Do not drown your kids: A public service message

northern california beach with huge foamy wave crashing on it


I can’t protect your children from the surf

While my shoes are pounding out a heavy heartbeat in the dryer, I’m going to take this chunk of my day to spell out the facts for you Northern California beach-goers.

There will be a quiz, so pay attention.

45 minutes ago I was standing up to my thighs in the cold, salty surf, having a conference with four tiny children. Babies, really. The oldest, a girl, might have been almost 5 years old. The youngest I’d guess was about 2. Adorable in their orange hoodies and pink stretchy pants and green snap jackets, they were really getting into the squealing-in-the-surf game. The waves, the interminable, inexorable waves, kept coming.

First I annoyed some innocent beach walkers

I saw them from a distance and started walking faster along the surf line. Three female adults were passing them when I first noticed the tiny ones. They interacted a bit, and when I reached them I asked, “Are you from around here?” “San Diego,” one of them said.

I started right in. Pointing at the frolicking kids, now getting wet in the tangle of surf bouncing off the sand. “They are too small to be at the edge like that,” I started, and the woman I was speaking to put her hand to her chest and said, “They’re not ours. We’re not the parents,” she shook her head, looking at me as she started walking with her friends again. I could feel the “Hey, not my problem,” energy coming straight at me.

A bit more of a shock. The parents were no where near these kids. I strode on to the children and asked them “WHERE ARE YOUR PARENTS?” They pointed up to the dry sand, a good 200 feet away, “Mom is up there, in the red and the blue!” I looked at the moms. They both waved, big arm waves, “Here we are!” As if this was sufficient. Now I didn’t actually hear them say anything, they were too far away, with the offshore breeze and the waves crashing there, where I stood with their four wet children.

I didn’t actually hear them say anything

You know what that means, don’t you? I can’t hear them. They can’t hear me. And they can’t begin to know in time when one of those waves, imperceptibly bigger than the last five or six, takes all four of them straight out to sea.

The sad truth is, it wouldn’t matter much if they were standing right in the surf with their babies. Every year, people let their small children play in the surf. Every year, kids drown, parents and other adults drown trying to save them. Adults drown even without the kids.

The Northern California surf is dangerous. I’ve been in it and on it for thirty years and I can tell you, you can’t trust it. The signs say “Drownings Occur Annually.” They do. Every damn year.

The only question is, who will it be? Your kids this time?

I’m still in the surf up to my thighs

Now these four kids were watching me closely. Their moms had done the right thing, telling them to stay within sight, warning them about strangers. (Maybe.) There just wasn’t time to tromp all the way up to the nice, dry, safe nummy blankets where the moms were placidly watching the ocean. By then, those kids could be gone. So I just told the kids.

This works remarkably well and if you, like me, find yourself on these beaches frustrated by ignorance and avoidable tragedy, I suggest you try it.

“You are TOO SMALL to be here in this water.”

They all stood listening. They’re smart. Kids know when things are deadly serious.

“Do you live here?”

The oldest one ventured, “We live in San Rafael!”

“Oh,” I said, “then you didn’t come very far to get here.”

“No, not very far,” she said, and took a step into the surf.

“People drown here EVERY YEAR.”

Now they were really paying attention.

“We’re just playing right here in the waves,” one of the smaller ones offered.

“That’s how people drown.”

They looked at each other.

“Every year.”

The smallest one, who was incredibly articulate and about the size of a big bag of potato chips, said “Every YEAR? That’s like, every DAY!!”

I pointed straight at her. “You’re RIGHT. That’s like EVERY DAY.”

A thousand times stronger than your dad

They looked droopy, and faced their moms. I ignored the moms, what they were doing was not important. I told the kids, “You can’t play in this surf. It’s not safe. Tell your moms to look it up on the internet.”  They looked back out at the ocean.

“Look,” I said, pointing to the far end of the beach. “See those guys surfing?”

They stood on tiptoe in the wet swirl, I moved into the surf to get between the waves and the kids.

“Yeah,” three of them replied.

“Well, those guys are about ONE THOUSAND TIMES stronger than your dads. And they are wearing big rubber suits so they float and to keep them warm. And they are going out on big surfboards. And they are all sticking together. They know how dangerous it really is. They do this all the time. And they’re big. Great big strong people.”

They had all edged back out of the surf now as they looked down the beach to see the guys who were so much stronger than their dads. (A little exaggeration is very helpful in making a point.)

I stood in my soaked shoes and socks and pants while one more wave ran up to my knees. All four kids ran together up to their nice, dry, safe moms.

I continued along the beach with my slopping shoes and the plastic bag I had pulled out of the surf earlier along with ten or so pieces of moop* I’d picked up. I felt grumbly but I thought, well, maybe that’s four kids that won’t drown on one of these beaches. Maybe their parents will make it, too, if they’re not trying to rescue their drowning babies.

The most disturbing thing to me is that these people are local. Local! It’s one thing if you come from Sacramento, or Kansas, or Prague. But people, come on. I know you’re concerned about EMFs and endocrine disruptors and light pollution and cello lessons and pilates. Don’t you care enough to ask “is this beach safe for my children?”

Because it’s not. There are no lifeguards, and here comes the quiz.

The Quiz

First question: Why are there no lifeguards on the beaches?

Answer: There may be several reasons, but one is enough: THERE IS NOTHING THEY CAN DO.

Second question: Why should parents stay close to their children while playing in the surf?

Okay that’s a trick question. It doesn’t matter, because for the most part, if your child gets pulled out by a wave, THERE IS NOTHING YOU CAN DO.

If you pay attention, you’ll hear some dramatic beach rescue stories. People do get rescued. The Parks Service, rescue professionals, helicopter pilots, and strong strangers pull people out of the ocean. But mostly, they drown.

Now for those of you who think I’m just scratching the chalkboard here, I’ll point you to a few news articles. Go read ’em. Get these tragedies into your heads. And after you’ve finally learned that Northern California beaches must be approached sensibly, would you please pass this on? Send it to anyone, anywhere in the world, who might find their way to these beaches, with or without their precious kids.

Do you know what “highest water line” means?

And do note in the warning below on the Parks website, you must keep children back from the HIGHEST WATER LINE. If you don’t know how to tell where the highest water line is, then stay far up the beach in the warm, dry sand that does not feel wet when you put your hand deep into it. The highest water line is NOT the surf line.

I thank you.

Suzanna Stinnett

SF Man Drowns on Sonoma Coast

Coast Beaches

(Here’s the crux:) Sonoma Coast State Beach
Like most north coast beaches, Sonoma Coast is NOT FOR SWIMMING. Strong rip currents, heavy surf and sudden ground swells make even surf play dangerous. A small staff of well-trained lifeguards are usually on duty during the peak season, but with so much coastline to cover they may not be available. Please be aware that most cellular phone service along the coast is spotty.

It is especially important to keep children back from the highest water-line and never turn your back to the ocean. Many rescues are made each year. Also be careful of the bluffs and rocks. The shale formations are unstable and unsafe for climbing, so stay on the trails and heed warning signs.

Can surf pull you off the beach?

Dry Sand Riptides

“There are heavy riptides there. There is an undercurrent. … As far as we know, the child wasn’t even in the water. It was a sneaker wave that got her wet and carried her away. She was playing with her mother on dry sand.”
Wood, a friend of the child’s mother, jumped in and grabbed the girl, but the two were quickly dragged into the ocean, Van Buskirk said. Brandy Tingey made two attempts to rescue her daughter and Wood, and was also dragged into the surf. But she was able to pull herself out.
“The mother did go back on shore to remove her cargo pants and re-enter the water,” Caldwell said. “I guess she realized she couldn’t save the child.”
A Coast Guard helicopter and rescue boats were dispatched, and Wood’s body was recovered in about an hour. Mikayla Tingey’s body was found two or three hours later, half a mile from shore.
Brandy Tingey spent Sunday evening holding the body of her deceased child in the hospital.
“She’s stunned,” said Van Buskirk, adding that the mother’s relatives drove up to Humboldt County to comfort her. “I don’t think they could have outrun the wave. The mother said at one point that she thought she was going to die in the surf because they were getting tumbled around in it. And when she dragged herself out of it, she knew that she would be the only one to survive.”
The North Coast has produced a string of grisly incidents.
In November 2005, a sleeper wave swept four people — who had been walking along the shoreline in street clothes — into the ocean at Wright’s Beach in Sonoma County. A 22-year-old Santa Rosa man and a 20-year-old San Martin woman drowned. A teenage boy was rescued by a lifeguard; a teenage girl made it to shore on her own.
“When it’s a nice, calm day, people tend to underestimate the power of the ocean,” Caldwell said. “The ocean is a treacherous place.”

Rogue Waves$963
Extreme rogue waves can sink ships, even supertankers, (see the links at the bottom of the page).
For the purposes of Outdoor Club trips, we are concerned that people realize that smaller and mid-size rogue waves occur regularly along the coast. People sightseeing on shore which has relatively dry sand can be hit by a wave that seems to come out of nowhere, a sleeper or sneaker wave.
People who thought they were safely up on a jetty or low cliff, far enough away from where the waves were breaking, can be splashed and thoroughly soaked, or even swept off the cliff and slammed into it. Plus, jettys and rocky areas are very slippery and even a small wave can cause you to go unexpectedly swimming.
People climbing up on big logs or downed trees which seem high and dry can find themselves in the water, possibly even under the log, when a sneaker wave washes well up on to shore and floats the log. People hanging out near a big log can find it suddenly floating and ramming into them.
Never turn your back on the ocean.
Don’t close your eyes for any length of time, whether to contemplate the beach experience or take a nap.
Don’t put yourself in a position you can’t quickly move from (such as a complicated yoga pose or standing on your head).
Stay well back from where waves are breaking.
Supervise children all the time.
Waves are caused by wind blowing across the top of the water; high winds cause big waves, light winds cause smaller ones. If there is very little wind, the ocean sometimes has hardly any waves and can be flat and placid.
Bigger waves move faster than small ones. Big waves catch up to smaller ones and carry them in to the beach, getting stronger and faster as they go.

yellow warning sign about deadly sneaker waves

*MOOP: Matter Out Of Place. While you’re there enjoying the beach, please pick up just one or two pieces of plastic and get them up to the trash cans. (That’s in addition to removing all the trash you brought, of course.) Thanks again.

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