SANTA CRUZ — As hoards pack the beginner’s lineup at Cowell Beach, especially during the summer, there have been periodic reports of injuries linked with excess crowds on a narrow takeoff zone.
Last week, a surfer was hit in the head with a surfboard and off-duty firefighters and lifeguards helped rescue the distressed swimmer, Santa Cruz Fire Chief Jason Hajduk said.
Injuries were not severe enough to require a trip to the hospital.
“Any time you have that number of people in that small a space, whether they’re beginners or not, you have the potential for injury,” Hajduk said. But calls for service to the surf breaks on the Westside — and elsewhere — “are episodic,” Hajduk said.
“We have everything from beginners being hit by boards to expert surfers along West Cliff — they might fall and dislocate their arm or get hit by their board in big waves,” Hajduk said. “Most of our calls in that area are related to people falling off the cliffs. They slip and fall.”
The recent surfer was injured during a large south swell that since has faded.
South swells originate farther away than winter storms and the wave sets are offset by long lulls. That gives the impression that the ocean is calm, almost like a lake, in between immense set waves, Hajduk said.
And that’s dangerous for beginners or tourists along West Cliff Drive.
“We also have a number of calls in the pocket coves — when people are in a place they shouldn’t be,” Hajduk said, referring to Natural Bridges State Park and beaches toward the north edge of Monterey Bay.
“When we have these large, long-interval south swells, the sets are much bigger than people expect,” Hajduk said.
City fire officials have an agreement with state parks and Cal Fire to provide water rescue along the North Coast, a particularly busy area during the tourism months of summer.
Those areas have patches of sand that become immersed at high tide — or when a large, unexpected set wave explodes into the cliffs and submerges their picnic spot.
“People go poking around those beaches at low tide,” Hajduk said.
There are 70 seasonal lifeguards on call during these busy months.
“A number of our firefighters are trained rescue swimmers,” Hajduk said. Those swimmers must enter the ocean, especially when it’s a tumultuous cauldron of turbulent whitewater.
“They do everything from vehicles going off the wharf, injured surfers, overturned boats and swimmers sucked out by rip currents,” Hajduk said.
Authorities are constantly reminding people not to stand too close to cliffs’ edges and to heed the dangers of surfing in chaotic swell, or the calm rolling waves that sweep Cowell Beach.
“Safety is about being water aware,” Hajduk said.