Monster ocean swells claim lives in California

The winter swell that enticed big-wave surfers to Mavericks, also cost two people their lives this week. 

On Monday, a Utah woman was swept into the ocean in Humboldt County.

On Tuesday, an unidentified man drowned off the Pacifica Pier, after being knocked down by a wave.

"Sadly we have tragic accidents because people don't understand and appreciate the power of the ocean," said Southern Marin Fire Battalion Chief Matt Bouchard. 

Tragedy was averted Tuesday off the Marin Headlands, where 25 foot waves were breaking 16 seconds apart.

A mayday call came in, from two people on a jet ski in distress. 

They had been towing surfers offshore to an area known as the Potato Patch when the tow rope tangled in the jet ski propulsion.

Adrift for 90 minutes, they were perilously close to the surf zone when they were spotted and rescued.

"This had a positive outcome, no one was injured, and we got there in time," said Bouchard.

The Pacifica emergency had the opposite outcome.

"We have large turbulent water, very treacherous today, and it's really really dangerous out here," said Jeff Huntze, Battalion Chief for the North County Fire Authority.

Tuesday morning about 8 a.m., rescuers were dispatched to Beach Boulevard and Paloma Avenue.

Witnesses saw a man climb over a fence to get to the rocks below, where he was swept away.

Screaming for help and struggling to swim in, no one could reach him.    

"Today we had a large surf line approximately 14 to 20 feet and we closed the pier here at Pacifica because of the large surf," said Huntze.

For five hours, the waters between Pacifica and Daly City were searched by helicopter and lifeboat, but there was no sign of the man, and the effort was suspended.

"If you're going to come out here, stay away from the beach and the water edges for for your own safety," admonished Huntze.

Big waves tend to draw spectators and surfers to the ocean. 

Even after the High Surf Advisory expired, waves remained noticeably strong.

"I've seen quite a few shoes and blankets swept out tonight when the water crept up on people, so that's a little unusual" said Tom Joyce, enjoying a walk on Baker Beach in San Francisco.

Some teenagers were in the water with skim boards, but most people were keeping their distance, and documenting the pounding surf with their cell phones.

"We have a son who surfs here pretty often and he came down here today and said no way I'm going in that," said Alan Bernier, who walks the beach daily with wife Sydney.

"We're very glad he made that decision," she added.

Those who spend the most time observing the ocean, know to respect it.

Bouchard says he asks visitors to think of it as standing on top of a highrise.

"They're lured in by the beauty of it, and don't understand it's really as dangerous as dangling your toes off a skyscraper," said Bouchard. "One missed step and you're at the mercy of the ocean."

The death in Humboldt County is being felt deeply in Salt Lake City.

Mary Malouf, 65, was the executive editor of Salt Lake Magazine, and well-known as a community leader.

The Humboldt County Sheriff's Department says Malouf and her adult son ventured onto a jetty, where they were both dragged into the ocean by a large wave.

Only the son survived, by clinging to the jetty rocks, but required CPR, authorities said. 

The two were visiting the area, and had come to Humboldt Bay to watch the waves, which were up breaking at up to 28 feet at the time.

Debora Villalon is a reporter for KTVU.  Email Debora at and follow her on Twitter@DeboraKTVU