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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Origin of Baywatch Malibu: Part One

BY Bob Burnside

It was the winter of 1957, Zuma was the newest county beach and staffed with three men daily, a call car crew and an officer. A large Pacific storm had struck along the California coast with howling winds and large wind driven surf. Water temps had dropped to 48 degrees and the sand was blinding.
In the late afternoon, suddenly the headquarters’ switchboard lit up like a Christmas tree. Lt. Goldie Fields answered the first call and then switched the second over to me. My call was from the Malibu sheriff’s office relating that they were receiving numerous calls that a boat was overturned off Leo Carrillo State Beach, eight miles north of Zuma. Lt. Fields dispatched the call car immediately to the location, as the switchboard kept lighting up with incoming calls about the capsized boat.
In those days, our only call car was a “hand-me-down old International pickup” transferred to the division from the Parks and Recreation Department. Its top speed was 55 mph. It would vapor lock, if taken over 60 mph. It was always embarrassing to be on a Code 3 and have other vehicles go by us smiling, as we would floor this “old rusty bucket” as much as we dared, hoping to make it go faster.
As the call car driver, also assigned to the call car was (future chief) Howard Lee, who had just recently been assigned to Zuma from Hermosa after his discharge from the 82nd Airborne. Lee was quickly about to get a serious baptism into a Zuma winter ocean rescue, in freezing water and howling winds.
Arriving on the scene, four people were observed hanging onto a 15-foot skiff, approximately a mile and a half offshore. Having more experience with the county rescue board, I started down the embankment with the 11-foot, 55-pound hollow Peterson paddle. Entering the water, I told Lee to contact Zuma for help from the U.S. Coast Guard at Point Hueneme, which was about 12 miles north of the location, and radio headquarters and have Lt. Fields contact Paradise Cove to see if the commercial fishing boat, “The Lennobrok,” could be dispatched. The paddle was nearly more than I could handle, given the conditions, and was all the worse as wet suits had not been developed yet.
Upon arriving at the capsized boat, I found that the victims were disoriented, frightened and near panic. I positioned all of them on the windward side of the craft to avoid its lines and gear from entangling them. Three of the victims were in fair shape, considering the circumstances, but the fourth was an elderly man who was going into hypothermia rapidly.
Hoping that a vessel was well under way to assist in the rescue, I moved from victim to victim, assuring them that help was on the way. The wind kept moving the rescue board away from the craft, so I had to swim quickly to retrieve it several times. The highway was also now packed with vehicles from the sheriff’s department, fire department, CHP and spectators. Red lights and sirens created a wild scene, as viewed by those hanging on to the capsized craft, which didn’t help with keeping them calm.
Time now became a major factor as over 45 minutes had passed and a decision needed to be made. Recognizing that the elderly victim might likely die if not brought ashore immediately, I asked the younger three victims if they could hang on until I got the man to the beach. I told them I would return to them as quickly as possible. They agreed, and struggling with the conditions, I finally landed the victim on the beach exhausted.
I handed the heavy board over to Howard Lee, and said, “Go get ’em “Howie!” Lee was up to the task; he was entering a raging ocean on his first ocean rescue. It was a tough paddle in extreme conditions, over two large kelp beds by a novice paddler, but one with a big heart and determined to get to the remaining three victims. On his arrival, he assured the group that help was coming. But the question was, when? The two men were rotating from the top of the hull into the water, while the woman was the only victim that kept calm and remained in the water. “Howie” had his hands full.
It was another hour, when out of the west-northwest, I noticed a large Navy crash vessel approaching. It headed directly to the location and pulled the three victims on board, returning them to the Naval facility at Point Hueneme. Lee paddled back to shore frozen and exhausted.
The elderly man had already been transported via ambulance to the Malibu emergency facility. He recovered after a few hours of thawing out and medication.
I went down to the beach to help Lee with the rescue board and wondered whether “Howie” was ready to return to Hermosa after this ordeal. I might have gone with him, if the opportunity had been presented to us by Chief Bud Stevenson. We both stood staring at each other, our bodies trembling because that type of cold hurts, but both of us feeling accomplished that it all had turned out for the best.
As we walked back to the call car, suddenly all the vehicles on the coast highway started honking their car horns. People were coming up and patting the two of us on our backs, bringing us blankets and coffee, and just showing a lot of appreciation. Horns and the emergency vehicle sirens also started to howl in harmony with the public. It was a warm feeling for us two young Zuma lifeguards.
Now, after glorying “Howie” and myself, the point to be made about this incident was that it brought a huge amount of press coverage. The editors of the Malibu and Santa Monica newspapers blasted the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors for not funding a rescue boat for Malibu. The entire community was up in arms, and a large contingent gathered at the next board meeting in downtown Los Angeles to express its outrage.
Needless to say, it took only two weeks for Fourth District Supervisor Burton Chace to put forth a motion to immediately fund a rescue boat for Malibu. The motion passed unanimously.
With that knowledge in hand, Skipper Micky O’Brien and Chief Stevenson had the plans on the table in a month. Thus Baywatch Malibu came to be and was operational the following summer season. The first summer Baywatch Malibu made numerous beach rescues and over 75 boat rescues in the northern division.
Yes, the power of the press is a tool not to be forgotten.
Submitted by County Recurrent—Part Two in Next Week’s Issue

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