Gerry Goldstein: The two faces of our seductive but fickle sea

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Once again, in Newport and Narragansett, the sea has proven that while this is our first love amid all the natural beauty of the Ocean State, she is a wayward and treacherous mistress.

Three times in the past few weeks, a person has been blown off rocks in perilous waters. A lucky man survived when Narragansett firefighters used a jet ski to pull him out of the ocean off the famous Hazard Avenue. But two more died, one off Hazard and the other near Newport’s Rough Point, the estate once owned by tobacco heiress Doris Duke.

It’s a mere coincidence that Hazard Avenue seems aptly named; it was actually named after a 19th century philanthropist. Still, the rocky promontory lives up to the unintentional billing. Many have died over generations failing to recognize that our beloved ocean can be serene and unrepentant.

Gale force winds are natural to be wary of, but the unpredictable swells in Hazard can turn deadly at any time, suddenly wrapping around unsuspecting people and sucking them out to sea.

Once in the water, a victim is unlikely to climb over rocks covered with algae that harbor razor-like barnacles.

In my reporting days, I was often at work there, witnessing tragedy and despair, but also the courage of firefighters who risked their own lives to save others.

They once described the grief of watching a young mother staring at the boiling water for hours, hoping it would abandon her 11-year-old son. But the sea refused to do so.

Perhaps the most dramatic story of all took place in 1977, when a 22-year-old tried to save his mother when she was swept off the rocks. He ran to a nearby fisherman, tied the line – lure and everything – around his waist, and jumped off the rocks.

Little did he know the fisherman was a disabled Vietnam veteran with deep emotional scars.

It only took a few moments for the son to weaken, and 150 feet out of the water dragged him down. It left the horrified veteran, already crippled by withered trauma, to feel life ebb at the end of his line.

He tried to calm down, realizing that the recovery of the young man’s body might give the tragedy-stricken family a minimum of comfort. But the sea did not want it – the line broke, and mother and son were lost.

Thanks to the courage of the rescuers, there were happy endings. One windswept September night decades ago, a 12-year-old boy, a devout Jehovah’s Witness, slipped rocks of Hazard Avenue into the black water of the ocean.

He later recounted how he found in the faith the stamina to stay afloat for hours as rescuers shouted encouragement through megaphones and shined a spotlight on him. A Coast Guard boat maneuvered through dangerous currents to get him out.

The Sea of ​​Sirens is beautiful, calming and alluring. But after the recent Newport drowning, Fire Chief Brian Dugan offered an unromantic but valuable truth: “Don’t turn your back on the ocean.

Gerry Goldstein (gerryg76@verizon.net) is a retired Providence Journal editor and columnist.


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