Newhall resident Jon Van Duinwyk has always known he wanted to be a lifeguard and make a career out of it, yet he didn’t know he would one day be honored for his actions.
Now, he’s set to receive the Medal of Valor at the 57th annual International Surf Festival’s Lifeguard Valor Awards dinner July 31, when five Los Angeles County Fire Department Ocean Lifeguards will be honored for “demonstrating extraordinary and exemplary bravery in the line of duty” for a wreck Van Duinwyk calls a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“It is our honor to recognize these individuals who demonstrated bravery and a selfless commitment to the safety of beachgoers of Los Angeles County,” said Rob McGowan, president of the ISF, in a prepared statement. “They rose to the challenge, and their heroism is inspirational and worthy of recognition.”
His rescue of a 70-year-old man nearly lost at sea won him the Medal of Valor, and Van Duinwyk said he didn’t even know he was being considered for it.
“I didn’t think I was going to win the award,” he said. “I got this phone call, and I was so surprised.”
Bravery in the storm
On the stormy morning of Nov. 29, 2018, Van Duinwyk said he witnessed the most violent boat destruction he’s ever seen in his career.
“It was a terrible storm, the first rain of the season, so the ocean was just as dirty as dirty could be,” he said.
It was at the mouth of a storm drain, so there was trash flowing through the dark-black colored water from all of the city’s runoff, Van Duinwyk said.
“The last thing I wanted to have to do was have to get in the water and swim in that stuff,” he said.
It was too dangerous to save the boats that were left at anchor out there in the storm off Dockweiler Beach at Tower 42, so he was told to steer clear if they broke loose and just let them come up on the beach. No one was out that day, and the boats were supposed to be cleared of people, but that wasn’t the case.
“I was under the impression that there was no one on the boat, and at the last second, a man got out from the cabin and stood up and looked at me — I about lost it … because I was so relaxed, like, ‘Oh I’m just going to watch this boat get ruined,’ then the wave overtook him and the boat broke into 15 pieces all in an instant,” he said. “That’s why we’re there, even on those days, because you just don’t know.”
Van Duinwyk was convinced he had watched the man die as the waves had absolutely annihilated the 25’ trimaran sailboat, but he continued to look for the man on the surface amongst the debris field, he said.
The main body of the boat had capsized, and he didn’t realize that at the man had dove back into his boat right before the wave hit.
The only place he could think to look next was inside the boat, but he knew that would get him killed, he said. He was circling the boat, trying to figure out how to get in, when the back of the boat rose enough for him to get a look inside.
“I got this peephole view down into the boat and there he was looking at me, yelling for help,” he said.
Van Duinwyk risked his life to enter the vessel and extricate the man just as the boat was breaking apart in the 8’ waves.
“I pulled him out just as a wave hit the boat and forced a whole bunch of water into my mouth,” he added.
Van Duinwyk helped the man back to his lifeguard truck.
“He was relatively unscathed, miraculously,” he said. “But I couldn’t help him any more because I was becoming violently sick instantly.”
More trucks came and took care of the man, who was treated for only minor injuries.
“I’m very happy that the gentleman lived and was fine,” Van Duinwyk said, adding that he had “witnessed a little miracle.”
“I’ve seen a few of those in my career where I can’t believe my eyes,” he said. “But I’ve been on the lucky end more than the bad end of these situations where these people live.”
A longtime lifeguard
“I was a junior lifeguard from 9 years old to 17 years old, and I was kind of one-track-minded since I was young to do what I am doing,” Van Duinwyk said.
Van Duinwyk began as a seasonal lifeguard in 1995, and became an Ocean Lifeguard Specialist (OLS) in 2001, which he said is a very rewarding job.
“It has its exciting moments, and its boring moments for sure,” he said. “But I save countless people’s lives — it’s just been unbelievable. I pinch myself all the time, I can’t even believe it.”
Van Duinwyk has saved the lives of numerous children, adults and even whole families. After 25 years of lifeguarding, he has saved just shy of 1,000 people and been a part of many more rescues.
“As a department as a whole, we’re rescuing people on a daily basis,” he added.
Van Duinwyk did 15 years of beach lifeguarding from the lifeguard tower before he moved to the rescue boats for a change of pace in 2012. He is now stationed out of King Harbor Marina in Redondo Beach on the Baywatch Redondo.
“We make a lot of different kinds of rescues from the boats,” he said.
There are just two people on the boat, an operator and a deckhand, who is also the rescuer, diver and emergency medical technician. The boat not only deals with other boats that are sinking, on fire or run aground, for example, but also as backup to beach rescues.
“As the rescue boat, we’re listening on the radio and we respond as the backup to these rescues, so we’re the ‘out to sea’ aspect of protection,” he added. “We support lifeguards in the lifeguard towers and make their life easier when they have to have a rescue in a rip current.”
Instead of lifeguards who are swimming out to make a rescue having to battle the rip currents with their victim to make it back to shore, the lifeguards will instead swim to the boat.
The boat is also equipped with all the medical supplies needed to deliver fast and effective treatment for drownings or near-drownings, Van Duinwyk said.
Not every rescue is the same, and Van Duinwyk has seen many different things, including light aircraft crashes at sea.
“I’ve gone 20 miles out on a commercial fishing boat where a man is having a heart attack, and I did CPR going 30 knots back to Marina del Rey and the guy lived,” he said.
He is also on a dive recovery team, where a team assembles with scuba gear to look for those who have drown.
“I’ve dealt with death, as well, and pulled out several people who didn’t make it,” he added. “If someone had to do it, it might as well be me. It’s better to find them than not — there’s been times where they never come back.”
He’s excited to bring his children to the Lifeguard Valor Awards ceremony, including Jake, 6, and Nina, 8, who both said they’re very proud of their dad.
Though Jake wants to be an all-star basketball player when he grows up, he still loves to swim and got first place in freestyle and backstroke, he said.
“At home to practice I do 20 laps of each stroke, even butterfly,” Jake said.
“He’s a very good swimmer,” Van Duinwyk said. “I made sure all the homes we’ve lived in had pools, so they’ve been in the water since the womb.”
Nina has followed in her father’s footsteps and is in junior lifeguards at the aquatic center.
“This is her first year as this is the youngest age group,” Van Duinwyk said. “She’ll be old enough next year to become a beach junior lifeguard. It’s very cool that the Santa Clarita Aquatic Center has a junior lifeguard program, and it’s a very good program, so I’m very stoked that she got (to start) a year early.”
Nina said that junior lifeguards is fun and can’t wait to start beach junior lifeguards.
“I want to work side by side with (my dad) when I grow up,” Nina said.