La Jollans receive awards for water rescues

Awards bestowed during San Diego Lifesaving Association’s annual Hardy Awards Dinner

Two La Jolla residents — one a professional lifeguard with emergency medical training and the other a citizen with no such experience — were honored last month for helping save the lives of people caught off guard by the power of the ocean.

During the San Diego Lifesaving Association’s annual Hardy Awards Dinner at The Local Pacific Beach sports bar, La Jolla native John Maher was recognized as the Seasonal Lifeguard of the Year for his efforts the past 12 months.

A former professional surfer employed 16 years as a seasonal lifeguard for the City of San Diego, Maher spends his summers patrolling WindanSea Beach, where his team completed 501 rescues in July, which he said was considerably more than in any other service area in San Diego that month.

“For some reason all the stars aligned in July to make the rip currents stronger than usual,” said Maher, 33, a La Jolla High School alumni, whose parents, Michael and Lisa Maher, met 37 years ago at Marine Street Beach. “Even decent swimmers were unable to swim out of them. … People would get knocked over by a wave and it would drag them to the drop-off, which is only about 15 feet off the shore. Then they can’t touch (bottom).”

Maher said the influx of people seeking refuge from the heat at WindanSea resulted in mass rescues, or those involving five or more people at one time.

“Crews were making upwards of 70 rescues in one day, and our team is really small — five guards on a busy day,” Maher said, noting a rescue he performed shortly after ending an 11-hour shift, at 8 p.m.

“I was walking off the beach when I heard a guy yell for help. He was a couple hundred yards off shore and it was almost dark and by the time I got to him. That was critical because he was exhausted. He had a very slim chance of making it back to the beach. That was a really gratifying rescue.”

Maher also recalled his involvement in the rescue of a scuba diver at La Jolla Shores, at about 9:30 a.m. one morning this spring. “There were approximately 50 to 100 scuba divers (in the water). To be able to spot the one unconscious diver on the surface was incredibly challenging for my crew in the observation tower,” he said, noting that after lifeguard Mike Carr spotted the victim in the water, he and lifeguard Juan Gonzales bolted for the surf.

When they reached the victim, who was outside the surf line, the man was not breathing and had no pulse. Maher and Gonzales got the victim on their rescue board and onto his back. While Gonzales kept the board stable in the water, Maher began administering compressions to get his pulse back.

“It’s important that you begin compressions as early as possible,” said Maher, noting the duo next began administering CPR, eventually “catching a wave with the unconscious victim, which was imperative to get him to the beach in a timely manner.”

Maher and Gonzales eventually got the man to shore where other guards assisted with lifesaving procedures.

“We got his breathing back, did a turnover to medics and he survived,” Maher said. “That was a big call. … Every single lifeguard who responded worked seamlessly together. We worked as a cohesive unit.”

Maher also serves as a rescue swimmer and personal watercraft operator for the Big Wave World Tour international surfing tournament. His rescue team is responsible for saving some of the most experienced big wave surfers in the world when caught in dangerous situations.

During the winter, he keeps his lifesaving skills sharp abroad, beginning his winter break working as a lifeguard at Tavarua, an island resort in Fiji that is among the most dangerous surf spots on Earth. He began apprenticing there as a surfboat operator at age 13. By age 16, Maher was a licensed boat operator and lifeguard at Tavarua.

“It’s one of the most powerful waves in the world, the reef is incredibly sharp and the currents are strong,” he said. “I’ve been back every year since.”

From Fiji, Maher caps off his winter at a surf resort in Indonesia called Kandui, where he said he is the only medical resource (emergency medical technician) in the area.

Maher (along with his younger sister Page, now 31) first honed his life-saving skills in San Diego Lifeguard Services’ Junior Lifeguard program. These days he’s taken to ocean art photography. View his work at

“It’s just another excuse to get in the ocean,” he joked.

Before heading into the water, Maher advises that people always check in with a lifeguard about water conditions and current patterns. “We are always really happy to let people know where the safest places to swim are,” he said, adding, “One of our mottos is: When in doubt, don’t go out.”

Citizen Rescue of the Year

Conversely, UTC resident Jacob Petty, who received the Citizen Rescue of the Year award, has no water safety experience. He merely happened to be in the right place at the right time, and had the courage and quick wits to spring into action, which likely prevented the death of a 16-year-old girl.

He and friend Jonathan Flike — whom Petty also credits with helping save the girl’s life — were standing on the observation deck above Sunny Jim’s Cave at about 7:30 p.m. July 10, waiting to have dinner at at a local restaurant.

“At first we heard some muffled yelling; we didn’t really understand what we were hearing,” recalled Petty, 23, a student in the culinary arts program at Mesa College. “Eventually we realized someone was yelling for help.”

Petty said he and his friend spotted a young woman face down in the water, and a young man in the water next to her screaming for help and struggling to hold onto her.

“At that point I ran down to the rocks seeing if I could pull them in while Jonathan called the lifeguards,” Petty said. “By the time I got to the bottom the young male was gone. We weren’t sure where he was, if he got pulled under into the caves, but we could see the young woman was still floating in the water.”

Petty swam about 10 to 15 feet offshore to the woman. “Her face was blue and she had foam coming out of her mouth, so it was clear she had swallowed quite a bit of seawater,” he said.

Flike helped pull Petty and the woman onto the shore and lifeguards arrived a short time later to perform CPR.

Lifeguard Lt. Rich Stropky said the area where the rescue took place is unguarded and largely obscured from the view of lifeguards stationed at La Jolla Cove, just to the south.

Lifeguard Luke Collins entered the mouth of Sunny Jim’s Cave and started to dive, where he eventually recovered the 22-year-old male victim, Azfar Alam of Downey, who was taken by ambulance to the hospital, where he later died.

Hardy Awards

The Hardy Awards are named for Charles “Chuck” Hardy, who began his career with San Diego’s lifeguard service in 1923, just five years after its inception. Hardy left to work in the airline industry, then returned to the lifeguard service in 1930, where he was promoted to captain three years later (then the highest ranking position).

During his tenure, the lifeguard service transferred from the auspices of San Diego Police to Park & Recreation, growing from just five lifeguards to a workforce of 100 during the peak summer season.

Under Hardy’s leadership lifeguards received training in CPR and first aid, and were given peace officer duties. Hardy retired in 1966.

—Source: San Diego Lifeguard Sgt. Gavin McBride