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Half Moon Bay lifeguards receive medals of valor for night rescue

Half Moon Bay lifeguards receive medals of valor for night rescue
Half Moon Bay Lifeguards Receive Medals of Valor for Night Rescue (Left to Right) Supervisor 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 Micah Moore after Rhodes and Hunter were awarded Medals of Valor by the California Surf Life Saving Association on April 11, 2024. The two saved a drowning victim after after dark and amid severe weather conditions at Poplar Beach in Half Moon Bay, California, on January 21. (California State Parks via Bay City News)

By Aly Brown. Bay City News.

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The California Surf Lifesaving Association recently honored two lifeguards with Medals of Valor for a daring nighttime rescue amid huge waves 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 very meaningful to be honored by all of them, especially the ones I went to train with,” Hunter said. “All my supervisors showed up. “It was definitely great.”

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

The two drove with lights and sirens to find firefighters who were already on the scene, trying to find the drowning victim with binoculars. Finally, the person was seen, beyond the breaking waves, approximately 500 meters from the shore. Hunter and Rhodes grabbed buoys and headed into the water wearing wetsuits and fins.

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

“It took a little while to get out just because of the size of the waves, and it was very low tide, so there wasn't a lot of water to get under the waves,” Rhodes explained. “Finally, I saw the victim's head emerge over a wave.”

While lifeguards are comfortable in the water, Hunter said the rescue was difficult given the darkness combined with 8-foot waves and a layer of sea foam on the water's surface that made breathing difficult.

“But my biggest fear was that we wouldn't be able to find them and we'd just have to call and come back,” Hunter explained. “That was what scared me the most.”

Despite everything, they managed to find the person and tied him to a buoy before working together to tow him away. There was a rescue boat in the water and they tried to swim to the boat instead of carrying the person all the distance to shore. But Rhodes said they soon realized that no one on the ship could see them as it continued to move away. Even the Coast Guard helicopter searching from above was unable to locate first responders or the victim due to the severe conditions.

“We made the decision to reach the shore. It was a pretty long swim, but we were able to get into the breaking waves area and definitely took a few to the head,” Rhodes said. “We told the victim, 'Hey, let's do some waves on the head. There is no need to panic.' “We want to keep them as calm as possible in that situation.”

The waves helped push them towards the shore and eventually they felt sand under their feet. They were about a mile from where they had first entered the water.

“We were very far from where we had started. It was pitch black, but I could see the firefighter flashlights in the distance,” Rhodes said.

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

“Max and I had no idea that the people on the beach, as well as my supervisors, could no longer see us,” Rhodes said. “The firefighters couldn't see us anymore. We were just swimming and they were 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 cold waters of Northern California, hypothermia is always a concern, Rhodes explained. Paramedics examined the victim, who was wearing a wetsuit more suitable for triathlon training, but not necessarily for prolonged exposure to cold ocean water.  

“It was definitely a shocking rescue and I'm glad Riley and I were able to save them,” Hunter said. “We were almost out of work and if the call had come five minutes later, we might not have been able to save them.”

They both 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 pursue some form of first aid, possibly as a paramedic or in a fire department. He is also majoring in environmental science.

“These awards are a testament to the courage and willpower of these two state lifeguards,” California State Parks wrote in a social media post. “We are immensely proud of them and their work to save another person's life. They are an example for our agency and embody the values we strive to carry out in our work every day. Congratulations to California State Lifeguards Rhodes and Cazador.”

You may be interested in: Chris Beth recognized for 25 years leading Redwood City Parks, Recreation and Community Services

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