Dramatic rescue plays out at Santa Cruz Harbor as youth sailboats capsize
A dramatic scene played out at Santa Cruz Harbor Sunday afternoon when large waves and crushing whitewater capsized a handful of small boats with children in them — and nearby surfers and first responders quickly sprung into action, rescuing all.
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The boats from the Santa Cruz Yacht Club overturned at the mouth of the harbor just after 4:30 p.m., said Santa Cruz Fire Battalion Chief Daniel Kline. Initial reports had about 20 children in the water, he said, but were then revised to about 12, with initially 5 children missing.
On Monday, Yacht Club officials said those numbers were off, reporting that two boats containing six children had capsized. Video of the incident reviewed by Lookout appears to show six children overboard, with others remaining in their boats.
Rescue teams, which had increased staffing due to Sunday’s rough seas, and surfers jumped into action to pull kids out of the water and onto surfboards or into boats. The ages of the children were not all immediately known, but Kline said at least one was between 7 and 8 years old.
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By the end of the evening, all children were accounted for and none were injured. “All we had was just some cold, scared children,” Kline said.
Among them was 12-year-old Linden DesJardins. Although she had been taking sailing lessons on and off since last summer, Sunday marked the first week of her 6-week beginning sailing class with the Santa Cruz Yacht Club. As the group started heading out, she quickly realized what she was getting herself into.
Even on the way out of the harbor, “we were being tossed around,” Linden recalled. “The waves were big out there.”
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The lesson in Monterey Bay went pretty normally, but when it was time to head back into the harbor, Linden started to “kind of freak” as waves began to get bigger, with whitewater everywhere. “We’ve never had waves like this in sailing,” she said.
Linden isn’t quite sure what happened next.
She remembers instructors and nearby surfers telling her to jump out of her boat. She, too, knew it was probably best for her to get out. She was hyperventilating. And probably screaming. Somewhere along the way she lost a shoe.
“It was scary and it was very, very stressful,” Linden said.
A surfer scooped her up and got her to shore. His name was Sean, she thinks. He reassured her that everything was going to be OK.
“We would like to find Sean,” Liz DesJardins, Linden’s stepmom, said.
Linden’s family is grateful everyone is safe. “We’re just happy that everybody is OK,” Marc DesJardins, Linden’s dad, said.
He said he has found the sailing program to be very professional in the past. And he’s more relaxed now knowing everybody is OK. But he’s also “a little surprised” about the call to go out. “I’m a little surprised that they went out past the harbor mouth,” Marc DesJardins said.
An email to a representative of the Santa Cruz Yacht Club seeking comment was not immediately returned Sunday night. On Monday, the club’s commodore issued a statement saying safety protocols were being reviewed.
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Others who witnessed the scene were surprised, too.
On a day when massive waves were rocking beaches throughout Northern California — weather officials had issued a High Surf Warning from coastal Sonoma County southward through Monterey County — eyewitnesses and bystanders said things could have easily turned out worse.
Jason Smith was playing volleyball near the harbor when he watched the small sailboats being pulled into the bay by a lead boat. “We saw them go out and barely make it out,” he said. “We were all just shaking our heads.”
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“I just thought this is the worst idea ever,” Smith said. Even on the way out of the harbor, the group almost capsized, he said.
When the first group of sailboats tried to come back into the harbor, being pulled again by a lead boat, they were sideswiped “by a solid 6-footer,” Smith said.
Smith took off toward the end of the jetty, but by the time he got there surfers had already gotten children onto their boards. “Luckily the surfers were on it,” he said.
Fortunately the children were all wearing life jackets.
“I’ve never seen so many emergency crews,” he said. “I mean, everybody in town was there.”
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Robin Sansom was taking surf photos near the harbor Sunday afternoon when he saw the dramatic rescue play out. He, too, wondered why the boats went out in the first place.
“Frankly, I don’t even know what they were thinking given the surf forecast,” he said.
The boats, Sansom said, were no longer than 6-feet in length. “Like little bathtubs basically,” he said.
The waves Sunday were some of the biggest he can remember in probably a year. “The kids were very frightened,” Sansom said.
7:43 PM, Jan. 11, 2021: This story was updated Monday evening to reflect the Santa Cruz Yacht Club’s response to the incident, as well as Lookout’s review of video of what happened.