I rested my bicycle against the fence at the bluff point above Cowell Ranch Beach and looked out at the shore below. A man in a mustard-yellow jacket stood looking out to sea, shimmering blue in the late-morning sun but frothed by the wind. A couple of other people stood near the top of the steps, also looking out to sea. A siren whined and a fire engine rumbled to a stop on the gravel path. Someone shouted, and I looked back out to the water where the man in the jacket had his gaze fixed.
About 20 yards out was a person treading water, head and shoulders visible. With each swell, she drifted farther out. More emergency vehicles arrived –—San Mateo County Sheriff deputies, CalFire units and an ambulance. Officers and EMTs stood on the bluff, pointing or watching through binoculars. The man in the jacket remained on the beach. Forever seemed to pass.
When an emergency call comes in for a water rescue, the agencies on the Coastside must rapidly but methodically coordinate the response in just a few minutes. They must determine the victim’s location, plot it on the nautical chart, decide on a land or water approach, determine the team, gather equipment and go.
A patrol boat finally arrived and made a wide arc to the south of the woman and idled there, separated from her by the swells. Waves were breaking offshore and the woman was being pulled farther out. Now her arms were not visible, and her head looked tiny and sometimes disappeared as water washed over her.
Miramontes Point, where Cowell Ranch beach is located, is 10 miles south of Pillar Point Harbor. Underway in choppy water, it probably took the patrol boat and watercraft 20 minutes to arrive. In 53-degree water, a person may have an hour or more before losing consciousness.
Minutes later, two rescuers on personal watercraft arrived and positioned themselves outside the set of swells that continued to break over the woman in the water. They waited and watched, bobbing just outside the swells.
Hurry, I thought. Please hurry. Her head disappeared, then a moment later reappeared.
At Miramontes Point, underwater pinnacles thrust up from the seabed, making navigation treacherous. On a nautical chart, a cluster of asterisks mark the rocks just beneath the surface. The rescuers would know that.
One rescuer made it across two swells. He reached down and grabbed for her but slid into the water. Holding her head above water, the rescuer waited as his Jet Ski floated away, eventually capsizing on the beach. His partner found a way in and sidled up. As swells rose and fell, the rescuer holding onto the woman struggled with his partner to get them both onto the rescue board.
When they did, my throat constricted in relief. And then they powered to shore, all three of them on one personal watercraft, and surged onto the steep beach.
This rescue scored high on the scale of risk factors, considering the water temperature, the wind, the chop, wave size and intervals.
Emergency personnel came down from the bluff as the two rescuers dragged the woman by the arms up the sloping, wet sand. They began to examine her, but the surf washed over them. They strained to pull her to dry sand. She wore boots, slacks and a jacket. She wasn’t moving. They tucked blue rescue blankets around her but did not cover her face.
Every year, our Harbor Patrol and other agencies receive around 100 calls for rescue. Several people die annually in water-related incidents on our coast, often when they themselves have attempted to save a pet or another person. In the last few weeks, the Pillar Point Harbor Patrol has received calls nearly every other day.
The EMTs transferred her to a stretcher and slogged uphill in loose sand, climbed the long flight of steps and transferred her to the ambulance, where the man in the mustard-yellow jacket waited and was told she would be taken to Stanford.
The call had come in at 11:33 a.m. I took a photograph of the rescuers tending to her on the beach at 12:05 p.m. The rescue that seemed to have taken hours took just half an hour.
The woman survived the Jan. 2 incident and so did her dog, which she had gone into the water to rescue. On Jan. 24, however, one local man was not so fortunate and could not be resuscitated by the rescue team. I write these words in gratitude to the emergency personnel who dedicate their lives to protecting ours. Let this column be a reminder to all of us that the ocean is much more powerful than we are.
Katie Sanborn lives in El Granada.