Quick action by a skim boarder saved the life of an infant pulled into a rip tide by a rogue wave on Saturday at Aliso Beach, according to witnesses.
Pat Watson, 46, who took up skim boarding after moving from Hawaii in 1991, said he threw his board aside and took off in a dead sprint when he saw a child tumbling down the sand berm into swirling whitewater. “I couldn’t see anyone else moving,” said Watson, who was skimming with his son, Danny, 18. They both “bolted” for the child.
“I was on it,” Watson said. He figures he covered 75 yards before diving into the surf, even though he had yet to see the child resurface. Incredibly, Watson caught sight of her underwater and grabbed her diaper. “I knew she’d been under water at least 15 seconds,” said Watson, who held the baby up overhead while still trying to get his footing before another wave overtook them.
When he resurfaced again, holding the child like a football to his chest, Watson said she wasn’t moving. “I flipped her over,” he said, flooded with relief when she began to cough, vomit up seawater and cry. He placed the child in the outstretched arms of the trembling, unidentified mother, who left the beach before speaking to authorities, Watson said.
“It’s a phenomenal rescue,” said Jason Young, chief of OC Lifeguards, responsible for guarding Aliso, one of the county’s most popular beaches. “Once a human submerges, there’s a very low chance of saving them,” Young said.
At the time of the rescue prior to noon, county guards were not yet scheduled for duty in Aliso’s towers, Young said, though one guard in a vehicle was roving between Aliso and Three Arch Bay beaches. Laguna’s five southern beach coves are county beaches.
Young praised Watson’s action and his acumen reading the wave dynamics. “We commend people who react,” he said, noting “in this case, calling 911 would have been too late.”
“Quick action by Pat, and a lot of luck, or that child was gone,” agreed Tex Haines, owner of Victoria Skimboards, who urged Watson to come to Aliso that morning to take delivery of new custom skim board.
“Quite an incredible act of heroism…,” added resident Craig Brashier, another witness and a former lifeguard, who was on the sand to shoot photos of his son, one of the skimboarders getting pounded by the four to six-foot shore break.
Three skim boarders who ditched their boards and charged north up the beach caught his attention.
“I wasn’t sure what was going on but started taking pictures,” said Brashier. “I was shocked when he came popping out of the water with the baby.”
Watson, of Mentone, coordinates field production for the History Channel’s “Mountain Men” series. With the mainland’s less consistent waves, Watson said, “skimming took over my love of surfing.” Over the years, he’s befriended the skim community and contributed video to several skim board film productions.
Without experienced watermen, who know there is no time to waste, the results could have been much different, said retired Laguna Beach lifeguard Dale Ghere.
An insider’s knowledge of the break meant Watson could estimate accurately the depth and distance required to find a submerged baby in the furiously churning backwash. “It paid off,” said Ghere, who recalled being involved in a similar incident at nearby Treasure Island Beach in the late ‘60s with a far different outcome.
Then, photographers in a nearby boat observed a boy falling off Goff Island Pier, but they did nothing to help, recalled Ghere, part of two dive teams that eventually recovered the body. “Just the opposite happened here,” he said.
Later, Watson’s daughter told him she had observed the incident’s origin, seeing a rogue wave sweep the beach and swamp the mother, wearing street clothes and walking near the top of the sand berm, who twice attempted to grab the child before she tumbled into the surf.
Other than skimmers, few people were in the water because of the strong surf, Watson said.
Photos by Craig Brashier