Lost at Sea

Six hours is an awful lot of time to be bobbing around — aimlessly and alone — in the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean, but that’s exactly what happened to an Australian scuba diver on Tuesday, July 5. He was with a group of divers at Althea Wreck, about 35 nautical miles from the Bundaberg coast. Forty meters beneath the surface lies the wreckage of a trawler that sank in 1991 and now serves as a favorite spot for an array of marine life — including groupers, bull rays and trevally … an enticing adventure for experienced divers.

Although the weather was quite fair that Tuesday, Jacob Childs and his group of divers were struggling with a powerful undercurrent. At the point when he surfaced alongside the boat, the tagline was already out of his reach, and within a few short moments, the powerful current put a distance of miles between him and the boat. Later, when his absence was noted, the Australian water police launched a massive search for him. Like searching for a needle in a haystack, neither the search boats nor the circling helicopters were able to locate Childs, who must have been awfully frustrated, as he could, indeed, see the helicopter. Childs had a camera with him and filmed what he thought was going to be his last message. His words were, more or less, “Sundown is coming and then they aren’t going to be able to do a thing … that’s a wrap for old Jakey.”

Amazingly, Childs seemed completely calm throughout his ordeal. According to Sergeant Rob Jorna — who headed the search operation — it was precisely that calm, born of Childs’ extensive sea experience, that was crucial to his being rescued. “He knew what to do,” said Jorna. “He didn’t panic and he did all the right things.” Childs’ wetsuit kept him warm, his flotation device prevented him from being overcome by exhaustion, and its large orange appendage is what enabled the helicopter crew to eventually spot him. Even the thought of spending the night floating solo in the Pacific didn’t particularly faze Childs. In his words, “If you’ve got to do it, you’ve got to do it.”

This item brought to mind another story of survival at sea, albeit one which took place about 1,800 years earlier and did not involve an experienced scuba diver. Within the general discussion of agunos, Chazal address drowning situations. Seeing someone get lost at sea — if you cannot see the borders thereof from all sides — is not sufficient grounds to assume he is dead and allow his wife to remarry. In support of this, the Gemara[1] records a fascinating anecdote related by Rabban Gamliel:

“One time, when I was in the midst of a sea journey, I saw another boat that collapsed and sank into the ocean. My distress over the sight was extremely acute because Rabi Akiva was on board that boat. However, when I returned to terra firma, he appeared and participated in the halachic discourse! I said to him, ‘My son, who extracted you from the water?’ ‘A wooden board happened my way,’ answered Rabi Akiva, ‘and every time a wave washed over me, I submissively bent my head down.’ From this incident — say the Chachamim — we see that if wicked people come upon a person he should submissively nod his head to them.”

Rabi Akiva was bobbing along in the open ocean with nothing more than a piece of driftwood to serve as his flotation device, and not an iota of experience in sea-diving to inform his decisions in those fateful moments. One thing, though, he clearly had in abundance: tremendous wisdom. Despite his seemingly impossible situation, Rabi Akiva did not panic and did not give up hope. And another thing he did not do is try to fight the waves. Lifeguard training includes learning how to handle a drowning victim’s thrashing about. When a person panics, he is liable to enter a completely irrational “fight or flight mode” that can cause him to desperately fight against even his rescuer!

How much more so can attempting to struggle against the waves feel like the only shot one has at survival in such a difficult situation! Rabi Akiva demonstrated for us, though, that it is utterly futile, and even counterproductive to do so. The waves are far, far too powerful. The struggler will rapidly tire, and the waves will overcome him. Rabi Akiva showed us that the way to handle the waves of life’s insurmountable hardships is to submissively nod one’s head to them. Recognize when battling a situation is futile and don’t try to fight it. Accept the situation for what it is, and in the end you will, with Hashem’s help, come out alive and well.

[1] Yevamos 121a