“Grab Some Sand” by Brooke Shields

In this first-person essay for the Purist, Brooke Shields details how she conquered her fear of the waves.


Photo by Nigel Parry/CPi Syndication

I grew up spending my summers in Southampton. It was here that I learned how to swim, how to dance the box step, and how to build the perfect drip sandcastle. I have always been my happiest on the beach. I can’t, however, say the same thing about the actual ocean. Put simply, everything about the ocean had always terrified me; its darkness, its temperature, its inhabitants, and its sheer force.

At an early age I had a terrifying encounter with a wave. I was about 9 or 10 and was out for a swim with some friends. There was a sudden drop in the sand and I sunk in it just as a big wave was cresting over my head. My face still above water, I looked up and froze; down it crashed and immediately my world became silent, violent and terrifying. I got flipped around like an ice cube in a martini shaker at Shippy’s and each time I surfaced, catching glimpses of the oblivious sunbathers, I’d get sucked right back down again. This process, which left me with bloody knees and a bathing suit filled with wet sand, probably only lasted three to five seconds—but to me, it felt like an eternity. Pummeled and hurt, I crawled onto dry land feeling traumatized and small. I vowed never to swim in the big, bad ocean again. The pool would have to suffice. And aside from various tropical dips that peppered the next few decades of my life, I kept that vow. That is, until not long ago.

I had recently returned to my roots on the South Fork of Long Island, and was invited to what I thought was a paddleboarding lesson. Instead, I found myself confronted with a wet suit and a surfboard. Afraid of appearing void of courage, I smiled and accepted the challenge. Terrified, I paddled out against what felt like a fire hose being aimed at my face. In an instant I was transported back to my childhood and was convinced that this time, the waves would actually succeed in devouring me. My fear was mounting and my eyes began to well with tears. In addition, not only was I lugging around a massive hunk of fiberglass, I was surrounded by children and other moms who were gleefully gliding atop the water’s surface and cheering each other on. Me included. I wanted to punch everybody and everything. Very mature!

My instructor must have seen the mounting panic in my eyes and said, “We are going to surf without a board.” Great news, except that I still had the water to deal with. Once free from the leash and closer to shore, I was told to face the oncoming waves. I could feel my whole body begin to tense up. Suddenly I saw a huge wave approaching and, as I had many years prior, I became paralyzed. Just as it was about to crash on me, I heard, “Grab some sand!” “What?” “Go down and grab me two handfuls of sand, NOW!” I did as I was told, and once below the surface, I felt the powerful rumble of the wave ripple over the backs of my legs. I clawed into that sand with all my might and burst back up into the open air. Looking like a triumphant prizefighter, I held up two fistfuls of sand and screamed.

I had done it. I had escaped being battered and beaten. “Hesitation is dangerous.” A voice rang out. “When you get in trouble, dive down to the ocean’s floor and the wave will pass.” Miraculously, in an instant, I actually felt bigger. This event has since become a metaphor for the way I now approach my life. It empowered me and I promised myself that day that I would no longer allow fear to debilitate me, but instead make it urge me, simply, to “Grab some sand.”