Vista Point: Stay off the jetty, but if you’re going to go anyway...

By Matthew C. Durkee, The Triplicate April 24, 2013 03:46 pm

For those who use it, the jetty serves many purposes. There’s fishing, mussel-collecting, diving and wildlife-viewing, not to mention the heady experience for those who crave it of simply being surrounded by the ocean wild while the ground beneath their feet stays level.

Yet, as we all know, people get trapped and even killed out there.

After a couple observances earlier this year of Crescent City’s aggravatingly annual winter tradition of rescuing people stranded on the harbor’s jetty by high waves, there were the ensuing second and third steps in the ritual: first, a conversation led by public safety officials about why going out on the jetty is a terrible idea and should be prevented, then a backlash of irritated locals insisting that jetty access shall not be infringed.

The argument against access: The surf is unpredictable and people may be trapped or thrown off the jetty (a long fall onto jagged rocks, no less) by unexpected waves. An op-ed by Sheriff’s Office dispatcher Malinda Sarbacker-Wiley (“Coastal Voices: Things to consider about jetty access,” Feb. 2, 2013) added that public access puts law enforcement lives at risk because jetty rescues can be as dangerous for the rescuers as for the rescued.

The argument for access: It’s not fair to punish the wise for the sins of the foolish, many locals have enjoyed the jetty for years without harm, it’s safe for people who know how to judge when wave conditions might pose a risk, so really it’s only the ignorant and the foolish who are a problem, the implication being that they get what they deserve if any harm befalls them. (It is, perhaps, a subconscious appeal to our animal instincts to let the course of nature thin the slower members of the herd.)

One letter-writer to the Triplicate, Mike Cuthbertson of Gasquet (“Why is jetty different than beaches? Close them too?” Feb. 7, 2013), said in reply to the op-ed that if the jetty should be closed to protect the lives of rescue workers, then by logical extension the beaches also should be closed to protect rescuers.

But I think more can be said about this issue with information in hand from Vista Point’s series of the past several weeks on sneaker waves.

With respect to sneakers specifically, are jetties really the same as beaches? Does it make sense that if we close off the one we should close off the other, or is there a false equivalency here?

The ever-useful resource on sneaker waves, meteorologist Troy Nicolini with the National Weather Service’s Eureka office, says that one of the ways people get in trouble with sneakers is specifically on jetties — there is an additional danger that does not apply to beaches.

“Jetties give a different sense of false security because they’re up high,” Nicolini says. “Crescent City’s jetty is particularly dangerous (compared to others on the North Coast) because it’s especially tall and there’s a very long fall to the bottom.”

As with beaches, the most dangerous surf conditions are those that appear calm but harbor sneaker waves within their rhythm. It’s safe to assume most people don’t spend a good 20 minutes standing around studying ocean wave patterns before venturing forth.

As a result, many wall-walkers — even some who think they know what they’re doing — head down the jetty with a false sense of security and can be trapped by sneaker waves behind them or washed over by waves that strike them.

Jetties, then, are simply more dangerous than beaches. They put lives at risk on a far greater level, and that’s the critical difference.

One reason we have rescue workers is because life is full of unpreventable risks. Jetty deaths, however, are preventable if people stay off, and the best way to ensure that is to close the jetty.

Yet I doubt that will happen anytime soon, if at all. Del Norters by and large are a fiercely individualistic people and the majority, I suspect, would not be in favor of sealing off a unique recreational site that has been in use for decades. Americans in general have a soft spot for restricting others’ rights to morally hazardous things that don’t appeal to them, but they’ll be damned if anyone treads on their access to the morally hazardous things that do appeal to them.

Jetty-walking ranks among those moral hazards. It’s immoral, in my mind, to endanger the lives of law enforcement and other rescue workers. It’s selfish and reckless in ways using beaches is not. But maybe that’s easy for me to say since I’ve always stayed off the wall.

Meanwhile, jetty use, at least in the near term, is inevitable, so people should know what can be done to minimize the risks.

Nicolini, who works closely with safety officials and believes the jetty should be closed,  nevertheless suggests a few things people who insist on using it can do to minimize risk:

• Check the forecast. High surf is an obvious no-no, but one of the primary lessons of Vista Point’s series on sneaker waves is that long-period waves are the real killer. They’ll lure you with calm waves for upwards of 20 minutes and then monter waves will storm in.

• Stay off the jetty autumn, winter and spring. You’re least likely to endanger the lives of first responders, not to mention yourself, in summer, when the waves are more local and their patterns are steadier.

• Wear a life vest. In addition to making you more buoyant in the water, it has the added benefit of “giving you a little cushion if you fall,” Nicolini says.

• Leave Crescent City’s jetty alone and find another. There are others within driving distance along the coast. “That jetty (Crescent City’s) in particular, it’s very prudent to stay off,” Nicolini says.

We’ve spent a long time at the Vista Point considering sneaker waves, but I hope it’s impressed you with their seriousness while giving you the knowledge you need to stay safe from them.

Reach assistant editor Matthew C. Durkee at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it