1986 Surf Festival Dinner Honorees
1986 Medal of Valor Honorees
Rescue Boat Captain Walt Reeves
Ocean Lifeguard Specialist Tom Pani
On a cold stormy Saturday in mid-February, Rescue Boat Lieutenant Walt Reeves and his Ocean Lifeguard Deckhand Tom Pani were working on Baywatch Del Rey. The 15-foot surf that was pounding the coast that day was the largest surf in several years.
A lifeguard near the Venice pier reported that a sailboat was coming dangerously close to the breaking surf. The Baywatch sped to the mouth of the marina but had to wait for waves to subside before it could leave the harbor. When Reeves and Pani cleared the breakwater, they saw a 30 foot sloop in trouble off Venice beach. Moments later a giant wave flipped the boat stern over stem and all six crewmen were catapulted into the ocean.
“You see that and you think they are all probably dead,” said Pani as he recounted the rescue. “You rarely see a wave large enough to capsize a 30-foot boat”.
Less than a minute later the Baywatch arrived at the wreck and the lifeguards found all six crewmen bobbing on the surface. Pani and Reeves immediately fished two men out of the ocean, but the other four victims were inside the surfline and scattered across about 100 yards of water. Lifeguards on shore tried to reach the men but were battered back by the waves.
The Baywatch made four separate charges inside the breaking waves, each nearer the shore and progressively more dangerous. The last attempt they got within 75 yards of the shore where Pani tossed the life ring and pulled the final victim aboard the Baywatch. As soon as all the victims were on the Baywatch, Reeves immediately raced to get the rescue boat outside the surfline. The rescue boat went almost vertical as it powered its way over the last wave and out to the open ocean.
“Without the proper judgment we would have lost the Baywatch, both lifeguards and the six people who they saved,” said Don Rohrer, the lifeguard captain in chare of the rescue boats. “It was an extremely dangerous rescue and they showed the height of seamanship and bravery in completing it.”
Two of the sailors suffered broken bones and a third was in shock and nearly drowned. All three were hospitalized and survived.