I live in north Laguna near a series of local coves. They are delightful. Except when the big surf comes. That is when people drown. Usually, it is in the autumn after the lifeguards have left and hurricanes roar off Baja California. Their energy and big waves extend all the way to Laguna Beach—that is when the usual fools drown.
It happens every year like clockwork. The season ends; the Lifeguards leave; the autumn surf surges; people drown.
Fortunately, that also is when locals perform scores of rescues. Locals like George Vitolo and Craig Walker. I’ve seen both dive in and drag otherwise drowning people to safety when the lifeguards are gone. I’ve seen them rescue people when the lifeguards are there, but the waves are so giant and numerous, they need reinforcements.
During a recent storm surge. George was with his wife Jessica and two girls, Riley and Ella, at Divers Cove with some friends. There also were obvious tourists at the beach and some of their small boys were in the water when a series of big waves pounded through.
One of the small boys, maybe seven, got caught in the riptide backwash and swept, struggling, out to the surf line where another set of giant waves was rolling in. They would crash on the boy and push him under. His parents were shouting to him, “Hold your breath! Hold your breath!”
One thing you must understand. If you are in the water fighting for your life against drowning, you will run out of energy in less than a minute. That boy already had reached that limit and more. He was lying on his back in the water, sucking whatever wind he could, and was not going to make it without help.
George was on the beach, saw no one else knew what to do, and then in his walking shorts plunged in. In several frantically swift strokes, George reached the kid and pulled him to safety.
Another incident happened with my de-facto third daughter, Margarita. During huge surf at Fisherman’s Cove, she got caught in a violent side-rip and swept toward the rocky point at the north end of the beach. Once there, she would be pounded onto the rocks, perhaps breaking her skull (that has happened before).
I’d been strolling north on the beach when I saw her; she was waving frantically to get attention. Before I could react, Craig Walker sprinted past me with a boogie board and jumped into the surf next to the point. Margarita was obviously exhausted by then, and Craig, big and strong as he is, had a hard time pulling her to safety as he fought the side-rip waves.
Neither rescue was particularly unique. I have seen each man save scores of almost-drowned victims. I would bet that between them, over the years their rescues measure in the hundreds. That is not an exaggeration.
They do it because physically they can. They do it because if they do not, someone will die.
They do not seek recognition or glamour, but both deserve it.
This is to you, George Vitolo. This is to you, Craig Walker.
You are heroes. Thank you.
Michael is Co-Founder of Orange County School of The Arts and The Discovery Cube.