California rescuers are the last line of defense at sea

HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. — Thousands of visitors dot the coastline, looking like ants as they bob in the water and play in the waves.

Unaware beachgoers might not notice that the water is churning, brown and choppy, as a rip current forms and silently threatens to pull them under the ocean’s surface. If they are pulled too far out into the ocean, lifeguards in towers might not reach them in time.

That’s when boat lifeguards swoop in and pull close to the victims. The deckhand swims out to pull swimmers to safety on the boat.

If you need a boat rescue, chances are you are in deep trouble — perhaps seconds from slipping under.

“I’ve had people cry. They either are crying as you get to them, or you get them to shore and they realize the gravity of the situation, and they shake your hand and say ‘thank you,’ ” said Andrew Mackie, a 29-year-old boat deckhand with the Huntington Beach Marine Safety Department.

A group of Huntington Beach boat lifeguards was recently honored at the Huntington Beach Fire Department’s annual awards ceremony for several dramatic rescues last year.

About a dozen rescue boats along the Orange County coastline help back up beach lifeguards during the busy summer season.

Huntington Beach has three named “Sentinel” boats. Newport’s boats are called “Sea Watch.” State lifeguards have three boats they call “Surf Watch,” and the Orange County Sheriff’s Harbor Patrol has a handful of boats.

“It’s the backbone of the rescue operation,” said retired Huntington Beach lifeguard Capt. Max Bowman, who started as a seasonal guard in 1954.

He remembers when the city started its program in 1961, after three people died the previous year when their boat capsized.

“It was pretty sad. If we had a boat at the time, who knows what would happen,” said Bowman, who received the Vincent G. Moorhouse Lifetime Achievement Award for his years of service.

With a boat, rescues are faster. And lifeguards can do more of them. Bowman remembers a mass rip current rescue during which lifeguards saved 74 people, cramming them onto the 29-foot boat as they were plucked from the ocean.

With warm water, last summer was especially busy for mass rescues. One happened during Labor Day weekend, when boat captain Todd Bartlett and deckhand Leo Poleshchuk responded to a call: Six swimmers were in distress, some too far out for beach lifeguards to reach in time.

Poleshchuk rescued a woman who was submerged. Bartlett threw a boat hook into the water to fish out the others.

That same weekend, as they were wrapping up their day, Mackie and boat captain Eric Chinggot a call of 10 swimmers in danger. Mackie jumped in and pulled four to safety as other guards reached the rest.

Boat lifeguards do more than rip current rescues.

Mackie and Ching received an award for quick action on the Fourth of July, when a truck plowed into the Bolsa Chica tidal inlet. Their shift was done for the night, but Ching turned their boat around to follow police sirens blaring down Pacific Coast Highway.

Mackie put on his fins and grabbed his buoy to swim through the channel to the vehicle, looking for anyone who may have been trapped, but the person had made it to land.

Bartlett and Poleshchuk were recognized for a busy day last summer that started out with a boat engulfed in flames and ended with a 20-foot vessel washed ashore. Poleshchuk pulled the beached boat back through rough surf and out of harm’s way. Both incidences ended with no injuries.

The boat rescue teams face unique challenges. It’s just two guards at sea, and some days can be long out on the water, especially on a stormy day with swell rocking the boat, lifeguards say.

“Some guys love it and stick around for a long time, some guys hate it,” Ching said. “Some people think it’s just cruising around, but you can get nasty weather, and it’s a lot of hard work. It’s not for everybody.”

Mackie doesn’t mind the sway of the ocean — it’s how he feels when he gets back on land that he has to get used to.

“I call it land sick. When I’m back on land I get woozy,” Mackie said. “When you’re on land, it takes a while for your brain to realize you’re not on a boat.”

At the end of the day, lifeguards on the sand and out at sea have one goal — to save lives.

“It’s worthwhile to me to make a difference in someone’s life, so they don’t have to be injured or go through a traumatic experience,” Mackie said.