We picked poor little Elise Johnston off the sand bar and carried her back to the blanket. She whooped and wheezed a few minutes, finally coughed up a mixture of sand and seawater, rubbed her head, climbed shakily to her feet and scampered back into the pounding surf.
Like thousands of us who will be heading to the shore this long last weekend of summer, Johnston gets her seaside kicks exposing lungs and limbs to the awesome and unpredictable power of waves.
Everybody likes to bodysurf, but the cruel fact is that practically nobody does it right.
Which is why when Chris Littlefield followed Johnston into the swells off Block Island, R.I., last week and proceeded to conquer, not be conquered, the whole beach population raised a cheer.
It was a surf to remember. The day before, a dry but wicked nor'easter had blasted the island all day with seas high enough to knock all five ferry boats out of commission.
Now the skies were clear and the winds mellow, but the seas kept rolling along. Waves as tall as 12 feet were thundering in, and at high tide, when the bar stretches out a hundred yards, they began their roaring collapse far out from the beach.
Littlefield, strong, 20 and bronzed by long months in his lifeguard chair, couldn't resist. "I was hoping for a hurricane this summer," he said, "but it looks like this is the best we'll get."
Out he went, plunging through the breakers until he was twice as far as the other body surfers. There he waited, bobbing off the sandy bottom in giddy leaps to see over the next wave and on to the bigger ones approaching. He got his wave, shoved off the sand with a lurch, crested the tallest breaker of the bunch and hunched over into a shallow, inverted V, his arms locked at his sides.
The wave surged under him, lifted him up and out and suddenly he was in front of it, his blond mane breaking the water. With a shake he cleared the hair from his eyes and rode it out, not in it but on it, like a cowboy on a bronco, till the wave dispersed in the shallows, still bearing him along.
He added one final touch of pure art, kicking both feet and somersaulting to his feet; then he shook himself dry and plunged out for more.
So magnificent, in fact, that one transfixed onlooker had to have a piece of the action.
"Hey, man, how you do that?" asked the onlooker once he'd worked his way out through the spume.
"It's intuitive," said Littlefield, who's nobody's fool. "I've been riding this surf all my life. You get a feeling when the wave is right. You can feel the backwash sucking at your legs, you see the wave start to crest and off you go.
"The problem most people make is they start too late, after the wave is already breaking. I start out here, and when the right wave gets here I get on top of it. I bend my body so it's on a plane, and when I do that it's actually me that makes the wave start to break. I give it something to break on.
"It's kinda hard to explain, but maybe if you stick here with me and go when I do, you'll get the feeling."
So the onlooker did, waiting through the little stuff with Littlefield, listening to his running commentary ("This could be good" . . . "Nice little wave here" . . . "Nice, but too much junk in front of it").
And finally the right one arrived, and the onlooker could feel the rip pulling at his legs and the tall sea rising, and Littlefield nodded and they both leaped at precisely the same moment, and both make it to the top and took three hard strokes.
That's when the wave began its break, and it thrust their two heads to the crest. The two bodysurfers soared high over the beach and time seemed to stop. They rode and they rode, feeling this wave they'd mastered begin to decay under them and finally to fall away to nothing.
"Wheeeee-hoo," shouted Littlefield as he completed his flip. The onlooker just grinned foolishly.
Later Littlefield downgraded the day, though he'd seemed pretty taken with it while it was going on.
"You ought to see it after a hurricane, when they break 200 yards out and they're three times that tall. You can sit up there and watch the whole thing, you can cut across the wave any way you want, go right, go left. It's unreal."
And off he went to his lifeguard chair, where pretty girls clustered around him and picked flecks of seaweed off his tanned legs. He was sitting on top of the world.