Laguna Beach lifeguards were hard-pressed to keep beachgoers safe this week, as extreme waves — up to 15 feet — and strong currents pounded the shoreline from what one veteran surfer called “the swell of the decade.”
Rip tides were reported with speeds up to 11 mph — as fast as a brisk jog.
A pair of anglers — Yi Ni Kwong, 49, of Irvine, and Sean Shungfei Yeh, 53, of Fremont — were reportedly swept off a fishing jetty in nearby Corona del Mar Tuesday morning, and Laguna Beach lifeguards were put on alert that they might have to assist in recovering the bodies, Marine Safety Chief Mark Klosterman said. The two were still missing as of Thursday afternoon.
Laguna lifeguards made 22 critical rescues over a two-day period Tuesday and Wednesday, and Klosterman said they made contact with and gave warnings to 631 people.
Other than a dislocated shoulder and a few cuts from the rocks, there were no major injuries.
“It’s really a tribute that their training and knowledge allowed them to be so effective,” Klosterman said, referring to the lifeguards.
Beaches were red-flagged, indicating that only expert swimmers should go into the water, from Tuesday through Thursday.
Klosterman said because this is considered off-season for the beach, the city’s coastline was safeguarded by only eight lifeguards — with one in headquarters for dispatch during the extreme swell.
The dangerous conditions were caused by a storm in the southern hemisphere, which caused a large swell to hit the coast, Klosterman said. The swell brought eight- to 10-foot waves Tuesday and 10-to 15-foot waves Wednesday.
Another factor in making the waves very dangerous, Klosterman said, was that the period between breaking waves was extremely short — only eight to 10 seconds, as opposed to the usual 18-25 seconds.
The waves carried away two people fishing on the jetty in Corona del Mar Tuesday morning. The search and rescue operation was extended to Laguna Beach but was called off after noon, when safety officials decided the couple could not have survived and would have to surface or wash up on shore to be found.
Klosterman said the extreme conditions and volume of people at the beach gave Laguna Beach lifeguards a formidable amount of work.
He said one inexperienced body boarder was caught off guard Tuesday by the rip tide at Main Beach and swept 500 yards out to sea.
Lifeguard Trevor Frimond swam the distance and spent about eight minutes struggling against the tide to bring the body boarder to shore.
“He really earned it,” Klosterman said.
In another incident, two lifeguards spent 18 minutes battling tides and surf to complete a rescue.
Klosterman said local expert surfers and body boarders were helpful during the extreme conditions, especially with such a small staff.
“It’s greatly appreciated,” Klosterman said of those who pitched in.
Professional surfer James Pribram happened to be in the water and was able to help a teenage boy caught in the surge make it safely to shore at Bluebird Street Beach on Tuesday.
Pribram, a columnist at the Coastline Pilot, said that with the lifeguards so understaffed, any surfer or body boarder with enough skill to brave the waves would jump in to lend a hand.
“It’s part of the beach culture,” Pribram said. “There’s a great amount of mutual respect between the lifeguards and the surfers.”
Pribram said the waves were among the biggest he’d seen on Laguna Beach’s shores in his lifetime of living in the town.
“It was the kind of thing you see in Hawaii and Tahiti,” Pribram said.