The Origin of Baywatch Malibu: Part Two—Perspective on the 1957 Rescue
BY Howard Lee
I was Bob Burnside's partner on the Northern Division (Malibu Coast) lifeguard emergency truck on the winter day in 1957. We responded to an overturned boat one-and-a-half miles offshore from Leo Carrillo Beach.
On site, Bob paddled our rescue paddleboard out to the capsized craft and found a woman and three men hanging onto the boat. One of the men was suffering badly from overexposure to the 48-degree water.
After assessing the situation, Bob determined he had better paddle the man to shore for emergency medical care and assured the other three a rescue vessel was on the way.
Bob returned to shore exhausted, in tandem with the overexposed man. He relayed the paddleboard to me for return to the capsized boat. Before starting, I quickly briefed Bob that our headquarters at Zuma Beach had contacted the Navy at Port Hueneme and were sending a crash boat to assist. Bob was re lieved he didn't tell those people a lie.
My paddle out was really long because I had recently returned to lifeguard work after serving two years in the Army. Since back, my workouts consisted of running, swimming, rowing dories and surfing. Paddleboard practice had been minimal, believing board surfing would condition me for that. Wrong. There is nothing like training with the equipment you are going to actually use.
The distance alone was challenging, but the worst thing about the paddle to the boat was negotiating the huge and thick kelp beds. The only way to make headway much of the time was to grab handfuls of kelp and pull myself and the board over the kelp.
Then, once outside of the kelp, the wind created ocean chop. By the time I reached the boat, my arms were like lead, but I felt great relief when seeing all three of the people were still hanging on. In my estimation they now had been in the water for two hours.
The two men and one woman were freezing cold. One of the men said he couldn't hang onto the boat any longer, so with help from the other two, we managed to put the overexposed man on top of the boat's upturned bottom. He was mostly out of the water and able to get some warmth from the sun. The skiff/boat was only 15 feet long, so only one person at a time was able to take a break from the cold water.
After some time passed, there was still no crash boat in sight. The boat had to travel about 12 miles to reach us, and I thought it should have arrived by now, but I kept this thought to myself. The man on the overturned boat's bottom appeared to have recovered somewhat, so I suggested he rotate with his friends so they too could get some time out of the water.
He responded, "No!" He then said he wanted me to paddle him to the beach. The other man was showing some anxiety and said he too wanted to go to shore. The men may have been looking toward shore where they could see red lights shining from lifeguard, fire, sheriff and ambulance vehicles parked up on the bluff.
They no doubt figured there must be a nice warm blanket and hot coffee there somewhere. I told them, "No. It would not be a good idea to paddle anyone to shore because I would not leave any one of you to fend for yourself in your present condition; and that the crash boat would no doubt be here before I could get even one of you to shore."
I no more than finished giving them my position, when I looked in the distance and there it was—the crash boat heading right for us. Just like the cavalry.
The Navy took us aboard their boat, along with my paddleboard, and then bundled up the three survivors in coats and blankets. I informed them they could find their friend who was paddled ashore earlier by contacting the Los Angeles County sheriff's, fire or lifeguard departments in Malibu.
The Navy crash boat was ready to return to Port Hueneme with the survivors who were doing fine in their recovery from the cold water. I requested the Navy drop me and my board off as close to shore as possible and in a place where there was a corridor through the kelp. We found the spot a little up coast, which added a little more distance to my paddle to shore, but it was worth it to avoid having to crawl over the kelp again.
I said good-bye to the survivors, thanked the Navy crew for their assistance, then jumped into the ocean. The sailors passed me my paddleboard and away I went toward shore.
Shortly, my arms were turning to lead again even though there was no urgency to make shore and passage through the kelp this time was much easier.
While paddling, I began thinking about Bob's paddle out to the capsized boat and then almost immediately back to shore, in tandem, with the man suffering severe overexposure.
That was a tremendous accomplishment; a feat I am thankful I didn't have to attempt. I also thought about how calm the woman from the capsized boat remained the whole time. She had to be freezing from the cold water, but never complained. Her stoic demeanor was helpful to me in dealing with the two men approaching panic. The thought of Bob and the woman inspired and strengthened me to paddle in good form the rest of the way to shore.
Bob met me at the water's edge. We were both worn-out and freezing, but spent a few minutes talking through chattering teeth about the rescue. Bob wondered if I was ready to transfer from Zuma Beach back to Hermosa Beach where we had a rescue boat readily available to back-up lifeguards on rescues.
Hell, at that moment on the beach talking with Bob, I was ready to bypass Hermosa and rejoin the Army. Just kidding!
While securing the paddleboard to our emergency truck, some spectators, as they left the bluff in their cars, passed us waving, and others stopped to give us some kudos. We received compliments on our rescue by way of honking horns and touches of sirens from firemen, sheriff's deputies and CHP as they departed, or was it because we were in the way?
We then jumped into our truck for the ride back to headquarters with our heater going full blast.