US Sailing will award three Hanson Rescue Medals to kite surfers Jeff Spiller (Sausalito, Calif.), Paolo Frediani (San Francisco, Calif.) and Jeff Harrison (San Francisco, Calif.) for a rescue made off the coast of San Francisco’s Ocean Beach on April 9, 2011.
The conditions that Saturday were extremely rough with wind speeds exceeding 25 knots and gusts up to 45 knots. Ten-foot waves were estimated on Ocean Beach. As the three kite surfers approached the surf line they noticed debris in the water, while standing on their surfboards and being towed by large kites 70 feet in the air. They came upon a man in a small rigid inflatable boat (RIB). The man was Captain Roger Christiansen (San Anselmo, Calif.), 52, of the 43-foot tugboat Richardson Bay. In an attempt to recover a lost skiff, the tugboat, with its two-man crew, was about a half-mile offshore when it took heavy seas over her bow and proceeded to sink. Christiansen and his mate were forced to abandon ship and enter the frigid waters due to the extreme conditions.
About a quarter-mile outside the surf line, Spiller noticed Christiansen in the inflatable dinghy with its motor unengaged. The dinghy was being blown towards the beach by the high winds. “My plan was to tail the guy in and possibly offer assistance because he was in for a horrible beating through the surf,” said Spiller.
After assuring the kite surfers that he did not require assistance, Christiansen instructed them to find his mate, who he said was in distress. “My first tough decision was to go for the guy in the water and leave the guy in the dinghy to spotters on the beach and highway,” said Spiller.
The kite surfers followed the debris line up and down the beach and made their way further out to sea and scanned the horizon for a rescue craft. After about ten minutes they spotted a second man in the life ring waving and yelling for help. As Spiller approached the victim, he remembered a key rescue skill – protect yourself and never rush into an ocean rescue with a distressed swimmer. Spiller noticed that the swimmer was clutching a life ring, which relieved Spiller of the concern that he could be pulled underwater by the victim. The victim was having trouble staying upright in the steep waves, so Spiller looped the life ring over his left arm to stabilize the victim. He consoled the victim and ensured they were going to help him.
Meanwhile, Harrison and Frediani, were on the way to intercept an approaching Coast Guard boat that was responding to a call and attracted by the kites. Harrison and Frediani had made it safely to the 85-foot Coast Guard rescue boat, but the vessel was not making its way towards Spiller and the victim. Now Spiller had another difficult decision to make. He took several factors into consideration, including the man’s condition, distance to the beach, distance to the rescue vessel, risk of beach landing and personal physical condition. He decided to go for a beach landing.
Spiller kept his left arm looped in the life ring, pushed his board away, and while still flying the kite with his right hand he dragged the man towards the treacherous waves and beach.
“I wouldn’t really advise this to anyone,” stated Spiller. “The safe and wise call would be to stay with the man and wait if possible. Waves are powerful and dangerous, especially to the soaking, freezing and recently shipwrecked.” As they approached the outer breaking waves, Spiller noticed the Coast Guard boat making its way down the beach towards them. He made the decision to start dragging the victim back out to sea for an easier boat landing and quicker and less risky rescue attempt. Ten minutes later, Spiller was able to communicate with the Coast Guard and position himself and the victim so they could take a line from a crewman.
“This isn’t that easy or safe while flying a powerful kite, but it was done adequately enough to get around the victim, and the Coast Guard was able to haul him aboard and to safety,” explained Spiller. The 53-year old man was transported to Marin General Hospital where he was treated for mild hypothermia and shock.
“A kite can be very unpredictable, hard to handle and dangerous to the user and anyone they are trying to aid,” Spiller commented. “The lines can easily wrap around vulnerable areas and cause damage. On the other hand, search patterns can be performed with great efficiency when traveling at speeds from 8 to 20 knots. These extreme conditions do not hinder kiters’ maneuverability from moving effectively through the water at great speeds.”
Coast Guard Lt. Andrew Kennedy praised Spiller in an interview with the San Francisco Examiner: “He really, in all honesty, saved his life by keeping him above water until we could get there.”
Tragically, Christensen did not survive the incident. After fire department personnel on shore reported seeing the RIB capsized by a large wave, the Coast Guard conducted an unsuccessful 8½ hour search with three boats and a helicopter over a 44-mile area. Days later his body was recovered near Fort Funston.
Harrison recalled, “One of the more haunting memories of the event for me was coming over the top of a 10-foot swell after kite surfing a wave and seeing Captain Christiansen sitting at the helm of the tug’s RIB in his street clothes – no wetsuit, no life suit, no life vest on, just his street clothes. He was very calm and never showed distress. His last wishes were that we go and help his mate, which we did. I don’t think he knew what kind of surf he was about to deal with, which makes me sad.”
US Sailing Safety at Sea Committee member John Rousmaniere commented on this rescue: “Some people may not consider kite surfing to be a form of boating. However, these three sailors were dedicated to the centuries-old tradition that mariners care for other mariners by going to their rescue if need be, even if it may put the rescuers’ lives at risk. This links all US Sailing Hanson Rescue Medal winners into an exclusive community.”
The Arthur B. Hanson Rescue Medal is awarded by US Sailing’s Safety-at-Sea Committee to any person who rescues or endeavors to rescue any other person from drowning, shipwreck, or other perils at sea within the territorial waters of the United States, or as part of a sailboat race or voyage that originated or stopped in the U.S. Since it was established in 1990 by friends of the late Mr. Hanson, an ocean-racing sailor from the Chesapeake Bay, the Arthur B. Hanson Rescue Medal has been presented to more than 170 boats. In the most recent 20 Hanson-award winning rescues, a total of 37 lives were saved.