Monday, July 14, 2014

A Paddle Out

The magnitude of this story is a little hard to understand if you're not a waterman or someone familiar with the surf beaches in California or of the particular history of the Newport Beach lifeguards, so permit me a little background.

The first use of the surfboard in a rescue was performed by Duke Kahanamoku, the father of surfing, in Newport Beach, California back in 1925.  Consider this snippet:

While living in Newport Beach,California on June 14, 1925, Kahanamoku rescued eight men from a fishing vessel that capsized in heavy surf while attempting to enter the city's harbor. 29 fishermen went into the water and 17 perished. Using his surfboard, he was able to make quick trips back and forth to shore to increase the number of sailors rescued. Two other surfers saved four more fishermen. Newport's police chief at the time called Duke's efforts "the most superhuman surfboard rescue act the world has ever seen."

This moment is considered the birth of the Newport Beach lifeguard program and is why surfboards are traditional equipment for west coast lifeguards; a practice that is spreading to the eastern US, as I've noticed them now in use in south Jersey.

So, it is Newport Beach that serves as the model for all other lifeguard programs in the entire country.  As one may imagine, and especially given the SoCal culture, the program attracts strong swimmers and natural athletes who are also rigorously trained as first responders, medics, and even paramedics.  I have had many conversations with these young people over the years and have always been impressed not just with their dedication and intelligence, but with the seriousness with which they treat the ocean.  They are not careless about the water.  It should come as no surprise that they had never lost a lifeguard in their 89 year history until the tragic events of last week.

I have been menaced by well-armed teenage border guards, had a gun pointed at my head by a deranged vagrant in NYC, jumped from an airplane, swum to wrecks below 100 feet, yet have never been so dry-throat scared as I was the first time I saw the surf into which Ben Carlson dove to rescue a drowning swimmer.

So, it is fitting that he was remembered in a manner that is, for watermen, their version of a high requiem Mass with incense and sanctus bells.

Thousands Turn Out to Honor Newport Beach Lifeguard Ben Carlson, Who Drowned Saving Swimmer