Ron Tobeck spied the wave in the distance, rising and wicked. He yelled at his fishing buddy, Bill Alexander.
"We've got a big one coming, Bill."
It had been a balmy day on the waters off Point Reyes. Three 20-pound halibut were on ice as Tobeck and Alexander finished their last drift.
They'd stayed out later than usual. They wanted to make the most of the tide change, when halibut were more likely to emerge from their sandy resting spots and suck down the dangling bait of jack smelt.
The ocean had been placid, but conditions were changing now. It was nearly 6 p.m. Soon, the light would fade. The mild temperatures would drop.
At Tobeck's warning, Bill Alexander looked west to the open ocean.
It was, he would say later, the biggest wave he had ever seen.
The men were a half-mile or more from shore. The waters were bone-chilling. There were no other fishing boats nearby.
To be capsized here, to be capsized now, could be fatal.
Alexander knew the danger.
He also knew what to do.
He would spin the boat and shoot directly at the wave, head-on, try to slice up and over it.
Tobeck looked up and issued a silent plea: Don't break, wave. Please don't break.
Alexander rushed to the wheel, grabbed the key. The Honda 90 horsepower ignited.
Alexander pulled the wheel hard, goosed the throttle. The boat swerved to face the great wave cresting above them.
Then the motor stalled.
Their day began at 4:30, when Lodi was still drowsing and dark. It was Thursday, Aug. 28.
Alexander, as usual, had everything ready. The Dodge diesel truck was fueled up, the Arima fishing boat, a 19-foot Ranger model, was meticulously packed with the rods and reels and cooler.
Tobeck placed his Uniden VHF two-way emergency radio on the dashboard of the Dodge. When they were set to launch, as usual, he'd transfer the radio, snug in a floatation case, to the Ranger.
The men headed west on Highway 12 across the cornfields and waterways of the Delta. They wanted to beat the traffic, get an early launch at Bodega Bay, and start fishing.
The men had much in common. Each was devoted to faith and family. Each held a reverence for nature. And each had chosen law enforcement as a career.
Alexander, 44, needed this day, needed to decompress. As a Lodi police sergeant and watch commander, his days were stressful. He directed officers to burglaries and bank robberies, untangled schedule conflicts, dealt with citizen complaints.
His sanctuary was the home on Mills Avenue he shared with his wife, Michelle, and their children, Jessica, 17, and Blake, 12. Practical-minded and a quick study, Alexander rebuilt the ranch-style house himself, teaching himself carpentry, plumbing, wiring as he went along.
The family had faced hardships recently. Michelle's father had died of cancer only a week before. Michelle herself had faced a cancer scare, though she had been cleared after a series of tests. She was also caring for her mother, suffering from dementia.
Alexander drove to Fairfield, where Tobeck slipped behind the wheel.
A retired Lodi police captain, Tobeck was reflective, soft-spoken. He'd been a mentor to the department's younger officers, always taking time to listen, whether the issue was professional or personal.
He was also known for his attention to detail; in retirement, he loved tending his Japanese garden, especially his delicate bonsai trees.
Tobeck and his wife, Liz, a third-grade teacher, often kayaked and hiked on the seashore and in the Sierra. They kept a spotting scope in their home to view wildlife in the vineyard behind them.
Their children, Meghann, 29, a behavioral therapist, and Bryan, 27, a construction superintendent, were out on their own now.
With the nest largely empty, Tobeck had time to enjoy his life, cook up pasta with tomato and onion for dinner with Liz.
And go fishing.
As he always did before a trip to the coast, Tobeck had checked the weather and ocean conditions on the Internet before they left that morning: Highs in the 70s, winds of 5-10 miles per hour, swells of three to five feet.
The men traveled through Sonoma County, the sun trickling over the hills and across the vineyards. Tobeck had made this drive to Bodega Bay a hundred times. Most often, he fished for salmon. But salmon season had been canceled because of drastically low numbers. Today, he and Alexander would pursue halibut.
They munched on Danish pastries; neither drank coffee or alcohol.
They pulled into to the westside launch ramp area in Bodega Bay on schedule.
As the barking of seals carried across the bay, the men launched the Ranger at 7 a.m.
They knew precisely what they would do, where they would go.
One thing they did not realize, though: The emergency radio still rested on the dashboard of the Dodge.
The fishermen moved south, surrounded by the grandeur of the bay. The coastline around Bodega is achingly beautiful. Towering cliffs of granite and sandstone rise above the Pacific. Sparkling-clean beaches extend for miles.
The beauty of the coastline is matched only by its treachery. Undertows and rip currents lattice the waters. There are dozens of sand bars and rocky outcroppings. Surf that's lullingly calm at noon can turn furious by twilight.
Dozens perished in shipwrecks on this coast in the 1800s and early 1900s. Dozens more have perished since.
Many have been claimed by so-called sneaker waves. These are not rogue waves, which occur in the open ocean.
Unlike rogues, sneakers do strike and kill in shoreline waters.
They can be as large as 30 feet or more. There has been little research on sneakers, but this much is known: They are common on the coastline of Marin and Sonoma counties.
In 1986, a fishing charter, the 65-foot Merry Jane, was rocked by a large, unexpected wave near Bodega, sending 17 people overboard, nine of whom drowned.
In 1998, a sneaker wave caught two Sacramento men in a fishing boat off Bodega, knocking them into the cold waters to their deaths.
In 2001, a sneaker seized an 8-year-old girl walking on the beach at Point Reyes. She, too, drowned.
Several times in recent years, sneakers have grabbed dogs frolicking on area beaches and pulled them deep into the surf, where their owners have drowned trying to rescue them.
The Ranger cruised across the polished waters of Bodega Bay.
Alexander was at the wheel, wearing a long-sleeve shirt, jeans and boots. He also wore an orange life preserver.
Tobeck wore an orange plastic slicker, like bib overalls, over his shirt and light nylon pants. Favored by commercial fishermen, the slicker would keep off the salt spray, bait and fish blood. As was his habit while fishing, Tobeck did not wear a life preserver.
They would try to make bait - that is, catch their own bait - as they continued south. Their destination: the shallow water off Kehoe Beach, part of the Great Beach of Point Reyes National Seashore.
They used a Sabiki, a string of shiny hooks with bits of feather, to attract jack smelt, the halibut's favorite meal.
Just after 9 a.m., as they had hoped, Alexander and Tobeck were off Kehoe with lines in the water. They used a GPS device to find some of their best fishing spots.
One of those spots was about a half-mile off the beach, opposite a white, sun-bleached log. Several months before, Tobeck had noticed the white log while hiking with Liz on one of their outings. They had also noticed a wire box nearby, like a cage. It was there to protect the eggs of the endangered Snowy Plover, a small, fluffy shorebird.
The men knew the tide change would grant them two windows of time on this day, windows when the waters would be especially calm, when the elusive halibut would shake away their sandy shrouds and go on the feed.
One window would last from mid-morning until noon.
The other would be from late afternoon to around 6 p.m. They had never fished a tide change that late.
But the forecast was so reassuring today, the sky so cloudless.
They fished methodically, with multiple lines in the water. Halibut like sandy bottoms in depths of 15 to 40 feet. And they like cold water.
Tobeck checked the temperature when they reached Kehoe: 56 degrees.
They were drift-fishing. They would start well out from the surf, turn off the motor, and drift toward shore, retreating when they approached the outer edge of the surf. Each drift would take perhaps 15 or 20 minutes. They noticed only a few other fishing boats on this expanse of water.
The men nibbled on bagels, sipped Powerade. Their luck held. By 11 a.m., they had each reeled in a halibut.
It was so warm Alexander took off his life preserver and stashed it in the cutty.
After the morning tide change, they caught more jack smelt for bait.
They munched on Cheetos, talked, basked in the sun.
They began the afternoon fishing around 3 and again had luck. Alexander reeled in another halibut. Around 5:45 p.m. they realized the window for good fishing was closing. The tide was rising, the swells growing.
One more drift, they agreed, and it would be time to head home.
The few fishing boats they'd seen before were gone now. On the distant beach, they had seen no one all day.
When the wave came, they were very much alone.
With the engine dead, they could do nothing.
The huge wave arced over them.
They heard the roar of water, thousands of gallons, collapsing upon them.
Alexander recalls thinking only, This cannot be happening.
The sneaker seized the Ranger and drew it deep into its trough. It spun the boat over like a toy.
As the wave flipped the boat, the men were ejected down, down into the water.
It all could have ended then. Some people thrown into cold seawater instinctively take a deep breath, instead gulping in saltwater that quickly shuts down their lungs. It's called the gasp reflex.
Alexander and Tobeck were alive, but their battle with the sea had only begun.
The liquid cold was already sieging their bodies. It would steadily strip away warmth and energy. Because of its density, water extracts heat from the body 30 times faster than air. In 56-degree water, hypothermia could kill them in less than two hours.
Alexander kicked up to the surface. Flotsam was scattered everywhere. Rods, line, lures, nets. The Ranger was still afloat, flipped hull-side up.
Alexander swam to it, climbed on and kneeled.
He saw Tobeck about 50 feet away, treading water, his heavy orange slicker still on.
"How are you, partner?" he called.
"Not great," Tobeck replied.
Alexander, strengthened by thrice-weekly workouts, was holding up. He could see Tobeck, the older man, and less fit, would need his help.
He had to get something, anything, to help Tobeck stay afloat.
Alexander slipped back into the water, dove under the Ranger. The life preservers were in the darkness of the cutty, he knew. Too far and too dangerous for him to retrieve.
He ran his fingers desperately over the seats, on the floor, along the deck, below the rail. He touched something pliable. It was a fender, like a cushion, about two feet long, to prevent damage to the hull when the Ranger was docked or next to another boat. He tugged on it. The fender was wedged against a rail.
Out of breath, he surfaced and swam along the edge of the boat.
He reached under, found a cord attached to the fender, braced his legs against the Ranger and yanked the fender free.
Towing it, Alexander climbed back onto the overturned Ranger.
Stay with the boat, he chanted to himself. If there is trouble, stay with the boat.
He stood, swung the fender by its cord, tossed it toward his friend. Tobeck was struggling, a current drawing him away from the boat.
"I don't know if I can get it," Tobeck said.
"You have to get it," Alexander yelled back.
Tobeck made it to the fender. He swam toward the boat but got mired in a nest of nylon fishing line.
This could snare me, he thought. It could pull me under. He pushed gingerly through the line.
Seeing Tobeck slowing, Alexander jumped back into the water, swam to him, helped him back to the boat.
Then they remembered. The two-way Uniden, the radio that could have instantly alerted a Coast Guard rescue crew. It still sat in the Dodge.
Alexander felt for the cell phone in his pocket, yanked it out, searched for a signal.
The phone was dead. He hurled it into the water.
His denims and shirt soggy and cold, Alexander stripped down to his undershorts.
He looked at Tobeck and his worry deepened: Perhaps 20 or 30 minutes had passed, and Tobeck already seemed spent, haggard.
They were such resourceful men, men accustomed to being in charge.
They were not in control now.
They were encircled by cold, raging surf, the sun dropping, no one around.
They were desperate now.
Alexander thought of his wife, Michelle. She had endured so much in the last few months. A dark vision came to him: a man walked to the door of their sun-lit home on Mills. Michelle was making dinner. She went to the doorway. The man told her he was sorry, but her husband had died in a terrible accident at sea. Michelle began weeping.
The dark vision flickered away, and Alexander made a vow:
That will not happen. She cannot lose her father and me in the same month. With God's help, this will not happen.
A wave struck the Ranger, washing both men back into the water. They struggled back, Tobeck clutching the blue fender, and reclaimed their spot on the rocking hull of the Ranger.
They huddled together, tried to conserve heat.
"Ron, I think now would be a good time to pray," Alexander said.
The men prayed.
Another wave came, and again, they were spilled into the surf.
They managed to return to the Ranger, but Tobeck climbed back up slowly now, his movements heavy, clumsy. He pulled off the orange slicker, but kept his shirt and light pants on.
Alexander would stay with the boat. Tobeck was not sure. He feared the Ranger might flip again, toss them in the surf, crush them. Or another wave might rock him off the hull into the sharp steel of the propeller shaft.
He asked Alexander to tie the fender to him. Alexander grabbed the fender's cord and knotted it, granny-style, behind Tobeck's back.
On their fragile perch above the water, the men were shivering uncontrollably now.
An hour had passed.
Their skin was growing pale, their blood pulling back to protect vital organs.
Alexander looked again at the beach.
A man and woman were there, like some mirage, sitting on a white log.
As they hiked along the Great Beach, Pamela Bouchard and her friend Steve Gimber noticed the swells rising, the surf turning angry.
Bouchard, 54, a veterinarian, was a surfer and swimmer herself. Gimber, 67, a retired public defender, was a SCUBA diver. He carried a day pack with a set of binoculars. There was no cell phone reception at the remote beach, so they left their phones back in Gimber's Toyota Highlander in the parking lot.
They hiked for an hour or so. They covered a good two miles, alone, listening to the surf explode against the hard sand.
They decided to rest for a moment. They sat on a long white log near a Snowy Plover exclosure.
Bouchard looked toward the horizon and saw something: a blue object rising and falling.
She sprang to her feet.
"Steve, is that a boat sinking out there?"
Gimber grabbed his binoculars. He saw a fishing boat upside-down with two men huddled on it.
They waved frantically at the boat.
One of the men stood and waved back.
As the hikers watched, the men on the boat disappeared, drawn down and hidden by the heaving surf.
Then they popped into view again, thrown high, like the playthings of some cruel monster.
The hikers knew to enter the surf themselves would be suicidal.
They ran down Kehoe Beach.
Alexander had steadied himself on the Ranger's slickened hull, stood, and waved his arms at the strangers.
Now they were jogging away.
Did they see? Did they understand?
A breaker rocked the Ranger, and again the men were tossed into the cold.
Alexander, shivering badly and cramping now, crawled back up on the Ranger. A rip current, though, had captured Tobeck.
He was floating away from the Ranger.
"I can't make it back to the boat," Tobeck yelled at Alexander. "I am going to try and make it in."
A wave bludgeoned Tobeck and pushed him down into the cold, salty water. He was tiring now, turning blue, growing weak. The sea remained so fierce, so unrelenting.
He looked up and saw sunlight and, with the help of the fender, he rose to the surface again.
Then he thought of the shark.
A few years before, he had been fishing not far from Kehoe when the Great White had rocketed from the sea, only feet from Tobeck's boat. It leaped nearly out of the water, perhaps eight or 10 feet long, exposing its massive body, its jagged teeth.
Tobeck was stunned.
The fish plunged back into the Pacific and vanished.
Now he was swimming on his back, holding the fender close to his chest. To a hungry shark, he would look, he felt, like a plump seal.
If I am going to die in this water today, let me drown, Tobeck thought. Please, God, do not let me be eaten by a shark.
Alexander had been right. You stay with the boat.
Alexander, out of the water, still had a chance to fight the cold, to survive. Experts on hypothermia point out that everyone who survived the Titanic disaster was out of the water. Everyone who died was in the water, though they had life jackets and the water temperature was actually warmer than the air temperature.
Put plainly, cold water kills far faster than cold air.
A layer of protective fat would have helped, but Tobeck was not overweight. Nor was he in his teens or twenties; a younger body adjusts better to cold.
Tobeck's arms and legs were growing leaden, numb. He had burned precious energy trying to fight through the churning surf.
Soon, he would be too fatigued to fight. He would slip below and he would gulp the saltwater, and his cold, beleaguered body would shut down.
His looked to the darkening sky and thought of Liz and their children. Nothing else mattered, he knew. Not the house backing up to the vineyard, not his beloved bonsai, not the fishing.
If I can only be with them again, my family and my friends, he prayed. That is enough. That is everything.
He was swept under by another wave, this one driving him to the depths. He simply could not fight anymore.
He looked up through the dark, swirling green to flecks of sunlight, so far away now. So far.
It had been nearly two hours since the massive wave had seized and flipped the Ranger.
He felt certain now. Resigned.
The sea had won.
This would be his last breath of life.
Lungs burning, they ran down the beach, back over the two miles, over shards of driftwood and past knots of kelp.
They made it to the Highlander, rushed to a nearby farmhouse, and used a landline to call 9-1-1.
A boat had capsized off Kehoe Beach, they reported. Two men were clinging to it.
It had been about a half-hour since they had spotted the overturned Ranger and the fishermen.
Bouchard and Kimber left the farmhouse. They drove back and parked on the side of Pierce Point Road near a large sign warning of undertows and sharks.
They grabbed sweaters and towels and bottles of water. They ran through the dunes stubbled with anise and iceplant.
Maybe the men had washed ashore.
The muscles in their legs were screaming.
Still, they ran toward Kehoe Beach.
A U.S. Coast Guard air search and rescue team was already in motion, speeding in their sleek orange-and-black Dolphin helicopter over San Pablo Bay.
They'd received a mayday call earlier and were searching the San Pablo waters for a boat or survivor.
They found nothing. It wasn't unusual. Some mayday calls are pranks. Sometimes nearby boaters help out or local law enforcement responds before the Coast Guard arrives.
In the Dolphin were Commander Sam Creech, pilot Kyle Young, flight mechanic Eric Lester and rescue swimmer Dan Strange. All were in dry suits.
Strange, 27, was a football player and track athlete back in high school near San Antonio. His face splashed with freckles, hair close-cropped, he had a boyish look. Yet as a rescue swimmer, he was highly trained and in peak condition.
Like all Coast Guard rescue swimmers, he was also an Emergency Medical Technician.
As the men scanned San Pablo Bay, the Dolphin running in a pre-selected search pattern, a distress call came in from Point Reyes.
A boat capsized, a single man aboard. The sighting had been reported by eyewitnesses.
The crew knew this was no prank.
In the Coast Guard, the term for going at full speed is "bustering."
Strange began pulling on his fins.
It would soon be up to him.
At 180 mph, it would take no more than 10 minutes to get to Kehoe.
The men of the Dolphin bustered.
The blue fender lifted Tobeck to the surface. He opened his eyes.
He was, somehow, still alive, still breathing.
God is here, Tobeck thought.
He looked at the beach. He was closer now.
The surf pulsed him toward the sand. He clawed at it, tried to pull himself up and away from the water. He was nearly on the beach but he couldn't touch bottom, couldn't get traction.
Another wave broke and began its backwards rush, and carried Tobeck with it.
Again and again, Tobeck dug his fingers into the sand only to be hauled back by the receding waves.
Finally, a breaker washed Tobeck to higher ground, near the dunes and the white log. He dug in, and held. He crawled away from the water, still holding the fender.
His heart was beating erratically, his lungs were rasping. His face was turning purple.
On the chill sands of Kehoe Beach, Tobeck curled into the fetal position, a posture common for those dying from hypothermia.
Kneeling on the Ranger, Alexander had seen Tobeck survive the surf and curl up on the beach.
Held in a rip current, the Ranger was still well away from the beach, still trapped in the slashing breakers.
He had looked several times to the north, toward Bodega Bay, knowing there was a Coast Guard station there. But no Coast Guard cutter appeared.
Somehow, the hikers had not understood. There would be no rescue.
Still wet, in only his undershorts, Alexander was growing colder, more weary. He wondered now if his earlier decision was right.
Maybe he should leave the Ranger and swim for his life.
He was a decent swimmer, but he was so fatigued now, beaten down for two hours by the sea.
He crawled to the bow of the Ranger. He would stand and dive into this monster surf. It would be his only chance.
Then he heard a rumble in the sky.
Alexander looked south, and saw the Dolphin approaching.
Swooping over the Bolinas Ridge, the team headed north along the Great Beach. They spotted the capsized boat and on it, a man wearing only shorts.
The men flew over Alexander, assessed the best way to make the rescue.
As the commander, Creech would make the decision. He turned to Strange and gave him the signal. The Dolphin hovered at about 30 feet, its engine screaming, its rotors blasting down at the surf.
Strange had secured his mask, helmet, fins and snorkel. His harness held flares, lights, a knife.
He looked down from the edge of the Dolphin. He could not simply jump into this surf. It was too high, too treacherous. If his timing wasn't perfect, he could plummet deep into the trough of a wave instead of onto the crest and shatter a bone.
Strange went down on a sling.
Dangling a few feet from the water, Strange slipped from the sling into the surf.
He swam to Alexander.
"Is there anyone else?"
Alexander pointed toward Tobeck, curled on the still-distant beach.
Strange gave a hand signal to his crew. A rescue basket dropped from the Dolphin.
Alexander was bluish, cool to the touch.
"You OK?" Strange asked.
"OK, but I'd like to get out of here," Alexander said.
Background sourcesBackground for this story was provided by:
• John A. Dell'Osso, chief of interpretation, Point Reyes National Seashore.
• Don Gross, president and co-founder, Arima boat company.
• Paul Komar, professor emeritus of marine geology and geophysics, Oregon State University.
• Kenneth Kamler, M.D., microsurgeon and author, whose expertise includes hypothermia.
• Vinnie Mathews, director of research, The Santa Rosa Press-Democrat.
The two splashed into the water, and Strange, his arm under Alexander's shoulder, towed him to the basket.
Another hand signal, and the basket, with Alexander inside, rose to the Dolphin.
To steady the basket, to keep it from swinging back into the surf, Strange held onto it from below as it rose for the first 10 feet or so.
Then he dropped back into the water and swam for the beach.
It was, he would recall, the toughest swim of his life. The surf was 10 to 15 feet. The waves were concussive, pounding one on top of another. He duck-dived below some. Others struck him, rolled him. He'd describe it later as swimming through a washing machine.
Strange made it to the beach.
He threw off his fins and snorkel. He would need his mask, he knew, to see through the rotor wash.
He sprinted to Tobeck, coiled tight in the last stages of hypothermia.
He touched Tobeck's hand. It was colder than the sea itself.
He bent low and could hear the rasping of Tobeck's breathing, see the purple spreading over his face.
"You'll be OK, you'll be OK," he told him.
He looked up to the Dolphin, signaled once more, and the basket dropped.
Tobeck looked out from his cocoon. He saw Strange, heard the shrieking of the Dolphin, saw the rotors' hurricane-force winds strafing the sand around him.
Then he peered toward the dunes at the metal wire of the exclosure.
Oh, the poor Plovers, he thought.
Bouchard and Gimber had rushed down the beach and then stopped when they heard the Dolphin's approaching thunder. They watched as Strange and his team rescued the fishermen.
Now the helicopter was speeding south, the thunder fading.
The fishermen, they hoped, would be safe now.
Wisps of fog drifted over the beach as the hikers carried the water and blankets back to the Highlander.
Inside the Dolphin, Strange pulled out his switchblade and sliced away Tobeck's wet shirt and pants. He swaddled him in blankets. Started oxygen.
He was worried about Tobeck's erratic heartbeat. Other hospitals were closer, but Strange wanted to get Tobeck to Stanford Medical Center, with its trauma and shock unit.
He called for heat, and Creech obliged, opening a vent that brought hot air off the engine directly into the cabin.
Alexander was already wrapped in blankets. He leaned toward the vent, let the air swirl around him. He stopped shivering.
The blankets and air began to warm Tobeck. The purple in his face steadily faded, replaced by pink. His heart was quieting.
The Dolphin raced past the Golden Gate, over San Francisco, a million lights twinkling below.
They flew down the Peninsula, veering over the glow of Stanford Stadium, where the first football game of the season was underway.
Blood coursed back into Tobeck's arms and legs. He looked up toward Alexander, sitting a couple of feet away.
Tobeck stuck an unsteady hand out through his blankets.
Alexander took it and, for a few moments, held it in his own.
His friend, he knew, would be OK.
At Stanford, Alexander was examined and released.
Tobeck was admitted for cardiac tests. Ultimately, doctors found no damage to his heart and he was released the next day, Friday.
The men say they will forever be indebted to Bouchard and Kimber, the hikers, and to the Coast Guard rescuers aboard the Dolphin.
Ultimately, though, they believe they were graced that day at Kehoe Beach by divine intervention. They believe God answered their prayers by placing Bouchard and Kimber on the beach and by sending the Dolphin to save them.
Since the capsizing, the men have shared their story with friends and church members.
Part of their message is about being mindful at sea.
They should have remembered the two-way radio, they say. Each man should have stayed with the boat. They should have been wearing life preservers - or at least had them close by. They should not have lingered too late on the ocean.
Yet the sea's allure is ancient, enduring.
So are its perils.
Three weeks after Alexander and Tobeck's ordeal, two other men went fishing south of Bodega.
It was a Friday, clear and sunny.
At about 11 a.m., a large wave struck their boat, knocking one of the men into the water.
The Petaluma man was eventually pulled from the cold waters of Tomales Bay and taken to the Bodega Bay Coast Guard station.
There, he was pronounced dead by local firefighters.