How to keep people safer when waves are pumping? Santa Cruz surfers call for flag system

A surfer takes on a massive wall of whitewater on Dec. 8, 2020.
A surfer takes on a massive wave on Dec. 8, 2020.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Calls for a flag system to warn of dangerous conditions have swelled among Santa Cruz’s surf community. New Supervisor-Elect Manu Koenig plans to bring a proposal forward. Also, tell us your suggestions at the bottom of this story.

When one of the biggest northwest swells of the year lashed breaks from Pleasure Point to Capitola two weeks ago, the waves were soon accompanied by sirens. Lots of them.

“Everyone who lives here can hear the sirens and it was constant,” said Monica Lee, a longtime surfer and Santa Cruz resident. “We were all really disturbed by it.”

The powerful swell proved dangerous even for experienced surfers, almost costing a former U.S. Navy rescue swimmer his life. Sixty-five-year-old Wayne Kiba has been surfing the Hook — the over-popular spot at the end of 41st Avenue — for decades. He likely only survived by good fortune: Four first-responders happened to be on the beach as he was rushed from the water unconscious.

Emergency calls were a Westside phenomenon, too, with Steamer Lane pulling in some of the most dramatic waves of the week. In all, first responders handled an unusually high number of surf emergencies countywide.

Between the sirens and Kiba’s close call, veteran local surfers have grown concerned that a better system is needed to warn surfers — especially beginners — about conditions before they take to the water. And they’ve turned to an incoming county supervisor, who also happens to be surfer, for help.

‘Newbies caught off guard’

Surf beginners — who have increasingly flocked to local beaches as the pandemic has curbed other activities and boards have become easy to grab at places like Costco — don’t fully understand the danger the ocean presents, according to more experienced surfers.

“A lot of newbies are caught off guard,” Lee said.

Regulars had to dissuade many from going into the water during the recent swells. But they can’t always be there to warn others from putting themselves in danger, Lee said.

“There has to be someone that says: ‘Alright, the conditions are probably not good for beginners. We need to put a flag out,’” she said.

Earlier this month, Lee emailed fellow surfer and First District Supervisor-elect Manu Koenig. The subject line: “Manu - Big surf warning system?”

A “group of us Pleasure Point regulars are asking if there is a flag warning system that we can have installed at the various surf stairs to warn inexperienced surfers and the uninitiated,” Lee wrote.

The Hook is a natural extension of 41st Ave, the main artery that brings people from all over.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

She followed it up with another email the next morning, telling Koenig that other local surfers she spoke with are in favor of a flag and signage system, as well as encouraging surf shops to not rent boards on big swell days.

She quickly got a response.

“Flags & signage and halting board rentals are excellent suggestions,” Koenig replied.

In an interview with Lookout, Koenig said he has had “preliminary” conversations with Santa Cruz County Sheriff Jim Hart and the county’s parks and recreation director about the proposal.

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“I’m gonna have to have more in-depth discussions with them,” he said. Among the issues to figure out would be who puts up the flags, who oversees them and who pays for them.

Surfing fundamentally requires overcoming fears, Koenig said, “so it’s not surprising to see people pushing themselves too far.” But a flag system “could help safety win out over bravery,” he said.

Manu Koenig
(Jason Smith/For Lookout Santa Cruz)

“I think that any solution should be driven by the needs in the community,” Koenig said.

Halting board rentals during days with dangerous swells “would certainly make a lot of sense,” he said.

The county’s current surf school permit terms and conditions of use prevent instruction on days where conditions are unsafe. That, Koenig said, could be extended to prevent rentals on dangerous surf days, too, for businesses that do both.

“In other words, maintaining a surf school permit would require safe practice around rentals as well,” Koenig wrote in an email to Lookout. “It wouldn’t solve the whole problem but it could be a start.”

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Coronado as a model?

The county could look to Coronado in San Diego, where a flag system tells people what the quality of conditions is each day, Koenig said. His understanding is that the lifeguards run the operation there.

Koenig plans to bring the topic before his colleagues on the board after he is sworn in early next month. “This will definitely be an item on the agenda,” he said.

Koenig and others suspect the pandemic-driven rush to the beaches also have put a strain on first responders.

Fire Marshal Mike DeMars of the Central Fire Protection District of Santa Cruz County said the agency saw between four and five water rescues the week of Dec. 7.

Big wave watchers at Steamer Lane.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

“It’s more than usual,” he said. “Has a lot to do with the surf activity.”

Oftentimes, by the time crews arrive, bystanders have already tended to them, DeMars said.

“Most of it was minor,” he said. “What we see a lot of with these folks is hypothermia.”

Water temperatures have been colder than usual, dipping into the low 50s.

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In recent years his department has seen more interest from the community in CPR classes.

“We definitely encourage that,” DeMars said. “The first 5 minutes can be critical if someone’s not breathing.”

For really serious conditions the department puts out advisories on its website and via social media, he said, but one of the most important things is for people to know their limits.

“The ocean is a dangerous place,” DeMars said.

Powerful waves roll through Steamer Lane.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

Other ideas to help deal with the issue have been tossed around, too.

Brian Waters, a longtime surfer and former EMT, said one of the proactive steps to take would be “very clearly” defined signage that could be solar-powered with color codes and let surfers know what conditions to expect.

He likened it to a traffic light.

“Really be able to clearly define what the warning is but also what the repercussion is,” said Waters. “The story needs to be told through that signage.”

The current signage at the Hook is not helping much and needs better placement, he said. “People, they just walk right by these signs,” Waters said.

Potential solution?

Coronado’s warning system
In the coastal town in San Diego they use a system devised by the United States Lifesaving Association to better keep beach and ocean goers informed.

Waters also wondered how much warning people who rent surfboards get as to where not to go.

“We see tons of new beginners coming out to breaks where they shouldn’t be,” he said.

Protecting everyone won’t be easy. “It’s a really hard, hard recipe to crack for everyone to be safe,” Waters said.

To Waters, local leaders should look at what is working in other surf communities and counties. “I think the (supervisors) should get involved,” he said. “I think we should be having those conversations.”

‘A really good idea’

Ed Guzman, who has been surfing in Santa Cruz for more than 50 years and has run Club Ed Surf School and Camps for three decades, said a flag system “is a really good idea” providing “everybody gets educated and pays attention.”

Ed Guzman has been teaching surf lessons in Santa Cruz for three decades.
(Courtesy Club Ed)

Most people who are new to surfing now are “relatively naive” when it comes to water safety, Guzman said.

“It’s become exponentially more crowded” since the pandemic struck, he said, and those who are new to the sport are at much higher risk. “It’s dangerous,” Guzman said.

He said his surf school shuts down completely if conditions get really dangerous, and that customers are OK with that.

“They’re very receptive. They don’t want to do things out of step,” Guzman said of his customers, adding that there are some that do their own thing, “but that’s rare.”

Tell us what you think

Contributing: Mark Conley