Young ‘hero’ Half Moon Bay lifeguard recounts saving father and son from relentless rip currents

First the ocean took the boy, then it took his dad.

Luke Polonchek, just 18, took them back.

The State Parks lifeguard described his first-ever rescues in an interview with the Bay Area News Group on Friday, nearly a week after the terrifying drama played out off the Half Moon Bay coast where a 50-year-old San Mateo father and his 12-year-old twin son and daughter had come to spend a beautiful sunny Sunday at Francis State Beach.

The boy, in a wetsuit and neoprene booties, was skim-boarding at the water’s edge around 3 p.m. when a receding wave pulled his blue-and-black board away from him. The boy went after it, and a rip current quickly swept him away from the beach.

His dad ran for his car and grabbed his surfboard, then plunged into the ocean to save his son. Meanwhile, someone on shore called 911 and someone else ran to a State Parks staffer.

Polonchek and his lifeguard partner Elias Richter were pulling into the beachside parking lot just as a report came over the radio of a possible victim in distress in the ocean just in front of them. Richter drove the truck up to the edge of the bluff. People were standing on the beach pointing toward the waves. Polonchek spotted a boy’s head bobbing in the water, about 200 yards out. About 50 yards from shore, a man without a wetsuit on a surfboard was trying to paddle to the child, but waves up to four or five feet were beating him back.

“What went through my head was, ‘There’s a minor without a flotation device farther out and there’s an adult with a flotation device closer in, so I’m going to go for the kid first,’” said Polonchek, who graduated from Half Moon Bay High School last June. He was also running mental calculations about water temperature — low 50s — wave size and distance to the victims, and concluded he could save crucial time by not putting on his wetsuit. In just his red swimsuit, he grabbed a yard-long red foam rescue buoy and his swim fins, ran down a 10-foot embankment between mats of ice plant, sprinted across about 40 yards of beach, and hit the water.

California State Parks lifeguard Luke Polonchek, left, and his immediate supervisor, California State Parks peace officer and lifeguard, Micah Moore, make a rescue demo as Polonchek describes his first-ever rescues at Francis State Beach in Half Moon Bay, Calif., on Friday, March 22, 2024. About a week ago, Polonchek rescued a 12-year-old boy and his father who were in distress after they were trapped in a rip current. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

California State Parks lifeguard Luke Polonchek, left, and his immediate supervisor, California State Parks peace officer and lifeguard, Micah Moore, make a rescue demo as Polonchek describes his first-ever rescues at Francis State Beach in Half Moon Bay, Calif., on Friday, March 22, 2024. About a week ago, Polonchek rescued a 12-year-old boy and his father who were in distress after they were trapped in a rip current. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

A danger signs states that wading and swimming is unsafe at Francis State Beach in Half Moon Bay, Calif., on Friday, March 22, 2024. About a week ago, 12-year-old boy and his father were rescued by California State Parks lifeguard Luke Polonchek. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

California State Parks lifeguard Luke Polonchek looks on the ocean from Francis State Beach in Half Moon Bay, Calif., on Friday, March 22, 2024. About a week ago, Polonchek rescued a 12-year-old boy and his father who were in distress after they were trapped in a rip current. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

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Born in Kansas, Polonchek came to Half Moon Bay in eighth grade and joined the surfing club. In high school he competed on the surfing, water polo and swim teams. He went through the State Parks Junior Lifeguard program at age 10. He does mile-plus training swims in a pool twice a week, and surfs at least every other day.

“He’s a very skilled waterman,” said Barbara Morris, regional supervising lifeguard for State Parks. “He’s very comfortable in the water.”

Polonchek, porpoising beneath breaking waves, passed by the father, who was panicky and pointing toward his son. The lifeguard shouted above the din of the waves that the man should stay on his surfboard and paddle back to shore. It took Polonchek about five or six minutes to get to the boy, who had been kept warm by his wetsuit and apologized for making the lifeguard swim out. Polonchek fastened the buoy around the youngster’s torso and, using the strap attached to the buoy and wrapped over his shoulder, towed him in with a backstroke, while the boy kicked as instructed to speed their progress.

As large waves broke over them, Polonchek wrapped his arms around the boy to ensure he stayed inside the buoy belt and that the two of them wouldn’t get bashed together. “We grab their shoulders, tell them to take a big breath, then we dive down,” Polonchek said, describing the standard protocol.

“I saw the dad in my peripheral, he was getting smashed by the waves,” Polonchek said. The man was trying to follow him and the son to shore, but was paddling against the rip current. “I knew that either me or someone else would have to go out and get him.”

With the boy kicking, it didn’t take much longer for Polonchek to get back to shore than it had taken him to get out. Another lifeguard, Cam Weaver, was at the waterline in a wetsuit, ready to take the boy or swim out for the dad. Polonchek, adrenaline still surging, told him he would go get the man, who by that time had been pulled about 60 yards offshore. It took less than two minutes to reach him.

“He was really cold. He was violently shivering. He couldn’t talk in full sentences, which is an early sign of hypothermia,” Polonchek recalled. “He was panicked. I was trying to reassure him and tell him his kid was OK on the shore, and I think he could see that. His state of mind was really altered, I think, from the cold.”

Polonchek told him to take his surfboard leash off his ankle, but the man couldn’t do it, so he dove under the water and unfastened it, then pushed the board away.

As with the son, Polonchek wrapped the buoy around the man and began to tow him, but the job was much harder because the father was fairly large, and the cold had rendered him unable to kick. It was close to five minutes before they reached shore.

California State Parks lifeguard Luke Polonchek works on his 1,000-yard ocean swim in 20 minutes or less as part of his annual re-qualification at Dunes Beach in Half Moon Bay, Calif., on Saturday, March 23, 2024. About a week ago, Polonchek rescued a 12-year-old boy and his father who were in distress after they were trapped in a rip current. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

California State Parks lifeguard Luke Polonchek, bottom right, and fellow lifeguards work on their 1,000-yard ocean swim in 20 minutes or less as part of his annual re-qualification at Dunes Beach in Half Moon Bay, Calif., on Saturday, March 23, 2024. About a week ago, Polonchek rescued a 12-year-old boy and his father who were in distress after they were trapped in a rip current. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

California State Parks lifeguard Luke Polonchek works on his 1,000-yard ocean swim in 20 minutes or less as part of his annual re-qualification at Dunes Beach in Half Moon Bay, Calif., on Saturday, March 23, 2024. About a week ago, Polonchek rescued a 12-year-old boy and his father who were in distress after they were trapped in a rip current. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

California State Parks lifeguard Luke Polonchek makes his way out of the water after completing his 1,000-yard ocean swim in 20 minutes or less as part of his annual re-qualification at Dunes Beach in Half Moon Bay, Calif., on Saturday, March 23, 2024. About a week ago, Polonchek rescued a 12-year-old boy and his father who were in distress after they were trapped in a rip current. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

California State Parks lifeguard Luke Polonchek, center, and fellow lifeguards listen to California State Parks peace officer and lifeguard, Micah Moore, after all of them completed their 1,000-yard ocean swim in 20 minutes or less as part of their annual re-qualification at Dunes Beach in Half Moon Bay, Calif., on Saturday, March 23, 2024. About a week ago, Polonchek rescued a 12-year-old boy and his father who were in distress after they were trapped in a rip current. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

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Firefighters from Cal Fire helped the boy and his father to a waiting ambulance, where paramedics checked the two and determined they did not require medical treatment, said Cal Fire spokeswoman Cecile Juliette.

The next day, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office, in a tweet said, “Thank you, Lifeguard Polonchek, for your quick action and bravery! Heroes like you represent the best that the Golden State has to offer.”

Cal Fire’s San Mateo office, in a tweet, lauded Polonchek’s “skill & heroic actions.”

Juliette noted that the beach at Francis State Park, like many along the San Mateo County coast, descends steeply below the water, making it easy for people to accidentally get in too deep. Lifeguards on that stretch of coastline can be few and far between. “Try to hit up a more gently sloped beach if you’re planning on getting close to the water’s edge,” Juliette said.

Last year, State Parks lifeguards rescued 42 people along the San Mateo County coast, and in 2022 they pulled in 68, said Micah Moore, a lifeguard and Polonchek’s immediate supervisor. People caught in a rip current should swim parallel to the shore until they get out of it, then swim in, Moore said.

Polonchek said that shortly after the rescue he saw three rip currents at once within 100 yards of each other. “They can pop up within a minute and then go away within five or six,” he said. “The rips that we get here are really bad, really powerful.”

The young lifeguard on Saturday was set to do his annual re-qualification, requiring a 1,000-yard ocean swim in 20 minutes or less. On Friday, Moore described Polonchek’s rescue of the father and son as “textbook.” But, Moore said, “he’s still got to swim 1,000 yards tomorrow.”

California State Parks lifeguard Luke Polonchek, left, and fellow lifeguards pull the floating orange cone that marked the 500-yard from beach after all of them completed their 1,000-yard ocean swim in 20 minutes or less as part of their annual re-qualification at Dunes Beach in Half Moon Bay, Calif., on Saturday, March 23, 2024. About a week ago, Polonchek rescued a 12-year-old boy and his father who were in distress after they were trapped in a rip current. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

California State Parks lifeguards, Jack Sutherland, left, Luke Polonchek and Elias Richter rest after all of them completed their 1,000-yard ocean swim in 20 minutes or less as part of their annual re-qualification at Dunes Beach in Half Moon Bay, Calif., on Saturday, March 23, 2024. About a week ago, Polonchek rescued a 12-year-old boy and his father who were in distress after they were trapped in a rip current. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

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