Clint Eastwood actually is a bad-ass in real life

by Mark Lukach

Clint Eastwood has been playing bad-asses in movies for his entire acting career, but I had no idea that he was a bad-ass in real life, too.

My friend Chris tipped me off to a pretty incredible story about Eastwood from when he was only 21 years old: the guy survived a plane crash at sea and swam a few miles to shore off the coast of Point Reyes, California, in freezing cold water that is a major breeding ground for great white sharks.

Are you feeling lucky, Clint?

Eastwood was stationed at Fort Ord as a lifeguard in 1951, and hopped on a Douglas AD-1 military aircraft for a ride from Seattle to Sacramento.  An AD-1 is a two-seater, so it was just Eastwood and the plane’s pilot, Anderson.

The most in-depth telling of the story is in the book Clint Eastwood: A Biography by author Richard Schickel. Because the book is only partially available on Google Books, I can’t find many details about the captain, or the circumstances that precipitated the plane going down.

It was some type of technical malfunction that caused the pilot to perform a crash landing at sea, a few miles off the coast of Point Reyes. It was October, and the water in Northern California in October is quite cold, usually in the mid-50s. Anderson and Eastwood climbed out onto the wing of the plane, but it was clearing going to sink. With the plane going down, the pair jumped off and started swimming towards the shoreline, with the current pulling them north. They promised to try to stay together.

Here are a few excerpts from Eastwood himself from the biography:

And then it started getting dark, and I lost him. I didn’t know whether he was alive or where the hell he was. And I wasn’t about to start yelling, because it wastes a lot of energy. I went through jellyfish schools and all kinds of things, and they became fluorescent at night. It was like some science-fiction deal. By this time, you know, your mind is–talking about hallucinating…

Eastwood swam through a kelp bed, where the phosphorous was glowing brightly, which allowed him to see the shoreline, and the whitewater of crashing waves. He spotted an area where it didn’t appear to be too rocky.

I kind of worked my way into that–just partly luck, because everywhere the water was very rough. And I got into this spot and had a really rough time climbing out.

He made it to the beach, and kept hallucinating that he saw Anderson in the water behind him. A few times he rushed back into the water to grab rocks that he thought was the other survivor.

He climbed out of the cove and saw in the distance a bright light. He walked towards it, barefoot and freezing cold, went across a lagoon, jumped a fence, and got to a building owned by RCA that transmitted radiograms.

He was picked up and brought to the Coast Guard station up further, where he reunited with Anderson, who had also survived.

The San Francisco Chronicle ran the story with the headline “Swimming Teacher Paddled 2 Miles After Plane Crash.”

That’s pretty remarkable. October can see some fairly sizeable swells, and Point Reyes is a large landmass that typically takes a large brunt of any and all swells. It’s hard to gauge from the account exactly where he came to shore, but there’s no question in my mind that many people would not have survived that swim. Clint was a confident swimmer, a lifeguard and a swim instructor at a military base. A less confident swimmer probably would not have made it that far, in the dark and the cold, alone.

*book sources Clint Eastwood: A Biography, Clint: The Life and Legend. Image from Thanks to Chris Mulchay for the tip.

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