Quick Take:

Massive waves rolled through the Santa Cruz County coastline Thursday, as forecast by the National Weather Service earlier in the week. Though surfers rushed to take advantage of the big swell, safety personnel had a lot of work to do as they assisted about 20 people out of the dangerous waters. Friday is expected to see calmer seas, but the agencies working to ensure recreators’ safety will be monitoring the conditions closely.

Emergency crews across Santa Cruz County responded to about 20 calls for assistance during a high surf advisory Thursday as surfers and beachgoers navigated big waves, high tides and rough water.

Earlier this week, the National Weather Service issued a beach hazards statement and a high surf advisory for various regions of the San Francisco Bay Area, including Monterey Bay, with the possibility of “sneaker waves” rolling into local coastlines through Thursday night.

At noon Thursday, the forecast had proved to be accurate. Towering, majestic waves crashed down on and around surfers at Steamer Lane along West Cliff Drive. Pedestrians, bikers and photographers lined the railings that separate the walkable path from the ocean-battered bluffs watching the extreme conditions and occasionally dodging splashing water and flying foam from waves crashing into the cliffs.

Even experienced surfers took note of the rough conditions. Santa Cruz Mountains resident Dave Lofte has been surfing for more than 20 years, but said Thursday’s massive swell at Steamer Lane was pretty intense even for him.

Surfers riding the waves at Steamer Lane.

“It was good and fun, but when [the waves] get to a certain size I’ll stay out,” he said, estimating that some waves reached at least 12 feet. “Like today was pushing my comfort level a little bit actually.”

Battalion Chief Ernst Bauen said responders from the Central Fire District of Santa Cruz County had escorted “quite a few people” out of the ocean Thursday. Central Fire, California State Parks and the Santa Cruz Small Craft Harbor all had personnel manning boats and jet skis, along with rescue swimmers, to ensure a quick response in the main trouble area between Pleasure Point and Privates Beach in Capitola, where people access the ocean via staircases that can be quickly inundated by large waves and high tides: “We were definitely not a one-trick pony today.”

Bauen said calls for help ranged in severity.

“Some were as simple as standing by, making sure people make it to the stairs, and helping them with their board through high surges,” he said, adding that the majority his teams assisted were surfers. “Some of them we swim out to and help them come back in, and some we get onto a jet ski and into a harbor boat to bring them back to the harbor.”

Senior Deputy Harbormaster John Haynes mans a rescue boat Thursday.
Senior Deputy Harbormaster John Haynes mans a rescue boat Thursday. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

Senior Deputy Harbormaster John Haynes said big surf along with high tides made it treacherous to get into and out of the water, as the surf can come all the way up to the staircases at some surf spots.

Bauen said that the vast majority of the calls required only an escort, which entails monitoring a person getting out of the water and staying nearby in case they needed to intervene. Only about three people required rescue, or direct assistance to get out of the water safely.

“It’s safe to say just about all of them required folks to enter the water to be able to assist,” said Bauen. “Only one individual was up on some rocks when the tide came in and needed assistance out of the area.”

State Parks lifeguard Turner Roll said that the lifeguards on duty Thursday largely gave recreators advice and occasionally helped them with their equipment to get out of the water as easily as possible. He recalled one true rescue involving a man sleeping in a small cove who got trapped by high tides.

Waves crash into a staircase leading into the ocean off East Cliff Drive in Pleasure Point.
Waves crash into a staircase leading into the ocean off East Cliff Drive in Pleasure Point. Surfers use staircases to enter and exit many surf spots in the county. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

“I’ve never seen waves this big here,” said a photographer from Mountain View who gave her name only as Verneitta. “I should have brought my wide-angle lens so I could get the whole wave!”

The awe-inspiring surf appeared to be calming by Thursday evening, said Harbormaster Blake Anderson, but he added that agencies would assess the conditions Friday morning and have rescue personnel ready to respond to any calls — the same game plan as Thursday.

“I think the peak was probably Wednesday through Thursday morning,” said Roll. “But you really never know, sometimes the forecast doesn’t reflect the actual conditions.”

The National Weather Service has replaced its high surf advisory with a beach hazards statement for Friday, with dangerous conditions still possible as the northwest swell lingers. Breaking waves of 10 to 15 feet are still possible through the day.

So if Friday does bring more huge surf, Lofte has a good rule of thumb to follow: “If in doubt, don’t go out.”

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Max Chun is the general-assignment correspondent at Lookout Santa Cruz. Max’s position has pulled him in many different directions, seeing him cover development, COVID, the opioid crisis, labor, courts...