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FRIDAY WAS BEACH DAY.
The kids at Escuela Sol y Pura Vida (Sun and Pure Life School) would head to Playa Avellanas, on Costa Rica's Pacific shore. The ribbon of sand, dotted with tidal pools, was known locally as Little Hawaii and was frequented by world-class surfers. But on Oct. 28 the beach was practically barren. The water, usually clear enough to show stingrays in the pipes that bore the surfers to the shore, was a drab, mottled gray. "I remember thinking the sky looked angry," one resident recalls.
On the best days—and there were about 300 of them a year—the blue sky bled into the ocean, and the tableau of water, sand and almond trees was almost ostentatious in its beauty. It all looked, in a word, tranquilo. But looks could deceive. Swells could reach 18 feet, and the tides that washed in and out constantly remodeled the soft ocean bottom, rendering it unfamiliar even to veteran surfers. On Oct. 28, an overcast day in the height of the rainy season, the surfers and the schoolkids stayed away. Everyone did, in fact. Save for one intrepid woman and a small boy.
Rhiannon Hull had come to Costa Rica six weeks earlier with her six-year-old son, Julian. They'd left their home in Healdsburg, Calif., and settled in this Central American outpost to start Escuela Sol y Pura Vida, a kindergarten in the Waldorf tradition. The plan was for the other half of their family—Rhiannon's husband, Norm, and their other son, nine-year-old Gianni—to join them around Thanksgiving. But for now it was just Rhiannon and Julian living in a lizard-infested two-story concrete house with at most lukewarm water, three miles of dirt road from the nearest grocery store. Uprooting and moving to a country 3,000 miles and an immeasurable cultural distance from home? Hull, as she so often did, was smudging the line between courageous and quixotic.
In Playa Avellanas, a tiny beach community, Hull had no car. A former runner in the University of Oregon's famed distance program, she would plop Julian on his bike and run beside him on the six-mile round trip to the village of Tamarindo to buy a carton of milk. At 33, an age when most competitive runners have long since hung up their spikes, she was still squeezing in two runs a day and would whimsically enter a marathon if she happened to be around on the day of the race.
In her 20s she picked up yoga. While the discipline's stillness and calm were at odds with her natural state of perpetual motion, she soon became a certified instructor. A decade later she still had mastery over her body, a keen awareness of her physical limits and a sense that it was an affront not to explore them. Maybe that's why she felt comfortable venturing into the surf around 10 o'clock that overcast morning on an empty beach. The tide was out and the waves were breaking on the shore, so Rhiannon grabbed Julian and trudged out past the break to play in the calmer water.
Except it wasn't calmer.
In the six weeks that the Hulls had been in Costa Rica, few days had had a greater tidal fluctuation than Oct. 28, and no morning had had a lower low tide. It would be very easy to get very deep very quickly.
In all likelihood Rhiannon and Julian stepped off a sandy ledge—one that might not have existed on their previous days out—and were swept by the current into open water. In roughly the time it takes to read this sentence, a day at the beach had turned into the ultimate test of endurance.
For the next half hour, Hull would fight not just for her life but for Julian's as well. Her physique, 5'2" and 100 pounds of sinewy muscle, was normally an asset, but it didn't give her the buoyancy she needed now. Nor would she be helped by her instinct to try to overpower a challenge. The way to beat a riptide is to float passively until it drags you far enough out to swim around it back to safety. While Rhiannon was plenty strong, she was now holding up a boy who weighed nearly half as much as she did and who was probably in a state of panic.