The scene on Sunday at the mouth of Santa Cruz Harbor.
The scene on Sunday at the mouth of Santa Cruz Harbor.
(Courtesy Guerin Myall)
Coast Life

‘I want a plan’: In wake of junior sailors getting capsized, parents seek more answers

After some of their youth sailboats capsized leading to a dramatic rescue mission Sunday, the Santa Cruz Yacht Club told parents Monday it is reviewing safety protocols and changing its guidelines “on when to have the kids sail outside the harbor.”

In the wake of a gripping rescue of a group of young sailing students at the Santa Cruz Harbor, officials at the Santa Cruz Yacht Club have told parents that their sailboats won’t be going out in such extreme conditions again — and that they will soon provide information on their “changing guidelines.”

Several youth sailors had to be pulled out of the frigid waters by nearby surfers and first responders Sunday afternoon when two small sailboats capsized as they were being pulled back into the harbor following a sailing lesson. Even though all children were wearing lifejackets and none were injured, some have questioned why the club was taking children out into Monterey Bay in the first place.

National Weather Service officials had issued a High Surf Warning for “dangerously large breaking waves of 23 to 28 feet” and high risk of “strong rip currents” for Sunday afternoon, and surfers reported some of the biggest waves in recent memory, including up the coast at the famous big-wave spot Mavericks.

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In a statement to Lookout, Tom Postlewaite, commodore of the yacht club, said that two of the six boats being towed back into the harbor capsized when they were struck by a wave at the harbor entrance. A Santa Cruz Fire Department incident update reported that “12 kids were in the water,” though video of the incident appears to show six children overboard, with another six remaining in their boats.

“Unable to right their vessels, the students, assisted by their coaches, surfers, and the Harbor Patrol, were brought to shore safely under the constant supervision of their coaches,” the statement said in part. “The Board of Directors of the Santa Cruz Yacht Club sets safety as its number one priority. We are investigating this incident and will take appropriate actions to prevent situations like this from happening in the future.”

The statement did not answer questions from Lookout about why the sailing group went out despite the high surf advisory, who made the decision to lead the group out past the harbor mouth and whether the individuals who did will still be leading children for the yacht club. It also did not address questions about what specific protocols the club has in place to safely conduct youth sailing lessons and how, if at all, those will be changed following the incident.

But correspondence sent by SCYC officials to students’ parents and obtained by Lookout sheds some more light on the situation.

In an email, sent in the early Monday morning hours, Shana Phelan, SCYC Junior Director, wrote that the club is writing up a boater’s incident report and “will be sharing with you all that transpired as I get more details.”

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“We are reviewing our safety protocols and changing our guidelines on when to have the kids sail outside the harbor,” she wrote. “Not to downplay the situation, but we’ve seen lots of misinformation out there. However we are taking this incident very seriously. There were no missing kids at any time and in the end there were a total of 6 kids in the water.”

Phelan said that the coaches “are trained in reading and timing the swells but this unfortunate situation happened.”

“I can’t prevent what already happened but once it happened the coaches and parent volunteers did a great job in handling the situation,” she wrote. “I can tell you that safety is always our first concern and that the boats will not be going out in that size swell in the future. I will be sharing more information and our changing guidelines with you in the coming days.”

Water rescue
The scene after the two boats capsized on Sunday.
(Courtesy Guerin Myall
)

In her email, Phelan thanked the parent volunteers for helping out and said she wanted to check in on the children. “I know there were no injuries but I wonder about their emotional feelings about the whole event,” she wrote.

While the yacht club said it was reviewing protocol, concerned parents and surfer first-responders say the kids should not have been out there. The email has also left some parents wanting for more information on what changes will be coming to the program to prevent a repeat of Sunday’s incident.

Brise Tencer, whose 12-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter were among the kids who were rescued, said though she thinks club officials, too, are likely still processing what happened, she is looking forward to more information in the coming days as to what safeguards and protocols will be put in place.

She said she is appreciative of the email to parents on Monday, with officials checking in on the kids, “but it didn’t have enough information to make me feel better yet.”

To Tencer, “yesterday was a mistake,” but she hopes the club will learn from it and said officials seem committed to making changes."I want to see something concrete,” she said. “I want a plan.”

If not for some quick-thinking surfers who were in the right place at the right time, eyewitnesses and bystanders say things could have easily turned out worse Sunday.

“Pretty much all of the surfers went into rescue mode the second it happened,” said Homer Henard, a longtime surfer who was among those jumping into action, scooping the young students onto boards and bringing them to shore.

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Henard was in the surf when he heard people yelling to help the capsized boaters and quickly rode the first wave he saw toward the mess of children and small boats. He aimed for one boy whose sailboat was being sucked in toward the rocks at the jetty.

The boy had had the presence of mind to jump out of the boat and Henard scooped him up. “I told him: Don’t worry about a thing,” he said.

Henard who lives near the harbor and counts it among his favorite surf spots said Sunday “was the biggest swell all year” with rogue waves coming in everywhere. The children, he said, were “petrified.”

The scene in Santa Cruz Harbor Sunday.
The scene in Santa Cruz Harbor Sunday.
(Guerin Myall)

Fortunately, the surfers were there within seconds. “It could’ve been a really bad situation,” Henard said.

Tencer is grateful for the surfers who came to the rescue, and the first responders and others who helped.

“I’m just appreciative of the broader community effort,” she said.

Her children were moved by how the surfers and the sailing instructor jumped into action, but they’re also still processing what happened. “They’re still shaken up,” Tencer said.

For her, arriving at the scene and finding out about what had happened but not knowing the details yet “was scary,” she said.

Now, her No. 1 takeaway is that everyone is safe. She is grateful for that but also wonders what could have been.

“In retrospect, it wasn’t a good day to be out there, certainly not in those boats,” Tencer said.