Two outdoor-loving, South Jersey boys met in the middle of the Gulf.
On Thursday morning, October 8, Gulfport artist Jack Providenti went for his daily swim at Sunset Beach a little earlier than usual due to rough seas expected later in the day.
“When I arrived at the beach Thursday morning, the water was placid,” said Providenti. “I usually walk into the water until I’m waist deep, put on my mask and snorkel and start swimming. I swim just about every day; it’s my form of exercise.”
Hurricane Delta was swirling out in the Gulf of Mexico – the storm was reported to be about 400 miles south of Cameron, Louisiana, and grinding toward the Louisiana coast at 14 miles per hour. Its tropical-storm-force winds extended up to 125 miles, according to the National Hurricane Center.
Providenti made it about 50 yards before water seeped into his mask. As he stood to adjust it, he realized the waves were breaking and decided to hang tight.
“I didn’t want to take any chances and get roughed up,” said Providenti.
Providenti says he then tried to swim diagonally towards the shore.
“I gave it my all, but soon I realized I was even further out, maybe a 100 yards at this point,” continued Providenti. “When I stopped swimming I couldn’t stand up. I couldn’t touch the bottom anymore.”
That area of Sunset Beach is known to have a quick dip before beach-goers are able to reach the bottom, so Jack kept swimming.
“I swam with all my might. That’s when I realized that it wasn’t doing me any good,” said Providenti. “A swell came over and I swallowed water, I thought, ‘I could die here.’”
That’s when Providenti started yelling for help.
John Paul, a 67-year-old Treasure Island resident who has Parkinson’s disease, heard the calls. Paul, who surfs as a relief for his medical condition, was out surfing on Sunset Beach; he heard Providenti yelling, but couldn’t see him. Paul looked towards the shore to see if anyone else was helping.
“No one was moving,” said Paul. “They were all just standing there with their phones in their hands; none of them tried to help or even called for help.”
Paul, who was a lifeguard in his teens in South Jersey, paddled to Providenti and told him to hang on as he paddled to shore. Unfortunately, the rip current was too strong and they weren’t making any progress.
Finally, two off-duty female lifeguards swam and pulled the two gentlemen to saftey. Once on shore, Providenti collapsed.
“All I could do was stare up at the sun,” said Providenti. Providenti was taken to the hospital where he was treated for exhaustion and sent home, relatively unscathed.
As Providenti lay face up on the beach and in his hospital bed he says he thought long and hard about life.
“I’ve been going to the beaches for years. Treasure Island has been my biggest source of peace and meditation,’’ said Providenti. “The beach almost took my life and it’s been my biggest solace.”
“The thing about Jack is that he’s a swimmer; if he wasn’t a swimmer he would’ve been dead,” reflected Paul. “I was just out there catching small waves, because where I normally go, the waves were too rough. I heard ‘Help me.’ I didn’t know if it was someone playing a game or goofing, but I paddled out to him anyway.”
Paul’s timing and location were serendipitous.
“There was some sort of coincidence,” said Paul. “I haven’t figured out why I was there, or why I was supposed to meet Jack, but we had a lot to talk about when we met up on Saturday.”
After returning home from the hospital, Providenti posted the harrowing tale on Facebook. As a well-known local artist, his post reached far and wide. Before long, Providenti and Paul were reunited and met up at Caddy’s on Sunset Beach.
“There’s a spiritual side to all of this,” said Paul. “We were talking about tough times in our lives. Once when I had a particularly tough medical challenge, I was beside myself. I heard a voice saying ‘Don’t be afraid, everything is going to be fine.’ Jack told me he heard the same exact thing when he was out on the water.”
“After something like this, you realize how to treasure the simple things in life,” said Providenti. “These little things are so precious; I’m sure there’s some message in fighting the riptide.”
“There’s been such horrible news for the past year or two. It’s so nice to hear about one that apparently has a happy ending,” said Paul.
Saving Jack’s life did come at a cost for Paul, however.
“Ironically, I didn’t put enough money in the meter and got a ticket that day.”