Sonoma County Sheriff's Deputy Debbie Little understood why the man clinging to the hull of an overturned boat in Tomales Bay did not want to be rescued.
Two of his children were trapped in the boat's cabin.
But Little's job, as she dangled from a helicopter's 200-foot rope, was to get him off the boat, by force if necessary, so rescue swimmers could try to reach his kids.
And it took some force. "I said, 'We're going to take care of your kids,' but he was defiant, pushing me away," said Little, recounting the difficult mission two months later from the sheriff's hangar at the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport.
It was one of the hundreds of missions she has participated in, part of the 40-year history of the deputies and medics assigned to the sheriff's helicopter team who have been saving people from the rugged terrain and treacherous waters of the North Coast.
The program started with a daredevil deputy in his own chopper and evolved into a multimillion dollar program with a highly skilled crew known to many by its radio call sign: Henry 1.
Little became a deputy at age 44 after beating breast cancer and, for the better part of five years, has been a familiar sight at the end of the rope as a tactical flight officer and a familiar voice on the emergency radio frequency. This year, a new deputy will take Little's post as she returns to patrol duty.
"Getting called in the middle of the night not just by our department but from other agencies -- it takes a lot of work; she's truly shined," said Sgt. Ed Hoener, who oversees the Henry 1 team.
That day in Tomales Bay, unrelenting sets of waves crashed over the boat as the 5-foot-2 deputy struggled to get a rescue collar over the burly, distraught father.
"We can't just say, 'We'll be back when you're ready,' " said pilot Paul Bradley, who was watching Little from above. "She's a little ball of fire."
Bradley maneuvered the helicopter to pull them both into the water, where Little had the upper hand. She secured the rescue collar and signaled Bradley to lift them into the air.
Nine minutes after Bradley and Little first heard "overturned boat" on the radio, they set the father on shore with his family while a rescue swimmer was tapping back and forth on the hull with the two trapped children as the team prepared to cut them free.
In the end, the two adults and four children, none wearing life jackets, were rescued.
"She's always accomplished the mission," said Bradley, who has piloted Henry 1 for 12 years. "It is a very demanding job -- easier to count the days you're not on duty."
Little moves on from the helicopter team after years as the defacto public face of Henry 1, aiding in more than 150 rescues a year.
She's plucked dogs, children and men off cliffs. She's been lowered into a remote forest at dusk in the snow.
"She has been on call five days a week for every week of the year," Hoener said.
Once, she was shopping in Oliver's Market in Santa Rosa when a man tapped on her shoulder and asked her: "Are you that little girl on the helicopter? I listen to you all the time," Little recalled.