'Swim out' pays tribute to lifeguard

This post has been corrected, as noted below

Members of the Pier Club brave the chilly ocean waters at the Newport Beach Pier every Wednesday morning to swim and then eat breakfast together before work.

The weekly "swim outs" have become a tradition for the group of lifeguards and Newport Beach locals.

Although one familiar face was missing from the crowd during Wednesday's swim, his presence was felt by all who stepped onto the beach.

Newport Beach lifeguard Ben Carlson, 32, was killed Sunday evening while saving a distressed swimmer near 16th Street.

During the rescue, Carlson and the swimmer were hit by a large wave. Carlson disappeared into the choppy surf as the swimmer made his way back to shore.

After a three hour search, lifeguards found Carlson's body near the pier.

The Orange County coroner hasn't released the official cause of death. While Carlson is thought to have drowned, many of his colleagues and friends believe that he must have hit his head when the wave slammed him underwater.

As an avid surfer, Carlson traveled the world in search of massive waves and was comfortable in even the most difficult ocean conditions.

"Ben is just not the guy you would expect this to happen to," said Robbie Maier, a retired Newport Beach lifeguard. "He was one of the best watermen I've ever known."

Roughly 150 people stood in front of Tower 22 just before the swim-out Wednesday morning to honor Carlson.

After ringing out eight bells in his honor and sharing a few words, the group made their way to the far side of the pier.

Surfers enjoying the early morning waves and families preparing for a sunny day at the beach looked on as 100 of Carlson's friends and colleagues, as well as his dog, Kai, charged the waves in his honor.

The group swam to the edge of the pier and tied a photo of Carlson to the swim ladder.

"Now anyone that swims around the area can remember Ben," said lifeguard David Collier.

Before making their way back to shore, the friends formed a large circle in the middle of the ocean and threw red and white carnations into the water.

A colony of seagulls circled overhead as the swimmers emerged from the water, some pausing to hug one another.

The number of participants in the swim is a testament to Carlson's popularity within the community, Collier said.

"Whenever we would hang out on the sea wall, people would walk by and say, 'What's up?' to Ben," he said. "Everyone around here knew him."

Carlson's friends will host a paddle-out at the pier at 9 a.m. Sunday. A memorial will follow at 6:30 p.m. on Orange Avenue.

[For the record, 11:40 a.m. July 10: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the time of Sunday's memorial for Carlson.]

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