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Half Moon Bay lifeguard honored after saving father, son from drowning

PIX Now - Morning Edition 4/10/24
PIX Now - Morning Edition 4/10/24 12:31

A Half Moon Bay lifeguard was recently recognized by local fire agencies and the governor's office for saving the lives of a father and son last month.

California State Parks lifeguard Luke Polonchek was on duty at Francis Beach on March 17 when a 12-year-old boy's attempt to retrieve a lost skimboard resulted in him being swept into the ocean about 40 yards from shore. The boy's father attempted to rescue his son by paddling out to him on a surfboard, but he too became caught in the strong current. 

Polonchek, a Half Moon Bay High School 2023 graduate, had been on his lunch break when he and his team were dispatched to the scene. Grabbing a lifeguard buoy, he dove into the chilly waves without a wetsuit to rescue the boy first.

The child, who Polonchek noted was part of a local surf camp and was comfortable in the water, wasn't as scared as some would suspect in that situation; he apologized to Polonchek for getting caught in the current.

"I told him that it happens to everybody, it's not a big deal and we just needed to get him back to shore," Polonchek said.

Luke Polonchek, a California State Parks lifeguard, has been honored for saving a father and son off Francis Beach in Half Moon Bay on March 17, 2024. Cal Fire

The lifeguard said it was the boy's father, having jumped into the water without a wetsuit to save his son, who seemed more freaked out by the experience when Polonchek returned to help him as well.

"Because he didn't know where his kid was, he was really cold, having hypothermic symptoms; he couldn't talk very well or bend over to remove the leash," Polonchek said, adding that he had to free the barely moving man from the surfboard tether before helping him back to shore.

Cal Fire and Coastside Fire Protection District firefighters helped the two off the beach to the awaiting ambulance, where American Medical Response paramedics examined and medically cleared them.

Coastside Fire Battalion Chief Chip Pickard said the incident ended well thanks to Polonchek's actions but warned it could have easily ended in tragedy.

"As we enter the warmer months, and more people come to the beach to enjoy the beauty of our coastline, we urge everyone to be aware of the dangers of our beaches," Pickard continued. "If you lose something in the water, do not go in after it."

Gov. Gavin Newsom's office also praised Polonchek's rescue effort in a social media post that read, "Thank you, Lifeguard Polonchek, for your quick action and bravery! Heroes like you represent the best that the Golden State has to offer."

Francis Beach off of Kelly Avenue is considered a steep beach, one with a sudden drop-off in water depth, which makes it prone to rip currents.

During an informational National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration webinar, Greg Dusek, a senior scientist with NOAA's National Ocean Service, called rip currents a huge public safety risk and offered advice on how to stay safe, starting with checking weather and water conditions before heading to the beach and then swimming near the lifeguard's stand.

"If you're caught in a rip current, the first thing you want to do is stay calm. Rip currents won't pull you under the water, they'll just pull you away from shore," Dusek said. "If you feel like you can swim, swim along shore until you feel like you're out of the current and then follow the waves back to shore at an angle away from the rip."

Dusek said if you're not sure that you can swim out of the rip, float, wave your arms and call for help.

The San Mateo County Fire Department highlighted Surfer's Beach in El Granada—about 4 miles north of Half Moon Bay—to be a better option for swimming than Francis Beach, as it has a gentler slope from the beach down into the water.

"We urge you to think about which beach you are visiting. Research it beforehand, and if it's a steeper beach with a more aggressive drop into the ocean, and if it is more prone to rip currents, stay away from the water's edge," SMCFD officials wrote in a social media post. "We want you to enjoy the water and make it home safely to your loved ones. We applaud Lifeguard Polonchek for his rapid response, skill, and heroic actions."

While he was honored by the widespread praise and appreciated the recognition, Polonchek admitted he was surprised.

"There are a lot of other guards I think that, to be honest, have been working longer than me and deserve more recognition than me for rescues," he said.

This fall, Polonchek will attend College of San Mateo to enroll in its Emergency Medical Technician training program, with long-term goals of pursuing a psychology degree and possibly becoming a firefighter.

He called for parents to enroll their children in the Junior Lifeguards program, where he and other experienced lifeguards teach kids about ocean and water safety. He also called on every swimmer to respect the ocean.

"The ocean takes lives," he said. "It's a fun place, but it can also be a scary place." 

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