Life In Salt. The Rescuers – Part II. When It All Goes Wrong.
A Scuttlefish Feature

by Chris Dixon

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“You don’t have time to panic and you don’t have time to freak out. You just have to function, because people’s lives depend on it.”  — Jonathan Hoover. Image Courtesy: Greg Long and Ryan Moss

When Jonathan Hoover stepped onto the yacht Mr. Terrible on December 21, 2012, at the Cortes Bank, all he knew was that a big wave surfer had gone down, hard. He didn’t even know Greg Long. Yet when he found one of the world’s best heavy water riders sprawled out on the stern convulsing and coughing up blood, emotions went out the window. Hoover had work to do.

What follows is the second part of my interview with lifeguard and ocean rescue boat operator Jonathan Hoover and his right hand man Ryan Thompson. You can read part I of the interview, which I originally wrote about in much briefer form for Surfer’s Journal magazine, by clicking here. At the end of this story, Hoover discusses some of his must-have tools of the trade. —CD

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CD: So Jonathan, how’d you end up getting the call to go to Cortes Bank?

Jonathan Hoover: Well, all these trips are super last minute with lots of scrambling. I got a call from Shawn Alladio – hey, we’re going to go to Cortes Bank. Garrett McNamara had contacted her and asked if she’d put together a team to support them in the water for safety. That was my first real exposure to Cortes. I mean, I’d seen it in the magazines, but not knowing anything really, about the location, I jumped in and started researching. My fortes are logistics and planning for a worst case scenario. So initially you pull out a chart and say, okay, you’re a hundred miles from San Diego and LA, and you’re in the middle of the ocean.

So my role for Shawn – as a team each person fulfills different aspects – my job was going to be, if we have a medical evacuation, how would that work? With my employment I have a lot of good contacts and was able to map that out. I dealt with the Coast Guard which was pretty funny. I called (Coast Guard) Sector a couple of days before we left and got the guy at the operations desk. I said, ‘Hey, just curious. We’ve got this trip. Some pro surfers are going out to the Cortes Bank. Would you guys fly out there for a rescue? I got this pause, and the guy goes, ‘Where’s Cortes Bank?’ I say to myself, Oh, we’re f-ed, this isn’t good.’

So I say to the guy, ‘Look at the chart. See Catalina? San Clemente Island farther out? Cortes would be the next island in the chain, except that it’s not an island anymore. It’s just a big reef. It’s barely underwater.’

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The guy goes, “Um, stand by sir.”

So he comes back on and the distances and everything worked out, so that we were right on the edge of where they’d comfortably fly if we had a need for them. If a helicopter wasn’t available though, and someone was trying to die on us – we were going to have to go towards Catalina and have LA County Baywatch come and meet us from the island.

So as I said, part of it for me, was basically giving the inside lines to everybody from these different agencies a heads up, so their first bit of info on the mission was not, hey, we have somebody dying out here at Cortes Bank. By the way, can you send someone in a helicopter? I definitely didn’t need that kid in the Coast Guard station saying, “Where’s Cortes Bank?” with Greg Long lying semi-conscious on the back of the boat.

So out at Cortes, I was actually troubleshooting a ski that had its intake fouled with kelp when Greg went down. It was a mess out there. A clusterfuck. Shawn was in the impact zone rescuing Garrett and then dealing with the other athletes. Garrett then recovered the Red Bull ski that DK Walsh had abandoned to grab Greg. I see Garrett just hauling ass back to our boat screaming for the medic. Then he ran me to Greg’s boat, and it was intense.

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Greg Long Struggles to Breathe at Cortes Bank, Overseen by Hoover and Frank Quirarte. Image Courtesy: Greg Long and Ryan Moss

I wasn’t actually part of the safety team on Greg’s boat, the Mr. Terrible. But obviously part of the contingency between Greg’s boat and ours was, what if something happens on another boat? So I was kind of going in blind, not knowing who the players are or who has training. Without going into too many details, it was interesting – because of my background in public safety, you learn to be able to quickly assess who can help and who is in the way. It quickly became apparent the guys who would be helpful (ed’s note, Frank Quirarte was one of these guys), so I kept them around and cleared the others out.

Here’s the thing. Anybody can drive a jet ski. The real difference in a critical situation is having the background and simply dealing with these kinds of incidents more often. I call it going into work mode. Ryan Thompson is the same way. You don’t have time to panic and you don’t have time to freak out. You simply do your best to pre-plan for these scenarios, so that when it goes down, you’re just walking through them. I don’t want to say it becomes mechanical, because every case is different. You just have to function, because people’s lives depend on it. One hiccup or mistake could be the difference between life and death.

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Hoover Out in the Great Wide Open. Photo: Chris Dixon

So in this case, Greg Long is Patient A. The challenge with Greg was not knowing his team and their specific plan. They had a bunch of supplies, and had done their homework, but in a case like this, you could have communication issues with an agency like the Coast Guard unless you know just the right words to set off the alarms. They won’t just launch because you say, “Help, help, I’m at Cortes Bank.” They need to know, okay, so someone drowned or didn’t drown? Well, he’s breathing. Okay, you still have to use the buzz words. So we explained: “He has blood coming out of his mouth. He has labored breathing and is not able to breathe freely.” We stated he had been unconscious and described his mental status as altered, which we evaluate when we’re looking for head injuries. It was also just telling them, “Hey, I’m an EMT, this is my assessment of the guy.” That sort of thing tells them you know what you’re talking about – as opposed to the family that’s out fishing and hollering into the radio “Oh my God, he’s bleeding so much!”

Really, Cortes was kind of like the job interview I didn’t even know I was on. I’d never even met Greg before this, and now we’re great friends. It’s funny how things work in this field. You’re put in the right place at the right time, and can perform at a high level, then you’re in.

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Frank Quirarte, Greg Long, Jonathan Hoover Thanking the Coast Guard, 2014. Photo: Ryan Moss. 

CD: So after Cortes, you guys went and ran safety at a tidal bore in Canada for some surfers?

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Tidal Bore Running for a 29km Long World Record Ride. Image courtesy: Ryan Thompson. 

Hoover: Yeah, that was interesting. One of the surfers on that trip, Colin Whitbread, used to be a lifeguard in O-side.

Ryan: Colin was my mentor growing up. We were like brothers.

Hoover: So Colin had gone to surf this bore and he nearly drowned. Colin gets knocked off his board and pushed to the bottom. So, in the ocean, a wave goes over you and that energy is constantly dissipating – a wave comes and the water passes over. With a tidal bore, it’s a growing tide. The tides are fifty feet in that area. Colin’s got twelve, then 18, then 36 feet of water weight on top of him. The force is growing and he’s pinned on the bottom and can’t push up. He’s in a twenty, thirty-second hold-down and is able to make one last explosive movement to get off the bottom. That’s how close it was.

Then he asked us to go back with him. I studied the Seven Ghosts and some of the other bores. The hydrology on a tidal bore is gnarly. You have a current flowing downriver at seven knots or so. Then you have a bore coming upriver at another seven knots. Combined, that’s 14, 15 knots of current fighting itself. Then you have bends in the river and lots of refraction off the banks.

Hoover and Thompson Running Safety.

Ryan. And you can’t see an inch into the water, it’s like chocolate milk.

Hoover: So it breaks as this big whitewater mess, or it’s a wedging wave. And there’s crazy turbulence. Colin says, ‘We realized we might have been a little foolish the last time we did this, would you guys go with us this time?’ Enter Ryan and me. It was a pretty incredible experience.

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Photo Courtesy: Ryan Thompson.

CD: Then you guys also got the call to go with Greg and his crew on a heavy mission to Morocco during the Hercules swell that also created huge waves in Nazaré, Portugal.

Hoover: Yeah. Once Ryan said he wanted to do more of this kind of thing, he was in too. We’ve been in so many super sketchy rescues. Boats on the rocks, having to position our boat just in the right spot and having to perform when the shit hits the fan. We may be goofballs, but when it’s time to go to work, I know he’s there 120 percent. But with that said, Morocco had the potential to be a hell mission.

For us, I almost said no to the trip. With such high profile athletes, there could have been serious professional repercussions if something went down. Ryan and I talked about it. We were going to be in the worst possible place if something bad happened. I’ve experienced it with Greg. It can and will happen. It’s just a matter of when and who it will happen to. But what pushed us over the edge was, well, if we don’t go, they’re going to go anyway. Wouldn’t it be worse for me to be home and say, well, liability wise, I covered my ass. I’m glad I wasn’t there. Of course not. Your heart would break if something happened to your buddy and you weren’t there to help.

So we said, screw it, we’re going in together. I got your back, you got mine.

Ryan: It was like going from the little leagues to being in front of Nolan Ryan, and trying to hit a 105-mile-an-hour fastball.

Hoover: For Ryan, it was his first experience in really big waves. I was fortunate to have had the experience at Cortes. Now Cortes is terrible logistically. It’s 100 miles offshore. That alone is a terrible scenario, but we have a fleet of helicopeters with phenomenal pilots who can quickly get you to a world-class hospital. When Greg called me and said, ‘We’re going to Morocco,’ we dropped a pin on GoogleMaps. I’m looking at where we’re going – it was going to be a two-hour boat ride, running on full plane before even touching shore.

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“Healey’s like, ‘Ryan, go get on a ski and get on the face of that wave, so we can see how big it really is.” Two Hours from Anywhere, Staring Down a Morocco Monster. Photo: Said Ait Baaziz. 

Hoover: It’s hard logistically to bring a lot of your medical stuff to a place like Morocco. You may have a couple thousand-dollar AED unit that you can’t even bring with you.

Ryan: Right – Can you imagine trying to bring a small electronic device that speaks to you on a plane through Morocco?

Hoover: Even bringing radios was sketchy. They went through with us, but we saw signs forbidding many of the items from our checked luggage.

So when we got there, we were lucky that our people were able to pull a lot of strings. I mean, they had a government ambulance, but their government ambulance? (To me:) You’ve been through CPR right? (Me, yes). Well, you were probably more qualified than their driver.

Ryan: So Jonathan was coordinating the boats. The guy in charge of us, Yassine. He said, ‘Ryan, come take a look at this ambulance.’ The oxygen system had a hole in the bag that has been patched with tape. The oxygen tank – we had to use a nail we found on the ground to open it. I had brought a basic rescue kit – CPR mask, gauze pads, neck splints, a couple of oral airways – stuff I’m trained on here. Then I took everything we could off the ambulance and put it on the rescue boat.

And really, these guys had never been on a trip where they had an actual medical team. I was running around with a notepad asking the surfers; What are you allergic to? What injuries have you had? What prior medical histories or medications? They were like, ‘I’ve never been asked this on a trip before.’

You have to know as much as you can ahead of time. When someone’s unconscious or altered, you can’t talk to them. If someone’s going to the hospital, pre-planning and knowing before you go is a big thing.

Hoover: The questions Ryan was asking – knowing medical histories and playing through different scenarios – it spurred everyone on, even the Moroccans. They might even have us out to do some training, because they’re always surfing good sized waves in remote locations. The educational process has been really interesting. Ian’s got a tight crew on Maui, but even he said, ‘You know, we should probably go back home and tighten things up. Surfers sometimes don’t want to think about the consequences, so nobody talks about them. But that’s what our role is.

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Hoover. One of Guys You Want Out There. Photo Courtesy: Jonathan Hoover.

Ryan: Still, it was super-humbling to be out with those guys. I’m stepping over Mark Healey, Alex Gray and Ian Walsh and I almost nailed Greg Long with my bag, I’m like, Oh God, I’m so sorry. He says, ‘No man, it’s cool, how are you?’ If you didn’t know the surf world, you wouldn’t know these are such big name guys. They’re not walking around with thousand dollar jeans on, wearing earrings and gold watches. They’re sleeping on the floor. Alex Gray? His board bag has two-dozen slice marks from traveling the world.

It was really interesting watching them too. Everyone has this focus. Greg was doing yoga with Ian. Healey was sitting there with a hoodie on and bobbing his head to music. These guys are full warriors. They’re the best in the world. And we’re out among them.

Hoover: So we get out there on the boat, and we look out and see these waves. These huge waves. And you’ve got Healey, Long and Walsh saying ‘those might be the biggest waves I’ve ever seen in my life.’

Ryan: When I heard that, I was just thinking, oh, my God. Healey’s like, ‘Ryan, go get on a ski and get on the face of that wave, so we can see how big it really is.’ There’s this big, big set coming out the back. I’m literally jumping up and down on the ski screaming because I’m so excited. And I get on the face, and it was just huge. So f’ing huge.

Hoover: So before they went out to surf – as a rescuer, you want to sell yourself as the guy who can take care of everything. You know, the machismo thing. But we had to get real with them and say, ‘Look, this situation we’re looking at and it’s kinda fucked. If what happened at Cortes goes down out here, it’s not going to end as well. Just so we’re all clear. This is what we can provide, and anything beyond that – well, I can give you a fighting chance, but this is as far as I can go for you. Are you willing to take that risk?’

And in the end, it was no big deal. You almost felt guilty you were earning money. We saw 80-foot waves that day, but actually, nothing super sketchy happened. In the end, in our line of work, you’re usually not paid for what you do, but what you might have to do.

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Photo Courtesy: Jonathan Hoover. 


Tools of the Trade.
A few items Hoover and his crew wouldn’t want to live without. 

1. Personal Watercraft.

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Photo Courtesy: Jonathan Hoover.

The Kawasaki Ultra LX is my preference, or the Yamaha.  I like to stay away from anything turbo or supercharged, it’s just one more thing to fail.  I try to get the biggest engine you can get, hopefully something that is at least 1600-1800 cc’s.  I’ve had really bad experiences with Sea Doo…..I like to say “Sea Don’t”

2. Personal Watercraft Rescue Boards: 

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Lifesled or HSA. ‘Nuf said.

3. Helmets. 

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Photo Courtesy: Ryan Moss. 

Gath Helmets. I cannot emphasize the importance of quality head protection enough.  These are slimline but can take a hit.  I use them in all kinds of weird situations.

4. Eyewear. 

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Eye Protection is crucial for day or night to shield your eyes from spray and glare.  Something with full coverage and for daytime on the water, polarized is huge.  I currently love my Dragon “Calavera” shades.

5. Wetsuits. 

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Photo Courtesy: Jonathan Hoover. 

O’neill has been my wetsuit of choice for many years now, they hold up in the worst environments and provide superior warmth while maintaining flexibility.

6. Outerwear. 

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Photo Courtesy: Jonathan Hoover. 

Patagonia or Patagucci as I like to call it, is worth every penny.  I like to wear a Patagonia shell on the water over my wetsuit for a windbreak.  Something that is fairly close fitting so that it doesn’t flap and I can swim with it if I have to.  Their other gear is great for the to and from parts of adventures.  This stuff lasts even with all the things I put my gear through.

7. PFD/Personal Flotation Device: 

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The Mustang Force-6 PFD is my preference in lifejacket. This has the most flotation as it is designed for swift water rescue applications which involve dynamic and aerated water.  The cut is conducive to full range of arm motion for swimming and has plenty of attachment points for radios, knives, and other gear.  This is a fundamental piece of my rescue kit – self rescue is often overlooked but the most important part in my opinion.

8. Marine Radio

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 I-COM radios are great for 2-way communications with your team, but also have VHF access to contact local authorities and the high-end models include GPS positioning for emergencies.

9. Lights/Headlamps. 

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Black Diamond equipment, Petzl lighting, and my weakness for REI.  You get what you pay for.  Buy quality gear, test it, have a back up, plan on it all going to shit and failing.  It will.  Be prepared for when it does.  Preparation is one of the things that has set me apart in my career.  Don’t fly by the seat of your pants….unless you have no other choice, and then flap like hell!!

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Photo Courtesy: Jonathan Hoover. 

Click here to read Part I. The Heavy Water Rescuers. 

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