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After a death at Trestles last weekend, the issue of water safety and emergency response is more important than ever.

By Jake Howard

Last weekend, after a deluge of rain earlier in the week and subsequent stormy conditions, on Saturday morning, Dec. 1, a surfer was found face down in the water at Upper Trestles.

Witnesses reported seeing Ellis John Manugo Pontillas, 53, “struggling” while attempting to duck dive and paddle out to the lineup. He was later found unconscious in the water. Surfers responded to the emergency situation and attempted to revive him on the beach. Camp Pendleton Fire Department personnel responded to the call but were unsuccessful in their resuscitation efforts. According to Camp Pendleton media officials, Pontillas was pronounced dead on the scene at 7:36 a.m.

It is unclear at this point if the man’s cause of death was related to the surf, which was in the waist- to shoulder-high zone, or if there were health factors such as a heart attack in play. As of press time, the San Diego County Department of the Medical Examiner had yet to release the official cause of death.

Surf: A man was pronounced dead after seen struggling in the water at Upper Trestles on Saturday, Dec. 1. Photo: File
A man was pronounced dead after seen struggling in the water at Upper Trestles on Saturday, Dec. 1. Photo: File

When it comes to tragic situations in the lineup like this, surfers are typically the first responders, and the more prepared they are to render first aid or CPR, the more likely there will be a positive outcome to the situation.
This is not to say that anything different could have been done in this particular case, but there are instances where lives can be saved and a little bit of water safety training can go a long way. Look no further than the shark attack at San Onofre in 2017, where surfers were able to get the victim out of the water, onto the beach and begin administering first aid while lifeguards and medics were still en route to the scene. They very likely saved a life that day.

The Big Wave Risk Assessment Group (BWRAG) was established by legendary Hawaiian waterman Brian Keaulana, as well as San Clemente’s Greg Long and a number of the world’s other top big-wave surfers, for this purpose. While initially developed to help the big-wave surfing community be safer, the stated goal of the organization is to develop and teach the “best practices for critical rescue, first aid, surf knowledge and personal preparedness.” Any surfer, whether surfing 2-foot Old Man’s or 30-foot Mavericks, can benefit from such training.

“You never know when you’re going to be confronted with a situation in the water, or even out of the water, and having the knowledge, ability and confidence to step in can mean the difference between life or death,” said BWRAG’s Danilo Couto during a training seminar in Oceanside last summer.

“Even if the waves are small and you’re in an ordinary situation, a lot of times things can get intense. Whether it’s you helping someone else…there are a lot of weird things that can happen when you’re surfing on an ordinary day,” Hawaii’s Shane Dorian said in a recent interview with the World Surf League.

The fact is, you don’t need to be a big-wave surfer to be prepared for an emergency situation. There are more surfers in the water than ever, a fact that’s not likely to change anytime soon. The more we all pursue the training and education necessary to potentially save a life—whether it’s a heart attack, a shark attack, or a near drowning— the better the chances are that everyone gets back to the beach safely.

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