CAPE ELIZABETH – I always liked Stevie Smith’s short poem, “Not Waving But Drowning,” because I identified with the irony of a person in trouble at sea being perceived as “larking” by those on shore.

I especially liked the refrain “I was much further out than you thought/And not waving but drowning,” as I thought it seemed to imply some self-knowledge on the swimmer’s part; perhaps even complicity.

Until it happened to me.

My friend Karen and I have known the Maine ocean for 25 years, sea-kayaking in Casco Bay, spending hours on the beaches at Pine Point, Ferry and Crescent.

We were always prudent, always careful and in control.

Until July 22, when the temperature reached 100 degrees in Portland.

Karen and I went to Pine Point beach in Scarborough.

We got there early, around 9:30 in the morning, about an hour and a half ahead of low tide.

That was important to us because we like to walk out across the sand bars exposed by low tide at the mouth of the Scarborough River.

It’s magical. You walk across the tightly ribbed sand, scored by the wash of the incoming and outgoing tide.

The sand ripples under your feet and at the end, way out near the mouth of the river, you reach that spot where the water crosses both ways, incoming and outgoing tides, incoming and outgoing river, a place where it seems you stand at the apex of the mighty Atlantic.

We go there whenever we can because we like to stand at the center of this part of our world.

We were very careful to make sure we knew exactly when the tide would turn (11:45 a.m.), both so we could catch the washover and so we would be on our way back across the sand bars well ahead of the incoming tide.

We regained our chairs. We ate lunch. There was a southern wind that felt like the Sirocco: humid, oppressive, searing.

After lunch, we went back in the ocean to cool off, walking straight out from our encampment into the water in front of us.

The tide was just turning, so the water was very shallow for hundreds of yards, a long walk out through knee-deep water, exceptionally warm.

We kept walking. We wanted to be able to get our shoulders under the cooling waves. There were lots of people around us, doing the same thing.

There were hundreds of people on the beach, some distance away as we walked farther out.

The water was so warm. We reached a spot where it was a little less than chest high and just floated back and forth, talking and dipping. It was heaven.

The sun beat down overhead, but if you kept getting wet, you couldn’t feel it. We talked and dipped for maybe half an hour. Maybe more. We were looking out to sea, our backs to the shore.

Suddenly, we both realized the water was rising, coming up to our shoulders.

We turned to the shore and saw no one was anywhere near us. Not only that, we were so far out! People on the beach were specks.

We laughed nervously and said we’d better get in because the tide was coming.

We struck out and within feet, it was apparent we had been standing on a sand bar, an extension of those off to our right at the mouth of the river, and between us and shore there was a trough of very deep water.

I panicked the moment I realized I couldn’t touch. Karen tells me she did the same. Suddenly, the soft, warm, comforting afternoon had turned into a matter of life and death.

I could see Karen off to my right, about 20 feet ahead of me. I’m not a strong swimmer. Immediately, I began to feel I couldn’t breathe, my legs felt heavy and I was flailing about.

I called out “Help!” but there was no one near to hear.

I swam all my silly strokes, breast, dog-paddle, side, and then flipped over onto my back to catch my breath.

Waves washed over my face. I turned over again and pulled as hard as I could. I kept pausing to see if I could touch. I could not. I did not think I could make it.

I panicked more. I kept calling “Help!” but my voice was weak and it was windy and while I could see hundreds of people on the beach and in the shallows very far away, none of them seemed to see me nor did they seem to hear me.

I kept looking over and seeing Karen plowing along ahead of me. It gave me hope. I could not catch my breath. My heart was pounding.

Then I saw a woman in the water about a hundred yards ahead of me. “Help me!” I croaked.

“I can’t,” she answered. “I can’t swim, but I’m standing and if you keep coming, you can get to me.”

“I can’t,” I sputtered. “I can’t do it. Help me!”

“Just keep coming,” she said. “You can do it.”

I was sure I was going to die. The water washed over my face. I gulped and tried to keep my head up. “Help me!” I implored her again.

“You’re almost here,” she answered. “Keep coming.”

And somehow I did. When I finally was able to touch a toe down on the bottom, I collapsed, only to have a wave wash up and over my head again.

I pushed forward and was able to stand up. Karen had come over from where she had landed and she and this angel of a woman without whose encouragement I would never have survived helped me to shore.

So we made it, Karen and I. We sat in our chairs on the hundred-degree beach and shook with fright and gratitude.

How could this have happened to us? To two cautious, tide-savvy Mainers?

We were stunned both by our stupidity and by our luck. When we caught our collective breaths, we felt if it could happen to us, it could happen to anyone.

Not us again. Never again.

– Special to the Press Herald