Life In Salt. The Heavy Water Rescuers – Part I.
A Scuttlefish Feature.

by Chris Dixon

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Rescuers Jonathan Hoover (on the ski) and Frank Quirarte (on another ski) with a Ringside Seat to Shawn Dollar’s World Record Wave at Cortes Bank.  Photo Courtesy: Frank Quirarte. 

Editor’s note. In the past month, Surfer’s Journal and The San Francisco Chronicle have seen fit to cast a spotlight on a few of the unsung heroes of the big wave surfing world. I’m not talking about the small cadre of surfers who dare to put themselves into these five story tall impact zones, I’m talking about the even smaller cadre of hellpeople who willingly rush into one of the most dangerous environments on earth to pluck the surfers out before – or after – they’ve drowned.

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Strong Safeties, The Surfer’s Journal Issue 23.6.

On New Year’s Day, Chronicle sportswriting legend Bruce Jenkins penned a terrific article on Mavericks rescuer/photographer Frank Quirarte, while Surfer’s Journal gave me the honor of profiling Jonathan Hoover and his own understudy Ryan Thompson in an article called “Strong Safeties.”

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Frank Quirarte snaps shots of surfers, and saves them, too. By Bruce Jenkins, The San Francisco Chronicle

I first met Quirarte back in 1998 during my first trip to cover a Maverick’s contest for Surfer magazine. I’ve had the scary opportunity to share the back of a jetski with Frank in some big waves. His laconic attitude out in the water, casually drifting over 20 foot swells with throttle in one hand and camera in the other, masks the fact that he’s ready at a moment’s notice to put his life on the line in front of storm-driven ocean.

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Frank Quirarte Driving with Grant Washburn on the Back. Maverick’s Contest, 1999. Photo: Chris Dixon

And it’s not just storm-driven surf. In 2005, Quirarte and Billabong XXL coordinator Bill Sharp traveled to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, launched an improvised, jetski based rescue effort and saved an untold number of lives in the fetid, flooded streets of The Big Easy.

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Frank Quirarte in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Photos: Bill Sharp.  

Jonathan Hoover, on the other hand, is a relative newcomer to the big wave world, but not the world of rescue. He’s one of the most highly trained rescue boat operator lifeguards in San Diego, California. In December, 2012, Hoover was recruited by Garrett McNamara and Amazonian waterwoman Shawn Alladio for a fateful run to Cortes Bank. When Greg Long drowned, and was resuscitated, Hoover (and Quirarte for that matter) had a big part in ensuring that Greg made it home alive. The efforts were not lost on Long, who has since made Hoover part of his safety entourage.

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Hoover with the Sea Lions of Cortes Bank. Photo Courtesy: Ryan Moss/ryancmoss.com

In honor of these guys, and with the blessing of Surfer’s Journal editor Scott Hulet, I thought I’d post up my interview with Hoover and Thompson for the Journal. In Part 1, they’ll talk about what it takes to do the job they do. In Part 2, later this week, we’ll hear about their hairball experiences, and have Hoover discuss some of the gear he usses to stay safe in the water.

I am not worthy. — CD

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Jonathan Hoover. Fins Up at Cortes Bank in 2014. Photo Courtesy: Ryan Moss/ryancmoss.com

Chris Dixon. So Jonathan, who the heck are you? 

I’m an Oceanside boy. Raised here in town. Through my family and friends, I got into surfing, sailing, boating and diving. Oceanside kind of raised me, actually. I went to high school inland in Vista. My dad had moved me out there. But that didn’t work out because I’d find myself at Oceanside Harbor surfing all the time.

One day after high school, I was sailing down in San Diego. I was 19. I’d been driving tow trucks for a living – six days a week. And I saw these harbor patrol guys go cruising by on a boat, and I’m thinking, wait a minute, I bust my ass, six days a week so I can sail one day? And these guys get paid to do this all the time? How can I get paid to do what I love to do?

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Photo Courtesy: Jonathan Hoover. 

I shoulda kicked my guidance counselors in High School because they never mentioned anything like this. So I decided at age twenty to start doing all the training you need to do search and rescue on the boats. I was kind of old to start lifeguarding, everyone working on the boats was 15 years older than me. A lot of guys were on the brink of retirement, so I was really fortunate to be tucked in under their wings. I learned so many niche things from them – like using a line of kelp beds as a reference point in the middle of the ocean – things you won’t find in a book. It was different from a lot of other careers where people tend to hoard information. Water rescue is more about sharing that information and making sure that everyone has the facts, skills and abilities. You don’t want to bring someone in and have them be as good as you, you want them to be better than you.

First, I was on a boat full time out of Point Loma patrolling to the Mexican border. It was a 30-foot Livesay, twin-screw fire rescue boat. They’re sort of the jack-of-all-trades of rescue boats. Whether someone’s sinking, burning or running aground, you’re their one stop shop. There was also a Coast Guard rescue station where we operated, but we were on the water all the time – we didn’t have to worry about launching or getting a crew together, so that meant we were first on the scene. Military planes crashing, helicopters ditching, big marina fires, storms, going out and finding people who had absolutely no business being offshore. Situations where it’s a fricking yard sale, we were there.

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Photo Courtesy: Jonathan Hoover. 

I worked in San Diego for two years. Then, when an opening came up to move to Oceanside, I moved up here and now work a 29-foot Crystaliner rescue boat. Lots of lifeguarding boats in Southern California are the same style; fiberglass, twin- screw inboards, scuba gear, medical gear, a swim step with a cut-out transom so you can pull people from the surf line.

With the Oceanside Harbor Patrol, we cover over 1200 square miles of water and go thirty, forty miles plus out to Sea. There’s no other vessel assets besides us for twenty to twenty-five miles in either direction, so we work super tight with the Oceanside lifeguards to maximize our resources. They have great medical training and great swimmers. When you go offshore, it’s pretty easy to understand how that would be critical.

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Unofficial Training with Hoover Far Right. Photo Courtesy: Jonathan Hoover. 

In terms of certifications, I have my 100 Ton Masters license with the Coast Guard, my rescue and EMT certifications and then we have to go through approximately 300 to 500 hours of training with other public safety entities. It’s everything from basic rescue boat ops to towing and salvage – pulling boats off the beach to avoid environmental damage or save a boat from being destroyed. I’ve probably gone through a little over 1000 hours of in-house training. And that’s just the basic qualifications to be the skipper – the rescue boat operator. Ideally, we’ll have someone onboard as a crewmember for three to four years before they can even test to be an operator. The reason is that you need the real experience because the situations we deal with are very high risk but low frequency events. You could be on a boat for a year and only experience a handful of really critical rescues. When you’re behind the helm, it all falls on you – all the responsibility. If your crewmember does something wrong, that falls on you too – because you’re the captain. So the idea behind all that training and time is that you’re able to experience a lot of those critical things under the direction of somebody else in a way where you’re not ultimately responsible for the overall outcome.

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Rescue Boat Captain, Rescue Diver, Lifesaver, Badass. Photo Courtesy: Jonathan Hoover.  

CD: How did you get involved with the surf rescue side of things?

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Unloading the Skis, Cortes Bank, 2014. Photo Courtesy: Frank Quirarte

Well I’ve always subscribed to the idea that cross training is super important on the water, everything has an application. So I had put in to take a PWC (personal watercraft, aka jet ski) course. We don’t operate PWC’s as the Harbor Patrol, but to me, there’s plenty of times where I see a jetski get in trouble and that knowledge of operation could be beneficial.

So I put in for some cross-training with the California Department of Boating and Waterways. That’s where I met Shawn Alladio. It’s interesting because I was a student in the course and she asked, ‘well, what’s your experience with PWC’s?’ I said, ‘Well, I’ve ridden one up the river, that’s about it.’ And she was like, ‘well, you seem pretty experienced.’ That’s because my approach with a PWC is, it’s a boat. It’s not a toy, it’s an 11-foot jet-powered boat. You think about how a boat functions, and a small craft operates, well you can apply that to any platform. So after I got my certification, I went up to Morro Bay – which was a heavy training ground. They asked me to come back as an instructor to help teach with Shawn and some other instructors from across the state.

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Shawn Alladio, Safety Briefing with Hoover (Center). Photo by Greg Huglin, courtesy of Shawn Alladio.

I try to be really open and learn from everyone, and Shawn, she was really open to teaching. She does a lot of mentorship with people who are willing to put in the work, and I owe her a lot. She does a lot of military training and she took me under her wing and trained me individually on the surf rescue kind of stuff. The coolest things about Shawn are, one, she’s in her 50’s and two, she’s a woman. And I’ll tell you, she’s intense. I can’t even recount the number of times I’ve literally watched her make the biggest, toughest grown men cry.

We’re working with the Marine Corps, the Navy, or some other organization full of badasses. Say you have a PWC washed up on the beach – two or three big guys messing around with it trying to get it out. She’ll go right over and drag it across the beach – okay, here’s your ski. She leads by example, and that’s something she ingrained in me. She won’t ask you to do something she wouldn’t do herself. We’ve done these long offshore runs – hundreds of miles on a ski offshore and she’s just right there while all these young kids are just falling apart at the seams. She’s the first one in the water and the last out.

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Hoover, Loading In. Photo Courtesy: Shawn Alladio.

The Understudy: Ryan Thompson, 28.

I was born and raised in Oceanside. My dad’s from Michigan, and was a Marine for four years. He and mom met in downtown O-side. I have a brother, Jason, who’s an Oceanside beat cop.

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Ryan Thompson. Photo Courtesy: Ryan Thompson. 

Growing up in Oceanside, you just grow up around the water. I wouldn’t say I’m a hardcore surfer, but I can surf. I’m just not a dawn patrol kind of guy. I got into the junior lifeguard program when I was nine, ten years old. Did that ‘til I was 15 and then at that point, kids in the program are actually junior guard assistants – the farm club for the regular guards.

So I started guarding at 16 or 17, your basic tower lifeguard and emergency responder. Got my EMT at 18. That’s a full semester six-unit course; anatomy, physiology, pathology, head trauma, blood trauma, pulse, sweating or not sweating. Basically, we’re paramedics, but we’re not allowed to do needles or airways.

I’m in my eleventh year as a beach lifeguard. We have 72 lifeguards on staff for 3.7 miles of beach. Six are permanent and the rest are seasonal. Of that 72, about 25 are EMT certified, so they’ll be the ones who respond with Jonathan on the boats.

In Oceanside, you’re in a tower for a minimum of your first three years, then you get your EMT, and you get into a truck. That’s a whole new level of responsibility. You take on radio communications with police and the fire department and if a tower has to go on a rescue, you become the back up for that tower. Then once you have your EMT, you can also progress to PWC, IRB (inflatable rescue boat), swift-water rescue and scuba certification.

Jonathan and me, well, pretty much my whole career we’ve been together. When Jonathan puts in the call for lifeguards on the boat, he knows my role and I know his. He’s gonna get me in the right spot to do my water job. Then we have another guard who’s there on the ropes and backup – watching out for me.

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Thompson, Hoover and British Columbia Surfer Fred Hamilton. Photo Courtesy: Jonathan Hoover. 

CD: Why go for all this additional certification if you’re already a lifeguard? Why choose boat rescue over or in addition to being a lifeguard in a tower?  

Ryan: Just being in the tower, you’re only dealing with the beach and what’s right around you. Getting your EMT and into the boat system, you’re getting more calls. Boats are sinking offshore, missing bodies are in the water, boat fires, plane crashes, missing divers, mutual aid rescues with other cities, plus we have this huge Marine base next to us: Camp Pendleton. Those guys are always in the water and unfortunately, they do go down. I wanna help out anybody I can. It’s motivating. It pushes you to do better. And it’s fun.

Hoover: It’s an adrenaline rush.

Ryan: There’s nothing better than coming into a situation where someone thinks they’re going to die and you’re calm, cool and collected, you do your job and they thank you for what you did. For us, it’s just yep, that’s what we do.

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It’s All Fun and Games ’til Somebody Gets Hurt, Then Hoover Steps Up. Oahu Ridgeline. Photo Courtesy: Ryan Moss/ryancmoss.com

Click here for Part II. When It All Goes Wrong — CD

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