Last January, Sharmistha Chakraborty and Tarun Pruthi lost their 12-year-old son, Arunay Pruthi, after he was swept off the beach by a wave.
Even with the help of other beachgoers "we couldn’t get to him because there was no device or equipment to throw at him,” Sharmistha said. “They were trying to make ropes out of tents, pulling them apart, trying to make a long line so they could throw it.”
The effort proved unsuccessful. Arunay drifted away too quickly, after being dragged into the ocean by a sneaker wave — a dangerous surge of ocean water that suddenly pushes high on the beach.
Since that tragic day, the Fremont couple has funneled their grief into a mission to protect others from living the same tragedy. Their advocacy resulted in the installation of permanent lifesaving stations and ring buoys at three local Bay Area beaches last November.
The family hopes that warning signs and the rings, which are attached to 100 feet of rope, will alert people to the danger of the ocean and help those who are drowning.
Arunay was one of at least 11 people who died or nearly drowned at Bay Area beaches last fall and winter, according to the National Weather Service.
Drew Peterson, a meteorologist with the agency, says the public is increasingly aware of this once little-known coastal hazard, in part because of tragic stories like Arunay’s. And that’s critical, he says, to prevent more peoplefrom being involved in ocean-related deaths and accidents each year.
Sneaker waves claimed so many lives last year, in part, because people flocked to the beach to enjoy unseasonably warm weather at a safe outlet during the COVID-19 pandemic.
This year, Bay Area officials are warning the public to be extra cautious, especially now as we enter the winter months, prime season for sneaker waves.
Peterson says the number of beach hazard events is already higher than at this time last year, when beaches were pummeled by huge swells. He attributes the increase to La Niña conditions and a high-pressure ridge that creates unseasonable, dry weather.
The weather pattern also allows offshore storms to transfer energy to the ocean’s surface and spawn long, powerful waves that fan out along the California coastline, surprising beachgoers.
The season for sneaker waves
A sneaker wave, sometimes referred to as a “sleeper wave," is a large, unusual train of waves that can surge up powerfully on a beach with no apparent warning. They often arrive after lengthy periods of gentle, lapping waves, knocking people off their feet into the cold water.
The season for sneaker waves can begin as early as September and continue to April, though they are most likely from December to February, Peterson said.
For much of the West Coast, sneaker waves kill more people than all other weather hazards combined, according to the National Weather Service’s website.
The Bay Area’s coastline was active early this year, with three reported drownings in mid-September due to sneaker waves and associated rip currents, Peterson said. The drownings occurred along the craggy, winding shoreline between Davenport and Santa Cruz. Two people drowned at Panther Beach and another — a 17-year-old swimmer and cross-country athlete — at Laguna Creek State Beach.
The ocean is a very powerful force of nature,” Peterson said. “People should understand that any day on the coast can be a dangerous or deadly day.”
‘How can we not know?’
Before their son died, Sharmistha and Tarun had never heard of sneaker waves, although they’d visited beaches all over the world. Now, Sharmistha wonders why more people haven't either.
“We thought: ‘How can we not know?’” she said. “And if we did not know, that means hundreds of other families don't know either —maybe even thousands more.”
Sneaker waves not only sweep away unsuspecting beachgoers, said Tuba Özkan-Haller, a professor of ocean science at Oregon State University. They can also knock them off of rocks and logs, or wash them out of beachside caves and pocket beaches with high-walled bluffs, like those at Cowell Ranch State Beach, where Arunay drowned. Once a person is in the ocean, the cold water can cause hypothermia within minutes.
“It does not look like a curling wave,” she said. “It looks like the tide is rising fast over the course of a few minutes, and it just keeps coming.”
Conditions need to be right for sneaker waves to push up along Bay Area beaches. They are generated by storms offshore in the northern Pacific Ocean and arrive only if there’s no local storm to disrupt or weaken them.
“They often can hit on a beautiful day that basically invites people to come right out to the beach,” Özkan-Haller said.
Most years, sneaker waves are responsible for several drownings or near drownings from Northern California to southern Washington, but many are unreported, she said.
“So often the stories of people being affected by sneaker waves are tragic,” she said. “It's a split second, and your life can change.”
It seemed the perfect day for a beach outing, sunny and unseasonably warm, Sharmistha recalled. It was the family’s first time visiting Cowell Ranch State Beach in Half Moon Bay. They were joined by a group of other families on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
They hadn’t been there long, when a powerful sneaker wave ran up the beach, knocking their younger son, 8-year-old Siddhant, off his feet as he was playing at the water's edge.
Tarun dashed into the water after him, with Sharmistha following, both desperately trying to grab hold of their younger son. But they were rocked about and flung in all directions by a set of turbulent waves, the sand shifting underneath their feet with each step.
At one point, Sharmistha lost consciousness, but awoke with relief when she saw Tarun and Siddhant on the beach beside her.
Then they realized that their older son, Arunay, who they’d last seen higher up on the beach playing frisbee, was missing.
“He knew he was the best swimmer of all of us in the family,” she said. “Maybe that's the reason he thought he needed to jump into the water to save us.”
The water “looked deceptively calm that day,” Tarun said. "In a matter of a minute, no one was able to hold their ground, the wave was just way too strong. It created a churn. I remember going up and down, just like a washing machine.”
But then “someone grabbed my hand and pulled me out,” he said.
Throwing a lifeline
A couple dozen people formed several long lines — human chains with linked arms — and were able to save Tarun, Sharmistha and their youngest son.
The chain of people tried to reach Arunay, too, but he had drifted past their reach. They tried to tie tents together to throw out to him, but weren’t able to do so in time. By the time first responders arrived, he was no longer visible from the shore.
“That’s where the idea of installing ring buoys on beaches came from, and that’s how our journey started,” Sharmistha said, adding that she believes Arunay might be alive today if one had been nearby that day.
The right tools for beach safety
In May, the couple started the Arunay Foundation, in their son’s name, to advocate for beach safety. They worked with Eric Jones of Sea Valor, a nonprofit that teaches sailing to veterans with PTSD and kids from underserved communities, to build and install the emergency buoy stations. He played a key role in the more than six-week search for their son’s body, which was not recovered.
They hope that the buoy stations at Mavericks Beach, Pillar Point Harbor and Surfers Beach in Half Moon Bay are just the beginning, the couple said.
Their organization has advocated for more lifeguards and better warning systems, and designed a beach safety class — similar to those for earthquakes and fires — that they hope will be taught across California to schoolchildren.
“They are more exposed to the beach than they are exposed to a fire or earthquake, so beach safety should be a part of the curriculum, too,” Tarun said.
It was less than a year ago that they lost their son. Yet, the couple quickly realized that they needed to spring into action to prevent other tragedies, even at times when they felt more like staying at home under a blanket, Sharmistha said.
“Something has to be done so that tomorrow this doesn’t happen to anyone else's child,” she said. “But the sadness doesn't go away.”
Tarun used to love the beach, but he says he no longer enjoys it. And when he does go, it’s no longer to relax, but to advocate for beach safety.
In November, they attended a dedication ceremony for the buoy station at Pillar Point Harbor.
Last May, they went to a dedication for a memorial picnic table for their son at Cowell Ranch State Beach. The ceremony occurred on what would have been his 13th birthday.
Tarun says that he and his wife still hope to see a sign of Arunay, when they walk the half-mile trek past the coyote brush and thistles to the beach where they lost him.
“Every time I come here, I’m always searching," he said. "Still looking for him."
Tips for staying safe at the beach:
Check the National Weather Service Bay Area’s website and social media for coastal hazard advisories and warnings. Arrive knowing the weather, tide and surf forecast.
Never turn your back on the ocean. Examine wave activity for 20 minutes from higher ground. Check for wet or dark sand before deciding where to sit. Build in a buffer between you and the surf. Stay further back than you think is necessary and expand the buffer if the beach is low or sloping.
Always have an exit plan. Are you able to get to higher ground easily? Or is it difficult to scramble up the rocks or dunes behind you? If waves do swamp the beach, you should be able to get to higher ground quickly — within 20 seconds — and take into account how able-bodied you are.
Use caution around logs near the water, which can float away or could roll on top of you.
Avoid walking or standing on rock jetties, as waves can knock you off, as well as caves and high-walled bluffs, as tides rise fast and can prevent escape.
Put children in a life vest and dogs on a leash, whenever they play close to the water.
Sources: Tuba Özkan-Haller and the National Weather Service
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