SANTA CRUZ, Calif. - The Santa Cruz Harbor Master has launched a formal investigation following the Sunday rescue of a dozen novice sailors from large ocean swells.
Witnesses agonized for what seemed an eternity as the forecast swells flipped a dozen young yachters into the frigid waters of Santa Cruz Harbor at about 4:30 pm.
"We saw them out in the water in the first place. And we have no why they were even out there," said witness Jenny Umstead.
She and others said a dozen novice yachters tried to re-enter the harbor during a sailing lesson in low tide and large swells.
"We were all terrified because the tide had dropped. So across the harbor, there were these massive waves breaking," said Umstead.
The ill-fated timing led to the waves capsizing some boats, sending sailors – some as young as 7 years old – into the water.
"It was a scary scene to come into because there were a lot of kids," said surfer Shawn Burns.
He was part of a group of surfers who paddled out to the children and pulled them from the water.
"She (Linden DesJardins) was fine, but she was also very scared. She said that she was having trouble breathing," Burns said.
The sailing lesson was operated by the Santa Cruz Yacht Club. Its commodore says the class included intermediate and advanced sailors. An internal investigation is also underway.
Scientists also wondered why anyone was in the sea that day.
"Stay away from the ocean. I don’t know why yachts would be going out. Maybe they think they’re immune?" said San Jose State University atmospheric scientist Dr. Alison Bridger.
She said the National Weather Service issued warnings for large swells Sunday, with some wave heights reaching 30 feet. Experts said winds from as far away as the Gulf of Alaska are to blame.
"The harder the wind is blowing, the larger the area over which it’s blowing, and the longer it blows, results in the largest swells," said Dr. Jim Barry, a senior scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.
Santa Cruz firefighters say all the boaters who went overboard were rescued with no injuries.