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Lifeguards receive medals of valor for 2023 night rescue off Half Moon Bay

PIX Now - Morning Edition 4/16/24
PIX Now - Morning Edition 4/16/24 11:12

The California Surf Lifesaving Association recently honored two lifeguards with Medals of Valor for a daring night rescue amid massive swells in Half Moon Bay.

For their bravery, California State Parks lifeguards Riley Rhodes and Max Hunter were recognized last Thursday at the Capitola Community Center during a well-attended ceremony.

"It was nice to see so many lifeguards together in one room, and it was definitely pretty meaningful to be honored by all of them, especially the ones I went to training with," Hunter said. "All of my supervisors showed up. It was definitely cool."

The rescue took place on the evening of Jan. 21, 2023. Just after 5 p.m., nearing the end of their shift, they received a 911 dispatch call for a water rescue at Poplar Beach in Half Moon Bay. Rhodes and Hunter supervise a district that spans about 40 miles of coastline, often answering calls as do other first responders. The district works in partnership with local fire departments and other first responder agencies like the U.S. Coast Guard and California Highway Patrol. 

(L-R) Supervising California State Park Peace Officer Ranger Barbara Morris, California State Park Peace Officer Lifeguard Cameron Weaver, Lifeguard Riley Rhodes, Lifeguard Max Hunter, California State Park Peace Officer Lifeguard Micah Moore after Rhodes and Hunter were awarded Medals of Valor by the California Surf Lifesaving Association on April 11, 2024. The two saved a drowning victim after dark and amid severe weather conditions at Poplar Beach in Half Moon Bay, Calif., on Jan. 21, 2023. California State Parks via Bay City News

The two drove with lights and sirens to find firefighters already on scene, attempting to find the drowning victim with binoculars. At last, the person was spotted, way past the breaking waves approximately 500 yards from shore. Hunter and Rhodes grabbed buoys and headed into the water wearing wetsuits and fins.

Once into the rolling waves, they lost sight of the victim in the ever-darkening water, but they could hear the calls for help and began swimming toward the sound. Rhodes explained that while her district has access to such life-saving devices as jet skis or paddleboards, they're not always the best choice given weather conditions or the work it takes to launch equipment when time is of the essence.

"It took a while to get out just because of the size of the waves, and it was super low tide, so there wasn't a lot of water to go under the waves," Rhodes explained. "Eventually, I saw the victim's head pop up over a wave."

While lifeguards are comfortable in the water, Hunter said the rescue was tough given the darkness paired with 8-foot swells and a layer of sea foam on the water's surface that made it difficult to breathe.

"But my main fear was that we wouldn't be able to find them, and we would just have to call it and go back," Hunter explained. "That was what I was most scared of."

Despite everything, they managed to find the person and strapped them to a buoy before working together to tow them in. A rescue vessel was on the water, and they tried swimming toward the boat rather than taking the person the full distance to shore. But Rhodes said they soon realized no one on the vessel could see them, as it kept moving away. Even the Coast Guard helicopter searching from above was unable to locate the lifeguards and victim due to the severe conditions.

"We made the decision to get to shore. It was a pretty long swim in, but we were able to get into the breaking wave zone and definitely took a few on the head," Rhodes said. "We told the victim, 'Hey, we're going to take some waves on the head. No need to panic.' We want to keep them as calm as possible in that situation."

The waves helped to push them toward the shore, and finally, they felt sand under their feet. They were a mile from where they'd first entered the water.

"We were so far from where we had started. It was pitch black, but I could see the firefighters' flashlights in the distance," Rhodes said.

Hunter then ran toward the other first responders while Rhodes stayed with the person they had just rescued.

"Me and Max had no idea that the people on the beach, like my supervisors, could not see us anymore," Rhodes said. "The firefighters couldn't see us anymore. We were just swimming, and they were kind of freaking out on the beach, wondering where we were. So when we finally got to the beach, it was a very emotional experience."

In the chilly Northern California waters, hypothermia is always a concern, Rhodes explained. Paramedics checked on the victim, who had been wearing a wetsuit more suited for triathlon training but not necessarily long exposure to cold ocean water. 

"It was definitely an impactful rescue, and I'm glad that me and Riley were able to save them," Hunter said. "We were almost off work, and if the call had come in five minutes later, we might not have been able to save them."

The two have their sights set on continuing to help people in their future careers. Hunter is currently training in New Orleans to become a Coast Guard rescue swimmer. Rhodes attends California State University Monterey Bay with plans to get into some form of first responding—possibly as a paramedic or with a fire department. She's also majoring in environmental sciences.

"These awards are a testament to the courage and willpower of these two State Lifeguards," wrote California State Parks in a social media post. "We are immensely proud of them, and their work in saving the life of another. They stand as an exemplar for our agency, and they embody the values we strive to carry out in our work every single day. Congratulations California State Lifeguards Rhodes and Hunter." 

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