Surfer dies, another rescued in rough conditions on Mendocino Coast

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An outing off the Mendocino Coast intended as a chance for three Northern California men to teach an East Coast buddy how to surf instead turned tragic Thursday afternoon amid rough conditions outside the mouth of Big River.

The New York resident, whose new surf board was snapped in two by powerful waves, died despite a large-scale rescue attempt involving more than two dozen emergency responders, officials said.

Another man in the party was pulled from the surf alive by a state parks lifeguard, then transported by jet ski and a rescue boat to an ambulance waiting onshore, authorities said.

He was hypothermic and had a jagged cut on his foot from the rocks, Mendocino Volunteer Fire Department Chief Ed O’Brien said.

None of the mens’ names was available Friday.

Authorities said they were all in their mid- to late-20s — two from Laytonville, one from San Jose, and the other from New York, according to California State Parks, Mendocino Sector Superintendent Loren Rex.

They were obviously close, as seen by responders who witnessed them coming to terms “what they’d gone through,” O’Brien said. “It was tough.”

Rex said it did not appear any of the Californians had extensive surfing experience, but their mission was to treat their visitor to the iconic West Coast pastime on a board they purchased for him Thursday.

They started in Caspar Cove several miles north of the village of Mendocino. But its protected waters didn’t provide the surf they were seeking, so they moved to Mendocino Bay, at the mouth of Big River on the south side of the Mendocino Headlands.

They parked at the Presbyterian church on Main Street and took the stairway down to Big River state beach. Three of the men went surfing, while a fourth stayed atop the bluff on the north side of the bay to take photographs.

Those in the water “quickly got in trouble,” Rex said, a function of very large surf, with swells of 15 feet, high tide and tricky conditions affected by the curve of the coastline and the river outlet.

The river is running particularly high because of recent rainfall, O’Brien said. Rip tides in the area help make it some of the coastline’s “biggest, deadliest” surf, and it was windy, so the overall effect was very hazardous, Rex said.

“There were a lot of people just awestruck that people would be in the ocean on a day like that because it was just huge surf,” he said.

One of the surfers managed to get out of the water and scrambled onto the rocks and eventually up to the bluff top on the headlands, rescue personnel said.

But the other two got sucked into rocky coves at the base of the headlands, where high surf covered any beaches or tidal areas that might be exposed at low tide.

“The boards were broken in half in the cove from being smashed, and there are tree-size pieces of driftwood that were floating around in the coves, so it was a very high-energy dynamic,” Rex said.

The man on the bluff saw that his friends were in trouble and called for help just before 4:30 p.m. as a state parks lifeguard, Ean Miller, was driving south on Highway 1 on the coast, Rex said.

Miller was able to respond quickly. The waves were too big to enter the water from the beach, but he was able to clamber down the cliff with a buoy and reach the surviving surfer and move him away from the rocks and out of the surf zone.

By then, some of the 23 volunteer Mendocino firefighters who would respond were at the scene to help with the search and rescue, arriving with cliff rescue gear, the department’s two jet skis and a rescue boat. Crews aboard a jet ski were able to relay the first surfer from Miller to the rescue boat and then to shore.

The lifeguard then went after the New York man, who already had been observed face down in the water for an extended period in a different cove from his friend, authorities said.

Fire crews began life-saving measures while still en route to the boat ramp, and medics continued CPR on shore for at least 15 minutes, to no avail. It was believed he had been unconscious for about 30 minutes when the lifeguard reached him, Rex said.

Night was falling as the rescue unfolded, and the same conditions that put the surfers in danger could have called an end to the emergency response, O’Brien said. One firefighter was knocked off a jet ski. His partner stayed aboard. A jet ski and the boat nearly flipped at various points, O’Brien said.

“There is a limit to these rescues, and it’s up to them to say that, and they have to be realistic about the situation, because if our guys get thrown off or something happens out there, no one comes after them.”

“They did phenomenal,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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