-Sleeper waves have claimed two lives so far this summer along county's coastline

by Dawn Pillsbury, Sonoma West Staff Writer

SONOMA COAST - In the wake of the third drowning death on the Sonoma Coast this summer, Sonoma Coast State Beach Supervising Park Ranger Rich Lawton is advising caution for those visiting the coast.

More than 138 people have died on Sonoma's state beaches since 1950.

"The Sonoma Coast State Beach is the third most highly visited park in the state with 2.9 million people visiting each year," said Lawton.

Visitor traffic has not slowed, despite the Jenner murders and beach drownings.

"It's really weather-dependent," he said.

While there are lifeguards at Wrights and Goat Rock beaches, the two most life-threatening beaches, Lawton said, the coast poses great danger to the unwary.

Reserve Forestville firefighter Rich Franceschi, 71, was swept off his son's boat while fishing and was drowned off Bodega Head on Aug. 25. That same day two fishing boats collided in the fog near Bodega Harbor and four people were hurt.

Santa Rosa firefighter Tim Rapella, 43, was drowned off Portugese Beach after he saved his 12-year-old son after he was swept off the beach by a sleeper wave on Aug. 28.

And Nelson Holl, 51, of Sebastopol, drowned at Ocean Cove on Sept. 4 while diving for abalone.

Last year a sleeper wave took a 3-year-old girl as she walked with her grandmother at Goat Rock beach, just as they were heading for higher ground.

Lawton said that while some of the beaches have signs warning of sleeper waves and rip currents, most of the people who died ignored them. None of the signs are in Spanish, though both of the lifeguards and some of the park rangers speak Spanish.

Getting killed by the ocean isn't necessarily a matter of inexperience, he said.

"Folks have gotten washed off those rocks who have been coming here for years, who know all the dangers," he said.

Here are the dangers of the Sonoma Coast:

€ Sleeper waves - Storms and strong winds at sea create huge waves that break on this coast's steep beaches with tremendous force. These waves can easily knock you down.

€ Backwash - It's created as the vast amounts of water brought onto the beach by one of these huge waves rushes back down the steep beach face into the ocean. If you were knocked down by the wave, the backwash can pull you into deeper water or prevent your avoiding the next inrushing wave.

€ Drop-offs - Trenches running underwater, parallel to the beach are created as wave after wave breaks against the steep beach face. If you are knocked off your feet by a sleeper wave, then drawn into the ocean by the backwash, you may be swept past the drop-off and into an area where you cannot touch bottom. The sudden disappearance of ocean floor underfoot has caused many a victim to panic and drown, even though the shore was almost within reach.

€ Rip currents - These occur when water that has been brought ashore by sets of big waves is trying to return to the ocean. These currents are strongest during a lull in the crashing waves, when the water finds a low area in the ocean floor where the surf flattens. Then the water runs seaward.

€ Cold water - The water temperature at Sonoma Coast is between 45 and 60 degrees year round. You can be a victim of hypothermia - a dangerous lowering of body temperature leading to unconsciousness - before you realize it.

Lawton said that if you plan to play in the water, check the tides and waves before you go (visit www.pacificwaverider.com) and sit and watch the waves for at least a half-hour before heading in.

Lawton said that if you get caught in a rip current, swim parallel to the beach until you get around the current.

"But remember, it's much better not to get caught in the first place," he said.

Salmon Creek beach is the safest of the state beaches, but even it and the county beach at Doran can be dangerous, he said.

On beaches with berms - high, dry sand above the wet sand and water, stay on the dry berm because those waters are treacherous, he said.

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