NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — Dangerous waves and inexperienced swimmers are not the ideal mix, especially during the holiday weekends. Staff Sgt. Gary Mathieson, loadmaster, 452nd Airlift Control Flight was finally back home after a long mission and trying to enjoy Labor Day weekend at the beach with his brother, when the actions of a few inexperienced swimmers caused him to put his own life in danger to save theirs.
“I was gone all summer and missed the majority of the beach season due to mission requirements,” said Mathieson, who is also a high school teacher at Corona del Mar. “I heard on the wire that there would be some nice swells at Newport Beach during Labor Day weekend so I paired up with my brother and hit the surf.”
Newport Beach is a great place to boogie board, but you have to watch out for the protruding rocks, or the jetty. These particular rocks were put there by the city to prevent the sand from washing away into the ocean. The waves are very powerful during southern swells and have been known to send unsuspecting swimmers crashing into the jetty, causing fatal injuries.
It was a red flag day, indicating dangerous surf and only experienced swimmers should enter the water, however, it was not enough to ward off inexperienced swimmers. Glenn Mathieson, Gary’s brother, had to sit this day out due to medical reasons, so he settled for keeping a watchful eye out for those who ignored the red flag warnings.
“When the rookies see the waves die down between sets, they figure that all is ok and head for the surf,” said Mathieson. “They don’t realize that waves can double and even triple in size in a matter of moments. That’s when they get overwhelmed and washed up on the rocks or swept away.”
The Mathieson brothers have been boogie boarding this beach for more than 15 years and over the years, have pulled several inexperienced swimmers to safety. They know that swimming there requires more than just a swimsuit. They wear the proper gear to include a spring suit, which is designed to keep you warm and is flamboyant, strapped fins, webbed gloves and boogie boards that have leashes attached to them. Safety first, play later is their motto.
While enjoying the surf, Mathieson spotted a few ‘tourists’ getting close to the jetty, unaware of the potential danger that could send them crashing into the rocks. He proceeded to swim over and warn them of the dangers when at a moment’s notice, the next set of swells came up. A series of waves rolled in, forcing all of them closer to the rocks.
“I quickly paddled over to the swimmers and let them hang on to my board as I began to swim away from the beach,” he said. “This may seem backwards, but we had to clear the waves first and get distance away from the rocks and beach before heading back inland. Once out past the breakers, we waited for the life guard boat to arrive to pick the swimmers up.”
He explained that when he visits a new beach, he would sit and watch for about a half hour before entering. It is important to watch the pattern of the waves and the veteran beach goers that swim there on a regular basis.
Mathieson’s quick thinking and exceptional endurance can be attributed to his training in the military and fire department.