‘He was a legend. Still is.’ Paddle out in memory of fallen Newport Beach lifeguard next weekend

People walk, ride and skateboard on the sidewalk past the Ben Carlson memorial statue.
People walk, ride and skateboard on the sidewalk past businesses and the Ben Carlson memorial statue near the pier in 2020. The statue was erected in 2016, two years after Carlson died in 2014.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

It’s been almost a decade since Newport Beach lifeguard Ben Carlson died in 2014 rescuing a distressed swimmer, but the people that loved him still see traces of his influence in the city that mourned the man who grew up in San Bernardino County as if he was their own son.

A statue of him, designed and erected in McFadden Square by brother-in-law Jake Janz in 2016, overlooks Newport Pier now.

The lifeguard headquarters in the city was named after Carlson. A foundation was established in his name, one that provides scholarships and is now turning its sights toward improving water safety and providing equipment to support underprivileged and under-resourced lifeguards.

And in the early hours of Sept. 11, a paddle-out from Catalina Island to Newport Beach will continue a tradition that honors Carlson’s memory.

Now in its sixth iteration, the paddle-out was started by Newport Beach resident and friend Spencer Pirdy in 2015.

Pirdy said he remembered the day he found out Carlson had died.

A statue of fallen Newport Beach lifeguard Ben Carlson stands behind bicyclists.
A statue of fallen Newport Beach lifeguard Ben Carlson stands behind beach-goers who ride bikes down the sidewalk past mostly closed businesses on a partially sunny, warm day near the pier in Newport Beach in April 2020.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Pirdy had been in Puerto Escondido, Mexico, surfing. Carlson had introduced him to the area and helped him acclimate to it.

He got a call that night from his brother, which he said was strange.

“I answered the phone and my brother said, ‘Ben died today,’” said Pirdy. “I remember it clearly. The next day, we did a paddle-out in Puerto Escondido. We all held hands and mourned his death. Then, I flew home.”

“There was such a massive community paddle-out here and ceremony. He changed everything in this community,” he said.

Pirdy said that in the year after Carlson’s death, he felt it was important to memorialize Carlson by doing something physical as a testament to his friend’s physical ability and “pay a debt of gratitude to what he did. He’s a hero.”

He made the decision to paddle from Newport Beach to Catalina Island, a distance of little over 30 miles across the Pacific.

He then competed in a marathon the day after his arrival, which Pirdy joked was easily one of the stupidest things he’s ever done — “It sucked. It was so hard. I’m not a runner, which I realized” — before paddling home. Pirdy said he raised $15,000 and donated it to the Ben Carlson Memorial and Scholarship Foundation.

“And it grew,” said Pirdy. “The next year, we raised about $25,000, and we had a crew the second year where we went from Newport to Catalina, and it took us 12 hours. I think we paddled [a total of] 34 miles because of the tide and swells. That was a brutal one. Then, the third, the fourth and the fifth one came — it’s just grown.”

This year, Pirdy said he’s proud to say over 50 paddlers are expected to participate in the event, which foundation board member James Papazis confirmed Thursday is the largest group of participants to date.

Last year’s group was smaller compared to other years due to COVID-19 restrictions, but it took place nonetheless.

The hope is to raise at least $60,000 this time around. Papazis and Pirdy said they’ve reached at least halfway on the organization’s GoFundMe effort.

8A statue of fallen Newport Beach lifeguard Ben Carlson stands at left as beachgoers walk.
A statue of fallen Newport Beach lifeguard Ben Carlson stands at left as beachgoers walk down the sidewalk past mostly closed businesses on a partially-sunny, warm day near the pier in Newport Beach in April 2020.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The paddle-out is called “Ben Did Go,” a mantra that Papazis said is in reference to Hawaiian lifeguard and surfer Eddie Aikau, who was lost at sea in 1978 after paddling out into the ocean to find help.

“When a rescue came up, Ben did go. He was in the middle of a rescue. He didn’t question it. He didn’t hesitate. He never thought twice about his personal safety. Ben did go,” said Papazis. “So, we did ‘Ben Did Go,’ and we paddle in his honor.”

The paddle-out will begin on Catalina and end at Newport Pier, though Papazis said the time of their arrival really depends on weather and ocean conditions that day.

This year’s crop of paddlers has a number of newcomers.

“At first, it was anyone who knew Ben. But as his story and legacy has grown, interest and support has grown. Even some younger people who would’ve never known Ben are wanting to honor him and raise money this way,” said Papazis.

Johnny Weber and Sophia Nguyen won their respective professional divisions in the 44th “The Vic” skimboarding competition in Laguna Beach on Sunday.

“We’re seeing a lot of people and junior [lifeguards] that, as they get older, want to challenge themselves and do this as well,” he added.

The route will be led by Carlson’s family aboard their sailboat, Independence. A number of other vessels will be present for safety.

Ben’s father, Chris Carlson, who now lives in Newport Beach with his wife, Teri Carlson, said he remembered the way that the city and the lifeguard community came together in memory of his son and for the support they gave him and his family in the wake of their loss.

Carlson said he feels his son’s death really brought awareness to the dangers that ocean lifeguards face and that he feels the foundation founded in Ben’s memory is making an impact in the greater lifeguard community both at home and nationally.

He said he hopes people remember Ben’s work ethic, his independence and his love of the ocean.

“Even though [the ocean] is incredible, when lifeguards ask you to do something; you should do it,” said Carlson.

Pirdy plans on participating in this year’s Ben Did Go as he does every year and intends to until his body no longer allows it. He said he felt that Ben Carlson’s death was a wake-up call for the larger beach community about the real risks for lifeguards.

“He was so loved,” he said. “I still go down there to this spot in Mexico and hand out Ben shirts and they all love him so much.”

“He was a legend. Still is,” said Pirdy.

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