By Andrea Adelson | LB Indy
Something about the body language of a young woman and a man with a surfboard striding toward Aliso Beach’s creek berm signaled to Matthew Barker that they were inexperienced in the water.
When the couple purposefully got up and entered the ocean Saturday, March 1, swimming into 15-foot swells, the biggest waves to pound this area in years, Barker almost immediately said to his wife, “this isn’t going to turn out well.”
He was half right. Though no one was ultimately injured, their actions mobilized two lifeguard forces and the Harbor Patrol to undertake a rescue in treacherous seas.
Within minutes, Barker watched with dread as a strong current swept the pair down the beach towards Camel Point, the focal point of the swell where the waves were even larger and a low tide exposed more rock structures than usual. While the man was blown back by the waves towards the south end of the beach, the woman was caught in a rip tide that swiftly propelled her out beyond the break and the reef structure, some 200 to 400 yards from shore, according to two separate estimates.
“That probably saved her life,” said Barker, 54, of Capistrano Beach, an eye-witness who watched the hour-long incident unfold. “She would have been smashed on the rocks.”
Lifeguards who responded to the 2:22 p.m. 911 call swam through pumping sets and 60-degree water to rescue the woman as well as another good Samaritan and her companion, who both braved the waves to come to her aid before lifeguards arrived.
Ultimately, the three unidentified civilians and three guards, all of whom were in wetsuits, were extracted by a Harbor Patrol boat summoned from Dana Point Harbor about 3:20 p.m. The rescuers themselves had ruled out returning through the high surf with the victims because of the risk posed by jutting rocks, huge waves and powerful currents, said Jason Young, chief of Dana Point-based OC Lifeguards, contracted by county officials to guard beaches between South Laguna and Dana Point.
“They made a terrific call to request a boat; they should be commended for making the rescue from outside,” said Laguna’s marine safety Capt. Tom Trager, whose agency routinely backs up OC Lifeguards’ personnel during an emergency.
Laguna guards Casey Parlette and Matt Grace took charge of the incident and assisted OC guard Keith Navarre, who was the first in the water, said Young. During the rescue, Navarre swam back to shore in order to relay the decision that rescuers and victims intended to remain in the water to await a boat. “When Keith went in, there was only one victim; the incident expanded to three,” he said.
A second OC guard, Sean Dallura, rejoined the other rescuers and the three swimmers at sea, Young said.
Unlike the south swell pulse that surfers pine for in summer, bred by storms in the tropics and taking a week to arrive, last week’s storm was just 600 miles away and whipped up waves of 10 to 15 feet that pulsed relentlessly without any lull, atypical of normal wave patterns. While Point Conception, north of Santa Barbara, typically buffers waves from winter-bred storms, the angle of last week’s swell hit the county’s south-facing beaches with full force. “In the 40 years I’ve been surfing, I’ve never seen waves so big and so treacherous,” said Barker. “There are few surf breaks that concentrate their energy that close to shore.”
From his vantage point standing on a bench and watching the rescue with binoculars, Barker saw the guards encircle the swimmers with flotation devices and keep them from drifting towards breaking waves.
“I guarantee you people would have died if they tried to think they could swim back in,” said Barker, who came to Aliso last Saturday with the intention of surfing. “I didn’t want any part of it,” he said. He considered but rejected attempting to come to the woman’s aid himself. “We don’t need two victims,” he recalls telling his wife. “Almost no one was in the water; it was that dangerous.”