When her husband pointed to a disturbance in the water in front of their boat near Beaufort Inlet on Tuesday, Heather Robbins thought of everything other than what it actually was.
“I thought it was a dolphin or a whale or a shark,” she said. “But it was a person waving their hands. At first I thought it was someone doing the backstroke.”
The swimmer was Patty Wood, a 65-year-old from Colorado who’d been swept away from a tidal pool by a strong and sudden rip tide.
Robbins and her husband Frank didn’t have much time to react; Wood was in serious trouble and theirs was the only boat in the immediate vicinity. The current wouldn’t allow them to maneuver close, so Frank — a former beach lifeguard — dived in and began swimming.
His decision was instant. So, too, was his wife’s reaction. But it wasn’t what you think.
A school teacher at Caleb’s Creek Elementary in Kernersville, Heather Robbins had spent the better part of the last week grieving the drowning death of a student, an angelic 7-year-old named Juwaan “Junior” Woodbury.
“When Frank jumped out of the boat, I couldn’t help but think, ‘Could this be another drowning?” she said. “We’d just experienced this with such a sweet little boy. I was literally praying out loud ‘God, Junior, help us.”
Calm voice in the face of danger
The Robbinses were returning to a marina in Atlantic Beach after enjoying a day trip Tuesday to Shackleford Banks, an undeveloped barrier island populated with wild horses, when Frank spotted Wood in the water.
He’d grown up driving boats in the area and had worked as a lifeguard at nearby Fort Macon State Park, so he knew the currents, tides and hazards hidden under the water.
“Where she was at, Radio Island, there’s an underwater jetty,” he said. “You don’t see it at high tide and that water swirls in there.”
And with a rip tide, it moves quickly.
“I was walking out to read a sign in a tidal pool,” Wood said Wednesday. “I grew up at the beach in southern California, so I like to think I know what I’m doing. But I stepped off into the tidal pool and I was being carried out in an instant.”
Her daughter and grandson, a U.S. Marine stationed at Air Station Cherry Point, were powerless to do much in the face of it.
But the Robbins came by at the exact right time. “God put her there for me and me there for her,” Frank said.
Heather said that the life preservers on their boat had been tied too tightly to the netting and she struggled to get them free. “Frank saw that she needed us and he moved quickly,” she said.
The swim to where Wood was struggling, he said, was maybe 50 yards. He closed the distance quickly and began talking to her as soon as he was within earshot.
He told her that he’d been a lifeguard and knew the area. He instructed her not to struggle against the water and that the rip tide would ease. Inexperienced swimmers tend to fight the tide by trying to go back to shore. But that’s a mistake that can prove deadly.
“I just told her we were in the current and that the current was going to pull us out but that it would die eventually,” he said. “I tried to keep her back to the shoreline because when people see how far away they are they can panic.”
They were being pulled toward the main channel where big fishing trawlers and ferry boats come past. And Heather, an inexperienced ocean pilot, was working hard to keep their boat away from rock jetties and couldn’t get it close enough for Frank and Wood to come aboard.
By that time, a big boat from the Island Express Ferry Service passed by and Thom Gallagher, its captain, knew immediately what to do. He steadied his ferry and moved it to a point where his crew could throw life preservers and pluck the weary swimmers from the water.
“You could see the fear on her face,” Heather said. “She was tired. Much longer and it would have taken her.”
With a day to reflect, the Robbinses — and Wood — came to the inescapable conclusion that forces other than chance were at work.
Last week, they pitched in to help Juwaan’s family by taking care of his younger brother, one of Heather’s students, for a few nights while Juwaan was in the hospital. He had been pulled unconscious from a pool a few days earlier.
“Drowning has hit the family hard this week,” Frank said.
On the way back to the marina in Atlantic Beach, the Robbinses talked about all that had transpired. Frank said he’d wanted to return from Shackleford Island by a different route, but that Heather talked him into the regular route past Radio Island.
After Wood had been safely reunited with her family, all the emotions of the past week came pouring out.
“The parallels between both things happening are more than coincidental,” Heather said. “Why was it us that came along at that time? I cried for at least 30 minutes.”
Wood said the timing involved with the Robbins’ arrival — plus Frank’s experience as a lifeguard and familiarity with the waters of the inlet — is a miracle.
“I’m so happy to be alive and well,” she said. “I have a very strong faith in divine guidance. Earth angels just happened to come by on a boat. I’m celebrating life to the fullest today.”