.Storms And Huge Swells Caused Numerous Water Rescues

Over 10 rescues were performed during last week’s storm swells

As storms and huge swells swept Santa Cruz’s coastline, first responders were called out to help with almost a dozen water rescues from Dec. 28 until New Year’s Day. 

The biggest storm of 2023 rolled in last week and brought coastal flooding that prompted evacuations and damaged businesses in Capitola Village and Rio Del Mar. The large swells lingered into the weekend, and onlookers flocked to Capitola Village, West Cliff and other coastal areas to view the 30 ft waves despite warnings from authorities.

On the afternoon before New Year’s Eve 2024, the Santa Cruz Wharf and the adjacent Cowell’s Beach were teeming with tourists and surfers just hours after a high surf advisory and flood warning was lifted.

Around 40 surfers were in the water as the clouded sun waned, and at 4:25 p.m. Santa Cruz Fire dispatchers called for a water rescue at the wharf.

A surfer was caught in a rip current and separated from his board. After the tide pulled him towards the pier by the water, he caught onto a piling under the wharf. 

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In less than five minutes after the call came through, multiple fire engines and lifeguard trucks were on the scene and a jet ski from State Parks was out on the water.

Santa Cruz Fire Department lifeguard Trevor Martin jumped off the wharf’s west walkway to rescue the stranded surfer.

“I deployed myself from the wharf, jumped in and was able to get the victim in a rescue tube and swim away from the danger, away from the wharf,” Martin said.

Santa Cruz Fire Captain Johnny Fox said that, thanks to information from bystanders who called in the incident, rescuers were able to pinpoint the victim’s location.

“Usually, it’s within four minutes, but this time it was much less because you’ve already got lifeguards on the scene,” Fox said.

The surfer suffered minor injuries, and lifeguards examined him at Cowell’s Beach. Dozens of onlookers on the wharf and on the beach watched the successful rescue.

According to Santa Cruz Fire Chief Robert Oatey, as of Dec. 31, his department responded to at least 10 water rescues since Dec. 28. Many of the calls came from popular surf spots along West Cliff Drive and East Cliff Drive, where surfers enticed by the large swells found themselves in trouble.

Oatey said that the large number of people heading to the coastline was partly due to the break in the rain. Most of the calls were stranded surfers and there were no major injuries reported, Oatey said.

“The minute you put out the county’s [high surf advisory] and the National Weather Service’s high surf advisory, a number of people came down to see it for themselves, and at times put themselves in harm’s way not really knowing the true dangers, the full effects the ocean has,” Oatey said.

The concentration of people near and in the water makes for a higher likelihood of water rescues, which takes resources away from other emergencies, especially during a storm, Oatey said.

As winter storms begin to reach their peak, local officials are stressing safety during big wave events. This also applies to people lining the coastlines to catch a glimpse of the swells.

On Dec. 28, KSBW captured on the video the moment a rogue wave crashed over the cliff near Abbott Lighthouse on West Cliff Drive and knocked down a couple of young onlookers. On Dec. 30, Reddit user Stauce52 posted a photo showing a large group of people being soaked by a large wave and knocking down multiple individuals also near the lighthouse.

WAVE WIPEOUT: Reddit user Stauce52 captured the moment a wave knocked over various onlookers

Martin said that in the past, people have gotten swept off cliffs during similar high surf events, leading to fatalities. There have not been any incidents like that during these storms, Martin said, but he stressed caution as more stormy weather approaches.

“We always encourage people to take extra caution. Stay behind the fences and on the swells stay even further back,” Martin said.

As Martin and Fox prepared to leave the scene at Cowell’s after the rescue, a call came through asking one of the departing fire engines to check on bystanders standing too close to the edge on Pleasure Point.

“[Our chief] was seeing a lot of people right by the railing and over the railing so [he asked us] to have them move back,” Fox said.

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