The four teenage friends were riding five-foot waves in the choppy Northern California ocean for about two hours last week when they stopped for a brief rest in the water on their surfboards. That was when the frantic cries for help started.
“We all looked at each other and knew these guys were about to drown,” said Narayan Weibel, 16, who along with his friend Spenser Stratton, 16, took part in a summer junior lifeguard program.
Weibel and Stratton, with their friend Taj Ortiz-Beck, 15, quickly swam over to the distressed swimmers, a pair of brothers ages 15 and 20. The fourth friend, Adrian York, 16, a certified lifeguard, raced to shore to get a bystander to call 911.
“We were paddling to get there as fast as we could,” said Ortiz-Beck, adding that he and his friends were wearing wet suits that afternoon, Nov. 11. “It was pretty stressful, but there wasn’t any time to think about it, and that helped me keep my cool.”
When they reached the swimmers, who were wearing T-shirts and shorts, the fog thickened around them. Ortiz-Beck helped hoist the younger brother on his board, he said. Stratton and Weibel worked together to help the 20-year-old, who they estimated weighed between 250 and 300 pounds.
“We told them, ‘Calm down — we got you!’ ” said Weibel. “Being out in that cold water without a wet suit is like taking an ice bath. They were having a hard time keeping their heads above water and thought they were going to die.”
York, who had made it back to the shore and instructed somebody there to call 911, jumped back into the surf to help Ortiz-Beck get the 15-year-old ashore.
They paddled the brothers several minutes back to safety on the shore.
The inexperienced swimmers had been out for some afternoon fun on Veterans Day with four family members when they ventured too far into the ocean and a rip current swept them away into deep water, said Dillon Cleavenger, 27, a lifeguard and trainer for California State Parks who was among those who responded to the 911 call.
The swimmers’ relatives couldn’t see them in the fog after they were pulled farther from shore, said Cleavenger.
“The water was a chilly 51 degrees, and because they weren't particularly strong swimmers, they weren't able to stay afloat,” he said.
“When we get a call like this one, it's usually too late by the time we get there,” he added. “People can get hypothermia and drown out here in seconds.”
The teenage rescuers are from the Trinidad area and regularly surf until dark together after soccer practice, they said.
“There’s no doubt in my mind those guys would have drowned without their quick intervention,” said Cleavenger. “To find out they’ve been through our lifeguard program — we’re all really proud of them.”
When the boys reached shore, they made sure the distressed swimmers were still breathing, said York. After medics arrived, the exhausted brothers were looked over again, then went home with their grateful family, he said. The teenage rescuers said they never got their names.
“I can't say enough about what these boys did,” said Cleavenger, who hopes to honor the teens at an awards event soon. “They were willing and prepared to risk their lives."
The boys’ parents said they were proud of their sons.
“We have all raised our sons to be respectful and mindful of the ocean and are glad that they were at the right place at the right time,” said Spenser Stratton’s mother, Jacqueline Stratton.
Her son said that he and his friends were happy to help and are surprised by the praise.
“If it were me out there in trouble,” said Spenser, “I know that somebody else would have done the same.”