Dick McLaren was a World War II Army veteran and was awarded the Bronze Star. In his later years he became Fire Chief of San Anselmo in Marin County, CA. He’d grown up in San Anselmo in a bygone era when he and his friends would pass the time by damming up creeks so they’d have a place to fish and play in the water.
The interesting part is that Dick McLaren didn’t know how to swim. In fact, he was sure that it would keep him out of having to fight in World War II. The recruiting officer didn’t hesitate when Dick told him of this major obstacle and put him on the next ship to North Africa.
Dick McLaren came home. He considered himself one of the lucky ones. He was part of the “Greatest Generation” that Tom Brokaw wrote about. Dick didn’t talk about what he saw overseas. He’d occasionally tell a funny story but that was it. The folks in Marin County admired Dick for his 40 years of service in the Fire Department.
Shane Long now works for the Marin County Fire Department. He also surfs Rodeo Beach, a spot north of the Golden Gate Bridge near Fort Cronkhite. Many of the Marin County kids and adults will start surfing “Cron” and then graduate up to Ocean Beach as their skills progress. The place is deceiving since most days it is welcoming and fun with plenty of peaks for everyone to enjoy.
“Cron” becomes a different story when the south swells hit. There will be a number of peaks up and down the beach and the currents can almost turn into eddies as the water works its way in and out of the cove.
The sketchiest part is the rock outcropping on the north end of the beach. The jagged cliff rises 150 feet out of the water. It also has an “L” shaped cave in the middle of it that has an oval shaped opening facing south that may be 8 feet at its widest point with the top about 30 feet from the ocean’s surface. There’s an even narrower opening on the north side that is 2 feet wide and 10 feet high.
Because this area is a tourist destination it often times will get inexperienced people in the water on rented surfboards. There are a number of stories where tourists will either fall off the cliffs or get sucked out into the waves due to the steep angle of the beach and surfers will haul them into shore.
A rescue took place at “Cron” that we believe both Dick McLaren and Shane Long were a part of in different ways. Below are the details from Shane:
Sun was setting and it was a 6-10 foot south swell with extremely long lulls in between sets, which made it very deceiving from the beach. During these swell events the near shore current rips hard to the north and out along the point, while at the same time set waves break against the rip at the tip of the point. So there are competing forces that you can’t get out of. Usually the incoming wave train wins, and the energy explodes against sheer cliff, north of the cave on the outside of the point. This day waves were breaking well outside the point and hammering the cliffs and cave.
Most everyone was getting out of the water and it was Jimmy Cgilnek, Brad (Sausalito) and I in the lineup…when this guy(Graham) paddled out with his zipper undone. This guy paddled clumsily, and we new right away he was gonna get into some sort of trouble out there. Turns out, he had just pulled up after driving from Coachella, threw his suit on and paddled out. He broke his zipper in the parking lot but chose to come out anyway.
He made it out to the lineup and eventually was caught inside by an average size set wave that put him in the north rip current running out along the point. There he was pushed backwards by smaller whitewater into the point, and ended up holding his board, jumping over waves while on the rocks. Jimmy and I discussed the only option which was to get him off the rocks, back into the rip and out to safety where we would wait out the sets and get him in down the beach where it was much safer. Even with 3 of us helping, there is no way to bring him in to the beach against the rip, it’s like a river during these swell events. Jimmy made contact with him and he was struggling big time. Eventually they both got back in the rip and began to get away from the rocks. His suit was filling up with water by now, and he was becoming an anchor.
We all coached him on what to do and had made it out to the lineup where, unfortunately, the biggest set of the day met us. We all made it over the first wave but Graham got hammered by the 2nd or 3rd wave, and it was chaos from there. This was a huge set with many waves stacking up out to the horizon (typical of long period south swells). Jimmy, Brad and I tried to stay close to him but it was too dangerous, there was no way any of us were going near the point. The last we saw of him he was north of the cave getting obliterated against the sheer cliff by massive whitewater. He disappeared. No sign of him or his board. At one point we saw his board snagged on the cliff with his leash stretched tight and disappearing underwater. We were tripping…I was scratching outside over huge waves, feeling sick to my stomach and couldn’t believe I just watched a guy die. I felt so bad for his family. After about 10 waves with no relief in sight, Brad and Jimmy decided to exit the water, run up the cliff and check the horseshoe cove to the north, thinking he may have washed around in the chaos. I stayed as close to the cave as I could, yelling for him and dragging my legs and arms through the whitewater, at this point I was just searching for a body. I couldn’t leave him out there. After a quick lull, I had to escape the impact zone again because another stacked set was approaching. I hadn’t heard or seen anyone in about 5 minutes and thought maybe the boys found Graham over at the cove.
I got out and ran up the cliff, looking for any sign of him when I heard someone yell “HELP”. I couldn’t believe it. I was convinced he was gone. It was flat as a lake during another long lull and he came out of the south side of the cave, floating facedown and sideways on his board, unable to move. He was bloodied and battered but still alive! Another friend, who was watching all of this unfold from the beach, and I ran into to water, grabbed him and brought him in. He was exhausted and dazed, but alive. Brad and Jimmy came back and helped with the trauma exam, holding c-spine and evaluating him.
Graham asked me if I was the one in the cave. “Was that you in the cave, talking to me? Thank You”. It gives me chills to think about it now. He said he was stuck in there and afraid to move the whole time. He spent a lot of time underwater and when big waves would come, he put his board over his head to prevent him from hitting the ceiling over and over. Finally he just let go and floated out, sideways on his board. It was amazing.
Southern Marin and Marin County Fire showed up, along with the CHP helicopter. He was transported by ground to MGH and lives to tell the story. I felt a little embarrassed when everyone showed up cuz it was another super long lull. They laughed when I told my story!!
It ends up that Dick McLaren died at his home in San Anselmo at the same time this rescue was going on at “Cron”. Many of us feel that even though Dick McLaren didn’t know how to swim, he was the one Graham saw in the cave that evening. The man who served his country when he was called, and continued to help people his entire life both in the fire service and as a good neighbor. He was in the right place when he helped to rescue, one more.
He is the “Cronkhite Guardian”.
In regard to Shane Long. This episode, along with many other rescues he’s made at Cronkhite inspired him to become an EMT/Paramedic Fireman.
He still surfs a ton and always keeps his eyes open for somebody else to help.