On Friday January 24th, James Zenk, a 46-year-old body boarder from Mountain View, was smashed to death upon the rocks at Steamers Lane. He was out of his element and wouldn’t listen to and put his rescuers in a dangerous position, which ultimately resulted in his death. The death is now causing discussion over what action can be taken to prevent such and incident from happening again, such as closing beaches to surfers and swimmers when conditions are deemed too dangerous.
Rob Young, a Battalion Chief for the Santa Cruz Fire Department, said that at around 4:30 P.M., rescue swimmers from Santa Cruz Fire on jet skies talked to Zenk to see if he was needed any assistance. They, and the surfers in the water, could tell that he was out of his element and could get into a bad situation. John F. Hunter, a professional photographer from Capitola, described the scene among the spectators along the cliff, saying, “”everybody was screaming. It was intense.” However, Zenk waved off the rescue swimmers, saying he was fine. Authorities continued to watch him for about 10 minutes, then left. Mere minutes afterwards, a big set came and dragged Zenk, who had started paddling away from the main peak, into the “toilet bowl”, a tiny cove-like rocky area between the rocks and the mainland, where the surging water dashed him repeatedly on the rocks.
Hurrying to his aide, two rescue swimmers were sent in, one from a jet ski and one jumping off the cliff. Their own lives were soon put in jeopardy as they too found themselves victims to the overwhelming power of the violent Pacific. They were unable to reach Zenk and could barely save themselves. Injured, they sent reinforcements in. The second set of rescuers had more success, although they still struggled due to the intense conditions. After getting Zenk onto the jet ski, they took him to Cowell’s Beach to perform CPR, and then transported him to Dominican Hospital, where he died.
“We are definitely critiquing ourselves and thinking what we could have done differently,” says Battalion Chief Mike Venezio. In order to keep a tragedy like this from happening again, they are taking precautions such as allowing lifeguards to close beaches entirely to surfers and swimmers on days when the waves are deemed too big or dangerous. They are currently investigating whether or not they legally can force individuals to get out of the water against their will in order to keep them safe, and are looking at rules in Hawaii that allow lifeguards to rescue people even if they decline help. As Venezio said, “We can only do so much advising and warning.”
Although lifeguards are watching out for beachgoers, anyone who enters the ocean needs to have self responsibility too. The most surefire way to keep yourself safe is to assess your own abilities truthfully and really think about whether or not you can handle the conditions before you enter the ocean. Knowing your limits and what you can handle can keep you from getting into a potentially dangerous and life threatening situation. Also, always watching the ocean and having a plan of action is a good idea. If it is a day in which you are pushing your limits with the conditions you are going out in, you should watch the surf for a little while before going out so you can see where it is breaking, where it looks like there is a strong current people are struggling with, and what the largest sets (groups of the bigger waves that come through sequentially) are doing. You can often see a rather distinct line of calm water and the foamy and disturbed area, which can show you where the waves are consistently breaking. If you are in the foamy area on a big day, you are at risk of being caught in the wrong spot during a big set. Eden Edwards, a Westside surfer who was surfing on the day of the tragedy and witnessed the incident firsthand, said that the experience caused her to really realize the power of the ocean and that “sometimes even lifeguards can’t help you.”
This tragic death should be a reminder to anybody who spends time in the ocean of the unpredictable, dangerous nature of the ocean and how important it is to be prepared and educated before going out in big surf. It is essential to thoroughly assess conditions and your own physical ability before entering the ocean. Conditions can be dangerous and life threatening, and if we don’t realize our own limitations and listen to advice from authorities such as lifeguards, the effects can be devastating.