By Thea Skinner
Triplicate staff writer
A young man drowned yesterday while eel fishing at the mouth of the Klamath River.
Billy Lewis, a Smith River resident, was hit by a wave while putting on his waders on the south side of the sand spit.
"The wave knocked him down and a second wave swept him to where the river meets the ocean," said Commander Bill Steven of the Del Norte County Sheriff's Office. "The river's current pulled him into the ocean."
Terry McNamara, head of Del Norte County Sheriff's Search and Rescue Team called the culprit a sneaker wave.
A sneaker wave is a large coastal wave that often appears in a wave train without warning.
Mike Carlson was among several others with Lewis, and he called to report the incident at about 9 a.m.
Generally, the waves in the morning are more active then waves in the afternoon hours.
"This morning they were huge," McNamara said.
Even in the afternoon the ocean showed a strong south current.
After Lewis was swept offshore he washed up on a sandbar, which is a ridge of sand formed in a river or along a shore by waves or currents, McNamara said. The sandbar is found in the surf zone offshore where waves break.
While on the sandbar Lewis signaled to a helicopter by waving his arms, but another wave washed him off the sandbar, McNamara said.
Many crews assisted in the search for Lewis. The U.S. Coast Guard used a 47-foot boat, the Yurok Tribe's Public Safety Department used its boat and two personal water crafts were employed. A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter from Humboldt Bay also assisted in the search.
The Coast Guard helicopter digitally tracked signal patterns of data marker buoys it dropped into the ocean, McNamara said.
Two buoys were dropped where crews thought they saw Lewis. One washed onto the shore and was dropped back into the ocean.
At 3 p.m., the Coast Guard helicopter was unable to finish searching the signal pattern and left to refuel the helicopter.
At the same time, the Civil Air Patrol requested a fixed-wing aircraft, which is a heavier-than-air craft where movement of the wings in relation to the aircraft is not used to generate lift.
"The U.S. Coast Guard's fixed-wing found Lewis 5 miles southwest of the Klamath River mouth in the ocean at about 4 p.m.," Steven said. "A rescue swimmer found him unconscious, put him into the helicopter and he was transported to the airport, where he was pronounced dead."
Born April 4, 1988, Lewis turned 19 this month.
Lillian Mendez is an acquaintance of Lewis and watched as crews searched for him. "He was homesick and just came back from Washington," she said. "He has a baby boy."
Two other men have died this year while fishing in Del Norte County, both in the Smith River. They, like Lewis, were not wear a life preserver.
"This is the third drowning in less then four months, and life preservers are inexpensive," Steven said. "Even the less expensive ones are good. It is a small price to pay for security. The sheriffs department would like to urge people to wear life preserver around deep, cold and swift waters."
Staying Safe in Rivers
Wear a life jacket.
If wearing waders, secure their tops with a belt to keep water out.
Monitor children and keep them in life jackets near water.
Tell someone about your trips to local waterways, including your location and estimated return time.
If someone is in trouble, rescue from shore.
If caught in a current, float on your back, feet pointing downstream, until the current weakens and you can swim to shore.
SOURCE: Water Safety Coalition of Northwestern California