Once again, in both Newport and Narragansett, the sea has proven that while it’s our first love amid all the natural beauty in the Ocean State, it’s a capricious and treacherous mistress.
Three times in recent weeks, a person has been swept from the rocks into perilous waters. One lucky man survived when Narragansett firefighters used a jet ski to pluck him from the ocean off notorious Hazard Avenue. But two others died, one off Hazard and the other near Newport’s Rough Point, the estate once owned by tobacco heiress Doris Duke.
It‘s mere coincidence that Hazard Avenue seems aptly named; it actually was named after a 19th Century philanthropist. Still, the rocky promontory lives up to the unintentional billing. Many have died over the generations for want of recognizing that our beloved ocean can be dispassionate and remorseless.
It’s natural to be wary when gales blow, but the unpredictable swells at Hazard can turn deadly anytime, coiling suddenly around the unsuspecting and sucking them out to sea.
Once in the water, a victim has little chance of climbing out over seaweed-slick rocks that harbor razor-like barnacles.
In my news reporting days, I was often on the job there, witnessing tragedy and despair, but also the courage of firefighters who risked their own lives to save others.
They once described the heartbreak of watching a young mother stare for hours at the roiling water, hoping it would give up her 11-year-old son. But the sea refused to do it.
Perhaps the most dramatic story of all played out in 1977, as 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 all – around his waist, and leaped off the rocks.
He didn’t know the angler was a disabled Vietnam veteran with deep emotional scars.
It took just moments for the son to weaken, and 150 feet out the waters drew him down. This left the horrified veteran, already disabled by withering trauma, to feel a life ebbing away at the end of his line.
He tried to reel in, realizing that recovery of the young man’s body might give the tragedy-struck family a modicum of comfort. But the sea would not have it – the line snapped, and both mother and son were lost.
Thanks to the bravery of rescuers, there have been some happy endings. One windswept September night decades ago, a 12-year-old boy, a devout Jehovah’s Witness, slipped off the Hazard Avenue rocks into the black ocean water.
He later recounted how he found in faith the endurance to stay afloat for hours while rescue workers shouted encouragement through bullhorns and trained searchlights on him. A Coast Guard boat maneuvered through dangerous currents to lift him out.
The siren sea is beautiful, soothing, and seductive. 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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a retired Providence Journal editor and columnist.