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Junior Sailors Rescued After Being Capsized by Big Swell in Santa Cruz

The West Coast was lashed by big swells this weekend, resulting in a number of rescues, including 12 junior sailors at Santa Cruz. According to CBS SF Bay Area the juniors were sailing in the river mouth when “a massive swell” knocked over the sailboats, at around 4:30 p.m.

We spoke with Alex Verdoia of Ullman Sails in Santa Cruz, who happened to be on a friend’s boat in the harbor as the scene unfolded. Alex reported, “We had thought of heading out on a Moore 24 but the wind was too calm, which would make it difficult to be in control getting in and out of the harbor. We did see the Optis head out and then saw the tide was falling quickly, which was causing the break at the harbor to increase. When the row of boats was returning the tide was lower and they hit a bad set of waves, washing all the boats towards the east breakwater. Fortunately, there were surfers nearby who reacted quickly and were able to get to the kids, pulling them out of harm’s way.

“The harbor patrol was nearby and was able to follow up shortly thereafter, helping them all to safety. We then saw the surviving boats being towed back in, though not sure all the boats made it back in one piece.”

Sant Cruz Harbor
On a good day, Santa Cruz Harbor has a gentle entrance.
© 2021 Latitude 38 Media LLC / Monica

CBS SF Bay Area quoted observer Anna Ritter, who had seen the boats capsize and called 911. “Sail school was coming in and the white water just tumbled them and they were just like dominoes flying through the water,” she said. “And five little kids were saved by some great surfers.”

The report also quoted Santa Cruz County Fire Battalion Chief Daniel Kline, who said that due to the high-seas warning officials had already posted, “additional patrols along the waterfront and had two [jet ski] units in the water.” The crews were able to reach the capsized boats quickly, and according to Kline, there were no injuries.

Santa Cruz Harbor is one of the most active sailing harbors on the coast, and most of the time it’s a spectacular place to sail. However, winter swells and shoaling have sometimes closed the harbor completely, and at other times they just make it a more dangerous entry. We’re thankful the surfers and first responders were on hand to prevent the worst.


  1. Chuck Cunningham, TransPac Safety Inspector 3 years ago

    The Opti sailors got a first hand lesson in crossing the bar under tricky conditions. From my experience having had sail and power boats on E dock for many years, the winter conditions can be challenging. The fact surfers were in the mouth of the harbor should have been cautionary to the adults running the Opti program There is plenty of room inside the harbor to not have to leave the safety.

  2. Tim Dick 3 years ago

    Huge mahalos to the surfers… The sailing instructors are going to have to think more critically about what conditions are safe, especially if they have no chase boat.

  3. Dale Anderson 3 years ago

    I’ve been doing the Learn to Sail Program for over 25 years at the Vallejo Yacht Club. We’ve been shut down since March because we haven’t found a way to teach and assist in small boats without getting closer than the six feet as recommended by the CDC. Would love to know how the sailing school does this so maybe we could get up and running. We only have rain and club members to watch out for, not huge rollers.

    • Ted 3 years ago

      Wear a mask. Haz. Mat. Safety Barrier can be either or or both. Think of having surgery, your dr wears a mask to protect you. This is a high infection risk enviroment so he must wear a mask. If he were operating remotely, no need for a mask. At the flight school, both pilots are wearing masks and sit next to each other.

  4. Robbie Cleveland 3 years ago

    I agree with Chuck, in the 70’s we use to surf there in the winter. was great right hander
    No place for sailing small boats when there’s surf there. unless your on a Hobie Cat and then only if your Phil Edwards and Mickey Munoz back then ????

    • Julie 3 years ago

      Body surfed there late 60’s early 70’s ?

  5. Tom V. 3 years ago

    Ebb Tide + Big Swell + Light Wind + Opti Coach Not Thinking = Recipe For Disaster! Over the years, surfers have been chased out of the harbor mouth for getting waves there (remember Harbor Bill back in the day?!), and, fortunately, they were on-scene for the big rescue! Perhaps the next time they send Optis out in light wind with an ebb tide, they’ll power the dinghys with Cummins 4BT turbos – that’ll power ’em against the current! 😉

  6. Frank Menagh 3 years ago

    I was on the lighthouse jetty when this occurred; there was barely any wind as the opti’s attempted to sail back in to the harbor. With the king tide low water and storm waves coming in the waves would break across the entire harbor mouth, and these got caught in a big one. Half the boats were still way off the entrance, thankfully, waiting with the instructor zodiac.
    I saw a surfer stand up in the entrance minutes later, the water only came up to his waist.

  7. Dianna B Brint 3 years ago

    Thank you guys <3

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