Article By: Molly Murphey
My grandma has always warned me not to turn my back to the ocean. On beach trips with her, I’d jog backward across the sand and through the parking lot. Only once I was in the car with my seatbelt on could I turn away from the waves.
On the first weekend of 2021, four people were killed by the surf in Sonoma and Mendocino Counties. The youngest victim was four years old.
Lesley Pfeiffer, Sonoma County’s Lifeguard and Recreation Coordinator, says that this is a particularly dangerous time of year when waves can reach “eight to fifteen feet,” and “pieces of debris in the water… large unexpected sneaker waves, or a strong rip current” make for even more dangerous surf.
If this tragic news makes you think twice about your weekend beach trip— it should— but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a safe way to enjoy the coast. I’ve gathered advice from Pfeiffer, Greg Probst, a state park ranger, and one of our own students to help you stay informed and safe this winter if you decide to visit one of our nearby beaches.
It turns out that my grandma had some of the best advice. “Many accidents happen when folks have their backs turned to the water while either climbing on rocks, playing on the sand [on] a ‘big wave’ day, or taking a picture on precarious cliffs or boulders,” said Pfeiffer.
If you fall into the water, Pfeiffer says you must “keep calm, stay afloat, yell for help, and swim parallel to shore.” This will help you escape the rip current, which can pull you out to sea and away from rescuers. If you see someone fall into the surf, call 9-1-1 immediately and “keep your eye on the victim on the water until help arrives.”
She also advises not to “attempt to save someone if you yourself are putting your life in danger by doing so.”
Another way to protect yourself is to choose your beach wisely. Pfeiffer recommends Doran Beach and Stillwater Cove which are, “great beaches that are relatively calm year-round.” She adds that “more dangerous beaches like Goat Rock or Blind Beach are run by Sonoma Coast State Beach Rangers; these beaches are not necessarily patrolled often due to the long coastline.”
Hiking is a great way to enjoy our coast without the danger of unexpected waves or currents. Sophomore Rosie Tomin, an avid hiker, recommended some of her favorite coastal trails.
She says that the two short trails on either side of the parking lot at Bodega Head are great for sunset viewing. For something more intense, she recommends one of her “favorite hikes ever,” the Pomo Canyon trail for its “hidden forests” and “open fields.” The Pomo Canyon trailhead is in Jenner, across from Shell Beach. She also adds that Salt Point State Park has a variety of hikes but is a longer drive.
Wherever she’s going, Tomin packs light, bringing “a backpack with water, a snack, and sunscreen.”
I don’t want to scare anyone away from enjoying the beach this winter, especially because we are all spending so much time at home these days. If you follow the advice from experts, choose the beach you visit carefully, and remain aware of potential changes in surf conditions, you can still enjoy a day out at the coast and know that you are doing it safely.
To get more information about swells, wave heights, and the tide cycle before you head out, visit magicseaweed.com and navigate to the Sonoma county tab. Although the charts are made for surfers and may seem too complex, all you need to know is that the lower the surf height, the safer you are.