Stranded on a remote California beach, this windsurfer used rocks to spell 'HELP'

The good thing about windsurfing is that you don't need a boat to speed you across ocean waters — just a breeze to propel the giant sail attached to your surfboard.

The bad thing about the sport is that when the breeze dies — or is shielded by massive bluffs — you might just need a boat to get back to where you started.

One experienced windsurfer found himself caught in that unfortunate second situation, forced to take refuge on a remote Santa Cruz County beach Sunday afternoon with no way to get his sail and board back in motion.

Stuck between massive oceanside cliffs and a rising tide, he quickly found himself stranded.

But the man channeled the actions of many desperate castaways and marooned mariners before him with no radio or flare gun at their disposal, using rocks to spell out "HELP" in large letters on the beach in the hopes of catching the attention of a passing aviator.

And exactly that happened.

“That was a different type of 911 call than we usually get," said Capt. Skylar Merritt of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection's San Mateo-Santa Cruz unit. A private helicopter pilot spotted the windsurfer's call for distress and alerted local rescue teams, directing a rescue helicopter to the man's location at an secluded beach south of Davenport Landing, according to the Cal Fire unit.

California State Parks lifeguards were able to swim around to the beach, making initial contact with the man — determining he was medically OK, Merritt said. Firefighters also arrived at the top of bluffs, about 200 feet above the stranded windsurfer, who was not identified.

Merritt said the man was spotted within a few hours of landing on the beach, making for a simpler recovery operation.

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"At the very least, the helicopter that spotted him made it much quicker, where he didn’t have to worry about hypothermia or dehydration," Merritt said.

Due to the rising tide and surf conditions, the multiagency rescue team determined that it would be best to lift the man from the beach. Merritt said they conducted a "static pick," hooking the man up to rescue devices lowered from the helicopter, and flying the craft high enough that he could be placed above the bluffs, where support teams were waiting.

The man was an experienced windsurfer, Merritt said, but the conditions that day became exceptionally challenging, even for someone with sharp skills who knows the area well.

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"It was a combination of decent size surf and what they call a wind shadow," Merritt said, which he described as the condition when high bluffs block the nearby ocean from the wind, decreasing windsurfers' ability to control their boards. “It can be a hard area to predict what the conditions are, with conditions changing very, very fast."

When he was spotted on the shore, the man was very excited, sending a gesture to the private helicopter that, he later said with a laugh, may have sent the wrong message, according to Merritt.

“He felt very lucky when he first saw the helicopter, he gave them a thumbs up," Merritt said. "He was so happy to see them, ... [but] he wasn’t exactly sure that communicated he needed help."

Luckily, though, the helicopter pilot called 911 and came back with more help.

"It turned out well and we’re really lucky we have all our partnering agencies that made it such a quick, successful operation," Merritt said.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.