Everyone has a story of something they did once upon a time, which, in retrospect, was probably not a good idea. This is one such tale.
Flashback to the 1990’s. At that time, I was splitting an apartment in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with a friend named Ralph, who also enjoyed outdoor challenges. As such, every now and then, when the weather turned foul, we’d telephone a wave report recording, which detailed conditions present on Lake Michigan.
One stormy summer day, this report cited waves near Holland, Michigan, as high as 8-12 feet, including a stern recommendation to avoid coastal areas. Well, that was exactly what we were hoping to hear, and so quickly jumped into the car on a road trip to the south pier, demarcating the channel between Lake Michigan and Lake Macatawa. Thirty minutes later, we parked and continued our trek on foot through strong winds and rain, toward the pier.
This was a big storm, as whitecap waves crashed up and down the beach, surging far inland along the coastline. As we approached, it became apparent that roughly 20% of the pier was engulfed in waves at any given moment. This observation should’ve served as an omen not to proceed…
However, after an extensive discussion it was decided that, though obviously dangerous, our individual attributes of bravery, keen sense of observation and quick reactions, respectively, were sufficient to undertake the challenge: which was, to see who could traverse farthest along the pier?
Note: digital cameras didn’t exist on the market at that time, but I’ve included a few photographs taken many years later, which show the coastal landscape and piers:
Relative to the second image – which is actually an aspect of the other pier, to the north – the storm we faced was significantly stronger and with much larger waves. In point of fact, unlike the common and predictably wind-driven pattern of waves rolling in uniform rows, what we encountered was less organized and wild, with waves crashing from both the front and side directions.
Painted blue, bollards were positioned along the length of each pier. Were the situation to present itself where either one of us was unable to elude an oncoming wave, my friend suggested that the best course of action was to drop down onto the pier and secure oneself by clutching on to a bollard for safety.
And so began the challenge.
This endeavor was as difficult as it was foolish, as waves broke across the pier at essentially random intervals, all the time of which my eyes were glued on the water. Movement entailed both quick footsteps and brief sprints, scrambling on the concrete both forward and backwards in order to safely create space between potentially hazardous waves. It was a major adrenaline rush, to say the least.
I’d estimate that I was approximately 50-60% of the way out on the pier when it happened. I glanced back to check on my friend, only to see Ralph hunkered down and clinging for dear life to a bollard…as he was swept away by a huge wave, washing him over the other side of the pier toward the channel, down into the rocks.
I immediately moved back toward where he was, all the while watching over my shoulder to remain cognizant of approaching waves. From a distance of 15-feet away, I spotted Ralph among the rocks with only his head visible above water, and without a stronghold for safety. Glancing back once more, I then saw him suddenly disappear into a trough of shifting waters, sinking an estimated 5-feet among the rocks and vanishing, out of sight. There was nothing I could do to help him.
Then, only seconds later, the water crested, lifting Ralph up and out of that den of death, tossing him like driftwood on to the rocks, where he latched-on and was able to dash up the incline to the top of the pier.
We hightailed it back to shore as quickly as possible, never again to challenge such a storm as was experienced on that day.