An officer with the Oceanside Police Department’s Harbor Unit is being hailed a hero for rescuing a group of experienced canoers from rough waters over the weekend.
In an exclusive interview with NBC 7 Tuesday, a group of San Diego canoers said they’re alive and well thanks to Oceanside Harbor Officer Dave Cunniff.
On Sunday, Dave Hanson – one of the founders of the Oceanside Outrigger Canoe Club – went out for a recreational paddle with five friends off the waters of Oceanside in north San Diego County.
When the group first paddled out, Hanson said the waves were not very big.
But a short time later a buoy sounded off, meaning a big set was coming.
Hanson said his group tried getting back in the safety of the harbor but things turned scary, quickly.
“We got pushed in at this angle, the wave break-over from behind filled the canoe full of water,” Hanson recounted. “So now were sitting at water level, all six of us in the canoe. And the next wave is coming.”
“I told everybody, ‘Out of the canoe!’” he continued. “And then I reached around trying to pull the canoe straight down the wave so that the wave would pass it. And the first couple of waves, I can do that. And then all the paddlers began to disperse with the riptide.”
Moments later, Oceanside Harbor Police Officer Cunniff – a 14-year veteran of the department – got a call on his radio of a flipped canoe. He picked up two lifeguards en route to the scene.
The officer told NBC 7 he was expecting to see one person, perhaps a fisherman, next to the flipped vessel. However, he said what he encountered was more like a horrifying scene straight out of a movie.
“As we come around the corner, it was something like out of the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ movie where you first see where they're coming out of the fog and then all of a sudden there's that big burning ship in debris all over the water. It was something like that,” Cunniff explained. “I see debris all over the water and I just see bodies scattered across the entire harbor entrance.”
At that moment, Cunniff said 12-foot surf was pounding the area but he was determined to make his way through the waves to get to the canoers.
He and the lifeguards began pulling the canoers onto the boat but the choppy conditions proved extremely challenging.
In the middle of the rescue, just as another big wave came crashing down, the engine on Cunniff’s boat died. The officer quickly fired up another engine and got his boat over the wave.
At that moment, Hanson said the officer’s boat felt as if it was completely upright in the water.
The canoers, now in Cunniff’s boat, were terrified. The officer reassured them they would make it out alive.
“I said, ‘Hey, it’s going to be okay. I promise you, you’re going to be alright,’” Cunniff recalled.
Indeed, Cunniff stuck to his word. All six canoers survived.
Hanson’s outrigger canoe – named “Makana,” which means “precious gift”—was destroyed by the force of the ocean, breaking into three different pieces.
"The seats in the outrigger all broke out," Hanson explained.
Hanson said the canoe weighs about 400 pounds without the outrigger. The extensive damage to the vessel goes to show how powerful the ocean can be, he said.
Hanson said he and his fellow paddlers are incredibly grateful that Cunniff was the officer on the boat that day and credits him and the lifeguards for saving their lives.
"They deserve it – they totally do. It was amazing,” Hanson said.
At this point, Hanson isn’t sure Makana is repairable. If the canoe can’t be fixed, he’s hoping it can eventually be restored and displayed in a museum since the vessel has a long history in Oceanside.