San Mateo County Harbor District Commissioner Sabrina Brennan will never forget the day she witnessed the tragic death of a surfer at Mavericks in 2011. 

“It’s what first inspired me to become a harbor commissioner,” Brennan said. 

The Big Wave Risk Assessment Group, with the mission to train surfers how to respond during emergencies at sea, was founded in Hawaii after the tragic death of big-wave surfer Sion Milosky. Last year, Brennan was visiting the islands and was introduced to the group. 

“The organization was founded after Milosky’s death to try and prevent deaths like that from happening,” Brennan said. 

The Coastside is home to one of the largest big wave surf competitions, attracting surfers from around the world. To better prepare surfers, the Harbor Commission voted on July 17 to hire the Hawaiian safety organization to host a water safety and emergency first-aid training summit. 

“This is a comprehensive program and there is only one like it in the entire world,” said Harbor Commissioner Ed Larenas. 

“They come talk to the community and all the stakeholders and bring in specific training for this area.” 

Larenas, who is a surfer himself, has seen near-to-death experiences from lack of training, he said. He noted that, as Mavericks gains in popularity among elite surfers, the more crowded lineup increases the risk of someone getting hurt. 

“There are also a lot of young people out there, who may or may not have even basic CPR training,” Larenas said. 

The trainers typically organize their event over a series of days with various courses offered. The first day usually involves classroom training on how to pre-plan before something happens at sea. Participants also complete CPR training during their first day. The second day, people are taught how to practice conserving oxygen and how to stay calm during an emergency. Watercraft training is also offered for people who want to learn how to rescue someone who may be drowning. 

“This is going to be a significant summit because it goes back to why this organization formed. It’s going back to the same place where we lost a brother, and now to bring this training back really grounds us as to why we are doing this,” said Zach Dilonno, manager of the group. 

Not all the commissioners favored the training summit.

Commissioner Virginia Chang Kiraly was concerned about the cost of holding the event. 

According to the staff report, to host the training, the district will have to amend the 2019-2020 fiscal year budget and account for up to $44,700. 

“I cannot vote to amend the budget if we cannot take care of property we are managing,” Chang Kiraly said. 

However, Interim General Manager John Moren said sponsorship could help defray costs. 

“There are potentially substantial cost savings, if we act quickly,” Moren said. 

Chang Kiraly and Commissioner Tom Mattusch both questioned why the district couldn’t use people in the area who are also trained in water safety. Moren and Larenas both explained that the Hawaiian operation offers expertise locals can’t provide. 

“When the guys are out there on Jet Skis, many have not been trained. They maybe know how to go out into the big waves but not the next part after that,” Larenas said. 

The district is proposing the training summit be tentatively set for the last weekend in October, coinciding with the opening ceremony for the Mavericks contest. 

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