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Hazardous Sneaker Waves Threaten San Francisco Beachcombers

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) -- The National Weather Service issued a hazard warning Sunday for Bay Area beaches. They said to be on the alert for possible sneaker waves and rip currents that can pull unsuspecting beachgoers off the sand and out to sea.

The surf pounding the shore at Land's End in San Francisco Sunday afternoon attracted people who wanted to get close to the power of nature. As we watched, one man who crawled out onto the rocks was completely inundated by a wave and was nearly washed out to sea. He was lucky, especially in light of the National Weather Service warning about powerful sneaker waves.

NOAA meteorologist David King said it's happening because of a change in swells coming from far out in the Pacific.

"You have all this new energy being pushed toward the coastline from this new swell that's being generated," he said. "And it has these lower waves that come in but they have this energy behind it and they keep getting closer and closer and then they run up the coastline."

Reporter John Ramos was caught in a sneaker wave during a shoot last year on Ocean Beach in San Francisco. He was well up the beach, facing away from the water when a wave just kept coming, hitting him mid-thigh. A small child or dog could have been pulled back out to sea.

This Sunday, the Hoehn family was drying off after a wave sneaked up on them.

"We were up to our ankles," said Kathy Hoehn, "but then we were having a really interesting conversation and, next thing you know, a wave came from the side when we weren't really looking."

"It's Ocean Beach," said her daughter Catey. "There's always warnings and everything but I never thought that it would actually, like, be true, you know?"

Meteorologist King says it is that inattention that is the real problem.

"It's something that, if you're paying attention, you can see it happening," he said. "But, if you're just kind of going about your business and not keeping situational awareness, it absolutely can appear to come out of nowhere."

It can be much more serious. Last year, eight people lost their lives when rip currents pulled them away from the shore, including 12-year-old Arunay Pruthi of Fremont. He had jumped in to try to help his father and little brother. At places like Ocean Beach, the signs are there for a reason. The danger is real and even 9-year-old Gabby Bunga understood the cardinal rule that you should never turn your back to the ocean.

"I really enjoy the ocean," she said. "Sometimes the ocean is a little like, 'Wait, should I be here?'"

It's a smart question to ask and it just may save someone's life.

The sneaker wave hazard alert will last until 1 p.m. Monday and includes beaches from Sonoma County all the way south to Monterey Bay. People are warned to stay off the rocks and keep children and pets far back from the water's edge.

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