Rescue units find selves at sea


On the very day the U.S. Coast Guard was searching for John F. Kennedy Jr.’s missing plane, Malibu’s real Baywatch — the nickname for the L.A. County Lifeguards (as well as their rescue boat) — may have taken nearly twice as long to rescue three victims of a freak sailing accident virtually in sight off their Zuma Beach headquarters.

That the boat’s passengers lived to tell the tale was, according to them, due more to luck and preparation than any action on the part of the lifeguards who, they say, initially greeted the alarm with nonchalance, or the sheriff’s office, which seemed inexplicably indifferent.

It was near-perfect sailing weather when, at 3:30 that Saturday afternoon, architect and Malibu resident David von Oeyen (a lifelong sailor), his son Geoffrey (a mainstay of the Stanford University sailing team) and Geoff’s girlfriend, Jyoti Bollman, launched the family’s 20-foot Tornado catamaran as they had for eight years, from a friend’s private beach near Victoria Point. As with his 15 earlier sails in July, not only did everyone wear wet suits and life jackets, David’s wife, Nancy, and his younger son, Andrew, remained on the beach as part of a “buddy system,” aware of where the trio were sailing and when they should be back.

“The wind was steady at 15-20 knots,” von Oeyen, vice commodore of the grandly named (but fairly modest with only 24 members) Malibu Yacht Club, recalls. “We were running fast, about 16 to 18 knots on the port tack about two miles offshore, when I felt a bump, and the entire front end of the starboard hull broke off. My first reaction was that we had hit a whale or a shark.” The catamaran immediately began to turn over as the hull filled with water; eventually all that remained above water was the port hull. On it, Geoff and Jyoti were perched; David, who, more than the danger of sharks, feared his added weight would sink their remaining hull, treaded water. “I looked at my watch,” he recalls. “It was 3:50.”

“I was reading,” Nancy recalls, “and looked out to see their sail every few minutes. Then it wasn’t there any more.” She waited five minutes and then ran to a neighbor’s house to sound the alarm. She knew something was wrong but was determined not to let her terror show. “This was my family,” Nancy recalls thinking. “What do I have to do? I figured if I acted calmly, they would take me seriously.”

Unfortunately, it seems that wasn’t the case, at least in the beginning. “I called Baywatch,” she says, “and they said to relax, that they’d probably turn up after a while, and may have rounded Point Dume and couldn’t be seen. I knew that was crazy because there is no way they could have gone that far from the time I last saw them until they disappeared.”

Five minutes after Nancy’s 4:05 call to the lifeguards (the time confirmed by the neighbor who dialed the number for her), she called the Lost Hills Sheriff’s station at the suggestion of the guard on Broad Beach. “I asked them to radio their helicopter which you always see flying up and down the coast and ask if the pilot would look for the boat out of his window. The woman who took the call identified herself as a deputy and said it wasn’t their domain and that I should call the lifeguards back and ask them to call the Coast Guard. I guess their domain is patrolling the beaches for dogs off their leashes, people drinking and nude sunbathers,” Nancy says. “Apparently looking for people in the water which, in this case could have been easily done, was less urgent.”

Sheriff’s Lieutenant Jim Glazar says there is no problem looking out the window and that they “do it all the time.” When asked to confirm the alarm, however, he said that the machine that taped all incoming calls had “eaten” everything between July 12 and 25 and thus there was no record. Later, Glazar said he had questioned the female deputy on duty that afternoon who remembered only a call about a jet ski and none about a missing catamaran. “Someone may have walked by, heard the phone ringing and answered it,” Glazar said. “If there was a mistake, we are very sorry. We are the public safety answering point. My people know how to handle that kind of call, but I can’t prove it.” Glazar subsequently advised that he had contacted the helicopter pilot and “absolutely confirmed” that neither he nor his assistant were flying their green-and-gold “bird” at any time July 17. “Perhaps they saw the Navy helicopter, which is dark green,” Glazar said.

Frustrated and frantic, Nancy drove first to Point Dume to see if she could see the boat, and then to the Zuma Beach Baywatch headquarters. According to Nancy, one of the six or seven lifeguards eating fruit and cookies when she arrived said, “We think we’ve found them.” “We talked about the search for JFK Jr. and that now it was happening to me,” she said. It was now past 5 p.m., an hour after Nancy had first alerted Baywatch. According to Nancy, it would be sometime longer before the lifeguards radioed that they had found people in the water and that the boat was “a total.” There were, incidentally, 90,000 people on the Malibu beaches that afternoon, of which an estimated 75,000 were on Zuma, according to lifeguard Captain Tom Viren. “We made nine rescues [of swimmers],” he said, “a busy day but not an extremely busy day.”

Although lifeguard Captain Nick Steers at Baywatch headquarters originally claimed there was no record of a call at 4:05 p.m. and that the alarm didn’t go out until Nancy arrived at Zuma at 5 p.m., Viren later said indeed a call was received “between 4 and 4:40” but the lifeguard who took the call (and claims that it was Mrs. von Oeyen who suggested the boat may have rounded Point Dume) failed to record it. “We started calling the guard stations from Surfrider Beach to Leo Carrillo, and asked if they could see a boat to try to pin down the location and start a search,” said Viren, “but all reported negative. When she arrived at 5 p.m., we told her we had located the boat with binoculars straight out from our headquarters and picked them up within 5 minutes.”

Not according to David: “It was 5:35 when they picked us up, and we only saw the Baywatch boat five minutes before that. They told us they didn’t see us until they were nearly upon us. Everyone sat on this for an hour or more, apparently because they didn’t believe Nancy.” In fact, Nancy believes no one took the alarm seriously until Andrew, who, around 4:40, seeing through binoculars that the Baywatch boat was still at Zuma Beach, called and demanded that they “do something!”

After piling the trio into the Baywatch boat — all shivering from their long exposure in 64- 65-degree water — the lifeguards attached a line to the crippled catamaran and towed it in, not to Broad Beach where the guards feared the wreck would endanger swimmers (there are very few) but to Paradise Cove. There they anchored it offshore where, the next day, David and his sons dismantled it underwater and hauled the remains onto another friend’s beach.

“It usually takes a tragedy for things like social ills or rescue services to be improved,” David said. “Well, thank God there was no tragedy here, but there could have been. A serious warning was treated with either nonchalance or indifference. Although we are thankful for the professionalism showed by the lifeguards when they finally picked us up, there is no question in my mind that if the various rescue services available — the lifeguards, the sheriff’s station, and perhaps the Coast Guard — were coordinated, we would have been rescued much faster. I think the emergency rescue system fell apart. I hope everyone takes this episode as a wake-up call.”