San Francisco Fire Department Performs Dramatic Surf Rescue

Norm Rooker reports on an intense surf rescue operation that led four SFFD members to receive top awards from the Firehouse Heroism & Community Service Awards program.


On Feb. 18, 2004, three Canadian men sailed a 30-foot sailboat up the California coast and directly into a confluence of factors, forces and errors that culminated in their craft being broached, capsized and ultimately destroyed off of San Francisco's Ocean Beach. The San Francisco Fire...


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On Feb. 18, 2004, three Canadian men sailed a 30-foot sailboat up the California coast and directly into a confluence of factors, forces and errors that culminated in their craft being broached, capsized and ultimately destroyed off of San Francisco's Ocean Beach.

The San Francisco Fire Department launched an intense surf rescue operation in 12- to 15-foot waves and 30-45-mph winds to ultimately save the boat's owner and one of his crew, but sadly, not the owner's 22-year-old son. The initial saves were just the opening act to a massive joint surf search and rescue operation for the third man involving the San Francisco Fire Department, U.S. Coast Guard, National Park Service and other agencies lasting more than four hours. Efforts finally had to be suspended due to darkness.

In January 2004, Randy Reid of Calgary, Alberta, purchased via the Internet a sailboat that was moored in Marina Del Ray, CA. He took possession of his craft and began bringing it north to its home port in Vancouver, British Columbia, but made it only as far as Santa Barbara, CA. On Feb. 14, Reid, 47, accompanied by his son Eric and a neighbor, Bradley Amos, 45, flew down to continue the voyage. The vessel had been deemed seaworthy for the voyage and carried all the safety equipment required by U.S. and Canadian Coast Guard regulations.

The three men sailed the vessel up the coast. Along the way, they were noted by a number of observers to be sailing unusually close to shore. On Feb. 17, U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) Air Station San Francisco launched a helicopter to check out reports of a sailboat that may be in trouble off Point Anyo Nuevo, 32 miles south of San Francisco. The helicopter overflew the vessel, whose crew indicated by hand signals that they were OK.

The Bay Area has treacherous waters with massive sand bars, shoals, shifting currents and strong tides, said Captain Sandi MacLeod, a senior sailing instructor for the Olympic Circle Sailing Club and a member of the national faculty for the U.S. Sailing Association. "Water, weather and geography all come together to create a beautiful, but deceptively dangerous locale, especially for the inexperienced or unwary sailor," MacLeod said.

On Monday, Feb. 16, into the early hours of Tuesday, Feb. 17, Northern California experienced a storm system that had dumped three to four inches of rain. On Wednesday, Feb. 18, the winds were from the southwest at 20-25 mph and the swells, driven by two days of storm winds, were from the southwest and running 10-12 feet. There was a strong ebb (low tide, out flowing) tidal current running faster than normal enhanced by the effects of the oncoming full moon. On top of the lunar effect on the tides and currents, the outgoing tidal current was running much stronger than usual because of an additional one to three feet of storm runoff.

The billions of gallons of water that flow in and out of San Francisco Bay and delta systems each day are funneled and compressed through the Golden Gate to create strong flood and ebb currents. The Golden Gate Channel is over 300 feet deep. As the silt-laden bay and river waters exit the Gate, they spread out, slow down and deposit their silt along either side of the channel. Over the ages, this constant dumping of silt has resulted in the formation of two huge sand bars and shoals only 24 feet in depth. In turn, large ocean swells roll up from the deeper water surrounding the bars into the much shallower water of these bars to form rough choppy waters and, when the swells are large, waves that suddenly loom up out of the water. These waves are higher, steeper and much closer together than the waves farther out over deeper water.

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