CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 4 ARNULFO ASTORGA
10th Combat Aviation Brigade
Fort Drum, New York
After returning home from a year in Afghanistan, I couldn’t wait to take a nice, relaxing trip with family and friends. So, two weeks after redeployment/reintegration, we packed our bags, coolers and paddleboards and headed for the beach. There, we’d join three other families already enjoying the beautiful weather. Little did I know that this trip would be anything but relaxing.
Initially, we just hung out on the sand and watched the waves roll in. After a while, though, we decided to try some paddleboarding. We discussed several possible areas and eventually agreed on a location. We then grabbed our gear and headed out.
We were having a great time, but after about 40 minutes, the waters became too congested with other surfers, so we searched for other options. I spotted an empty area about 400 meters away that looked particularly inviting. I signaled to my buddies and asked if they’d like to join me. They looked toward the area but didn’t appear interested in coming along, so I took off by myself. That was my first mistake.
I quickly covered the distance to the new location and for at least the next 20 minutes enjoyed all the waves I wanted. Eventually, though, I was caught off guard by an unusually large wave and knocked off my board. Falling off your board is a part of paddleboarding, but this wave proved to be more powerful than any I had ever encountered. I was violently thrown into the water and my paddleboard leash was ripped from my leg.
I waited for the waves to settle before attempting to come up to the surface. When I did resurface, I was able to see my board drifting about 20 feet away before another wave took me back under. I was caught between waves, alone, about 600 meters from shore, without a lifejacket and disconnected from my board.
I then realized I was still clinging to my paddle. That was my second mistake. A paddle normally costs about $150 and I didn’t want to lose it, but I knew I couldn’t swim properly with it. Eventually, I ditched the paddle and started chasing my board.
Through it all, my buddies could still see me, but they didn’t realize I was in serious trouble. I struggled to stay calm and slowly made my way closer to my board. Each subsequent wave, however, pushed it farther away and knocked me back underwater. I swam for about 10 minutes before I finally reached my board, climbed on and caught my breath. For a split second, I thought about searching for my paddle but figured it wasn’t worth drowning.
Once safely back on shore, I realized the severity of my mistakes. I never should have attempted to go out alone. I could have drowned and nobody would have known until it was too late. I also should have checked my equipment before heading out to ensure everything was functional. That equipment check would have helped me identify weaknesses with the board leash and prompted me to replace it. Finally, and most importantly, I failed to wear a personal flotation device. I never should have gotten on my paddleboard without it, especially if I was that far out to sea.
I was lucky. My carelessness only cost me an expensive paddle. I could have lost my life.