OK. As long as there are surfers around.