Tragic weekend a reminder of the dangers of the Sonoma Coast

By Camille Escovedo, Staff Writer, Sonoma West Times & News, January 4, 2021

Unpredictable waves are a dangerous fact of life along the Sonoma Coast. (Photo by Rich Flournoy)

The Sonoma County coastline proved its perilous nature again when Michael Wyman, 40, of Petaluma, died Jan. 3 after a large wave pulled him and his two young children out to sea near Goat Rock in Jenner.

Search teams have yet to find his 7-year-old daughter Anna and 4-year-old son John.

Damien Jones, a supervising Sonoma Coast State Park peace officer and ranger, said that both children are presumed dead.

Jones was there Sunday when different agencies worked together to coordinate the search and tried to resuscitate the father pulled ashore on Blind Beach by bystanders and on Jan. 4 when the search resumed. They are survived by their mother and Wyman’s wife, who managed to get to safety Sunday.

Jones said the incident began around 2 p.m. on Sunday when the National Weather Service’s high surf advisory had passed, but the waters were still rough.

A State Park lifeguard was leaving the area after he had been monitoring Goat Rock Beach with a megaphone, warning people to watch out for the surf, when people flagged him down to report the incident at Blind Beach, Jones said.

The lifeguard called a dispatch center for more resources and tried to locate the children in the waters while bystanders performed CPR on the father. Thwarted by surf conditions, he returned to assist with CPR and more units arrived, Jones said.

State Park Rangers, the Coast Guard, the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office (SCSO) with its helicopter Henry-1, the Monte Rio Fire Department and the Bodega Bay Fire Protection District (BBFPD) were among the agencies responding, BBFPD Captain Justin Fox said.

Fox said BBFPD sent a rescue swimmer to work with lifeguards, an ambulance to aid the father and a rescue truck crew to assist the search landside. Fox’s crew lined up along the cliff’s edge with binoculars to determine the ocean conditions, current directions and where the children might appear, communicating with the Coast Guard and helicopter personnel.

According to Fox, BBFPD was there for almost two hours on Sunday, until the fog became too thick to see from the cliff and agencies continued the search by water. He said State Parks personnel, the Coast Guard and the SCSO remained there most of the evening.

The search resumed at about 7 a.m. Monday morning, by mainly State Park lifeguards and K-9 officers from the sheriff’s office, Jones said. State Park personnel walked the entire Blind Beach while others studied the surf from a higher elevation and Henry-1 was able to fly out midday during a break in the weather. Dangerous water conditions Monday morning prevented the SCSO dive team from going out into the water.

Murphy said the State Park officially closed the main gate to Goat Rock to prevent vehicular access to its parking lot, adding that the family parked at the open Blind Beach parking lot about a mile from Goat Rock Road, which did not have any gates that could be shut. The beaches were open to pedestrians to walk down the hill and assess the surroundings, even as media outlets and the National Weather Service warned of surf conditions that weekend, he said.

Jones’ fellow Supervising State Park Peace Officer Tim Murphy said he understood the family to have recently moved to Petaluma.

According to the Chabad Jewish Center of Petaluma, both Anna and John were getting ready to start school at Petaluma Hebrew and their mom Sarah Wyman, in partnership with Chabad, has decided to open The Anna and John Wyman Scholarship Fund, where people can donate money to ensure that “every Jewish child be able to receive a Jewish education, and explore their culture, traditions and holidays” by financially assisting families who otherwise would not be able to send their kids to Hebrew school.

Safety at the coast

In the past week, numerous coastal incidents have occurred, including the Jan. 2 Henry-1 rescue of someone who fell from a cliff at Elephant Rock near Dillon Beach and sustained major traumatic injuries and the Dec. 31 rescue of someone whose vehicle went over the cliff in the area of Coleman Beach.

There isn’t much new to say about how to prevent tragedies like this, according to Fox, although he and Jones both said that their agencies could always use more staffing. Fox said BBFPD tries to get more training for its staff since it only has a couple of rescue swimmers and the one sent to Blind Beach was the only one available. Murphy said two lifeguards were monitoring the State Park coastline at the time of the incident, which he said is not unusual in winter months.

The lifeguards are seasonal workers, Murphy said.

During the park’s peak season from April to the end of September, Murphy said the park may have as many as six or seven lifeguards, but the lower number in winter is partly due to aquatic activity, lower visitation, schedule availability and the departure of some lifeguards taking full-time positions with various fire departments or becoming paramedics.

“We generally just tell people even on what most people think of as calm days or days when we don’t have advisories that are broadcast on the media or anything else, the Sonoma coast here and the northern California coast, the ocean is just dangerous overall,” Jones said. “It’s just cold and unforgiving.”

While State Park lifeguards make occasional rescues, deaths are fairly infrequent along the county coastline, he said. But first responders were on alert the weekend after New Year’s due to the surf conditions.

“I can guarantee you for sure the lifeguards were running around doing a lot of educating on the days prior to that just because the surf was so big,” Jones said. There were others knocked down by a wave aside from the father and his children that weekend, according to Fox.

Jones said the lifeguards spend the majority of their shifts informing visitors to stay on the dry sand and never turn their backs to the ocean, and that most of the people the lifeguards end up talking to are largely unaware of ocean’s dangers because they’re not from the area.

Fox agreed that unfamiliarity with the ocean does not bode well in risky situations.

“Blind Beach essentially disappears in a big swell. And everybody calls them rogue waves or sneaker waves, which they are to a certain extent, but they’re also just kind of naturally occurring,” he said.

“People that know the ocean know that occasionally there are larger sets of waves that come in than the others, so people watch it as they’re walking down the beach but they don’t quite necessarily understand that at any given time, fifteen minutes from then, there will be a larger set of waves that comes through, so it’s really just an unfamiliarity and a lack of knowledge from the ocean,” Fox said.

Besides turbulent waves, visitors also have to contend with dangerous temperatures in the water.

“Once you end up in the ocean, you’re dramatically less capable once you get the shock of the cold water, and the time you have to be an effective swimmer in this ocean — without proper PPE, without a wetsuit — is dramatically reduced as well,” Fox said. “I think the goal is just to make sure people understand the Sonoma coast is not San Diego.”

Fox said heeding warnings is the common, but key, message — though the signs don’t always convey the gravity of each situation. He said water safety is far more complex than telling people any of the local beaches are safe for children during big swells but said beaches north of Salmon Creek Beach are steeper and tend to have more “so-called sneaker waves.”

Jones said Goat Rock, Portuguese and Wright’s Beaches are three of the Sonoma Coast State Park’s most dangerous because the drop-off is especially precipitous right off the shore.

“People do get knocked down. It doesn’t take long for them to get where they can’t stand, and then they get beat up in what we call the washing machine, which is just that little tumbling surf zone right off the shore,” he said.

These physical characteristics are why State Park staff monitor those beaches more than others.

In 2020, the BBFPD responded to 15 calls for ocean rescue, Fox said, though not every situation required medical attention or much intervention as some self-rescued or a lifeguard or surfer assisted them out of the water.
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This article was produced by Sonoma West Times & News, the hometown newspaper of Sebastopol and west county since 1889. See more news at sonomawest.com