Monday, March 29, 2010

"The Day Garth Canning Saved Phil Topar!"

(Competitors and Lifeguards, on and off duty, sprint to the overturned dory. Photo by Will Maguire. Used here with permission.)

Once upon a time, on a bright and sunny summer day in Huntington Beach, Calif at Bolsa Chica during the Bud Light Lifeguard Competition Series produced by Scott Hubbell..... LACo posted a team of competitors as talented and deep as at any other time. Think: Mitch Kahn, Phil Topar, Mel Solberg, National Rowing Champ Duo, Jake and Dale, yada yada yada..... The undersigned was in attendance with his then Pentax camera with telephoto lens (with film), in the days well in advance of digital technology.

It was during the last lap of the Bud Light Dory race that afternoon that a near tragedy occurred. The historical significance of this incident takes on special importance today because of the recent accident and tragedy down under during the 2010 Australian National Lifesaving Championships when a young Aussie lifeguard was killed while negotiating 10 foot face plus surf during the surfski competition. In spite of the immediate rescue and recovery efforts undertaken to locate young Simon Bird, alas it was too late and he was gone. This event down under underscores the danger inherent in lifeguard competitions and the importance of fellow competitors and on duty lifesaving staff "Staying Vigilant" and every effort being taken to prevent injury to competitors.

Mother Nature holds the wild card, however,
and it is this awareness of this wild card that we take this opportunity to tell for the first time what happened that day back in the late 80's in Bolsa Chica. In an effort to cover this incident as comprehensively as possible, "County Recurrent" once again adopts the Rashomon perspective, e.g., from several different points of view. In this regard, we are fortunate to have the contributions of Phil Topar, Garth Canning, Tom Katsouleas, Mel Solberg, Scott Hubbell and the undersigned. So please sit back and read each of these terrific recollections and remember the moral of the story here is to "Remain Vigilant" at all times and to watch the water and the competitors.
I shall begin with my recent email to several of the noted competitors present that day at Bolsa Chica wherein I first requested their participation:

From: Will Maguire
Subject: Topar-Katso Dory Team, Late 80's Dory Broach In Surf
Date: March 26, 2010 10:20:21 AM PDT
To: Phil Topar, Garth Canning
Cc: Mel Solbert, Tom Katsouleas



I am hoping to write and publish on the "County Recurrent" blog a multi person p.o.v. story on the day "back in the day" when a wave caused the Topar-Katsouleas dory to breach and flip in the surf. I thought it was at Bolsa Chica, but it may have been in San Clemente just north of the pier. Not sure.

I took several photos that day of that event/incident. I am enclosing a pdf of 2 of these photos... I am hoping that each of you will remember something about this day so that a story can be developed that will be entertaining to our readership and colleagues and at the same time remind them of the risks, rewards and the importance of being vigilant, as was Garth that day when he yelled out that Phil had not come up, which instigated an immediate rush to the dory to find him! Scary, exciting, and thankfully a happy ending.

I will publish the story with better versions of these photos and others.

I look forward to your contributions. I really would prefer not to publish this story just from my own perspective. Your assistance will be greatly appreciated.

If you have any questions, please advise.

Thank you for your consideration.

Kind regards,

Will Maguire,
"County Recurrent" News


From: Garth Canning

Subject: RE: Topar-Katso Dory Team, Late 80's Dory Broach In Surf
Date: March 26, 2010 5:20:39 PM PDT
To: Will Maguire, Phil Topar
Cc: Mel Solberg, Tom Katsouleas

I think it was the San Clemente Ocean festival. As Phil and Katso were coming in on the last lap, their boat turned slightly and as Phil jumped out, a wave hit the boat, the boat flipped and the far rail of the dory came across and hit Phil square in the back of his helmet. I dolphined out to find Katso next to the flipped dory and NO PHIL. I lifted the upside down dory by the rail and Phil slowly came up, I yelled are you OK and he said rather quietly "no". We got Phil to the beach, I think he was checked out by Paramedics, was cleared, and then went back to competing. Before and after the crash are lost in time, but the crash and what happened in the water are burned in to my memory. About 5 years later, at a dinner at Mike Newman's house, Mike played a video of the entire race and crash.


Garth Canning, Section Chief
Southern Section, Lifeguard Division, LA County Fire Dept.


(Photo shows Mel Solberg checking Phil Topar's level of consciousness and vitals shortly after being returned to the beach. Mel knew something wasn't right when he asked Phil what his name was and he said, "Greg Bonann".
*** Just Kidding! *** ("County Recurrent" joke only). Photo by Will Maguire. Used here with permission.)

From: Mel Solberg

Subject: RE: Hey Mel: Remember when Topar.......
Date: March 26, 2010 6:06:41 PM PDT
To: Will Maguire

Hi Will,

Sadly, I have a very a vague recollection of that event. Could you send me the pictures? It might help jog my memory? I was a young Zuma Lifeguard competitor in the mid/late 80's and probably did not know who Phil was. Since that time I have pulled many trapped guys from beneath dories, as well as having been pulled out myself...

Sorry, wish I had more for you...



From: Phil Topar
Subject: RE: Topar-Katso Dory Team, Late 80's Dory Broach In Surf
Date: March 27, 2010 2:09:57 PM PDT
To: Will Maguire, Garth Canning
Cc: Mel Solberg, Tom Katsouleas

To All,

It was at Bolsa Chica during a Bud Light series. The surf was not big (2-3 feet) with a long shallow shelf. Katso and I were finishing up our last lap and riding a wave into shore. The boat breached and we started to lose the wave, so I jumped out of the boat to try to body surf the wave into shore. As you know the last lap is exhausting, so I ran out of air pretty quick with my head down trying to stay in the wave….. I picked up my head for a breath and my helmet hit “something” – It only took a few seconds to realize someone’s boat was upside down, and I was underneath it. I remember trying to remain calm but air was an immediate priority. As I searched for air, I noticed that I was in shallow water (3-4 feet), was probably in the bow of the boat between the seat and foot straps, so I tried to reach underneath the gunnels to try and tip it up so I could escape – it did not work as the natural “suction” of the dory was holding it in place upside down. My only choice was to look for an air pocket on the upside down deck – I remember pressing my mouth against the deck and taking a breath of the ocean. I know I passed out due to a lack of air, and I do not think it was much after that (probably 5-10 seconds max – a pure guess) Garth had me under my arms. I remember taking a huge gasp of air as I was being pulled from underneath the boat, but I can tell you I had no idea where I was, who had me in their arms, or what had happened…..I am very thankful to Garth and Mitch Kahn who just “happened” to notice I was missing – they were “on duty” while racing. The PM’s did check me out for water in my lungs and I did race (poorly) the Ironman about an hour later. That’s about it, Phil.

(The two photos above show the Paramedics, who arrived quickly, checking Phil's vitals, including blood pressure. Photo by Will Maguire. Used here with permission.


From: Tom Katsouleas
Subject: Re: Topar-Katso Dory Team, Late 80's Dory Broach In Surf
Date: March 27, 2010 3:00:07 PM PDT
To: Phil Topar
Cc: Will Maguire, Garth Canning, Mel Solberg

What a memory you guys have sparked!
So I guess I will weigh in what I experienced (mostly facing the other way). I do recall Phil diving out to bodysurf home. The boat kicked sideways and got very light and flipped on the next wave. I remember popping up and reacting automatically to a flipped dory (no comment about why I was so practiced at this please) -- getting on the surfward side of the boat, rotating it bow/stern perpendicular to the wave fronts and lifting... except this time the boat didn't roll over. Instead the far gunnel struck bottom. It was too shallow and the boat was sucking to the sand. I remember waiting for the next swell after that to get some water under the boat to try again. By then help (I think Garth and Mel) was there and the boat went over and out staggered Phil much to my surprise. I remember his quiet "no" to the question "Are you all right?" That was chilling and did have a lasting impact on both of us. Fortunately, there are many more positive memories of rowing with Phil and many fellow dorymen and friends. Katso.

From: Scott Hubbell
Subject: Re: Hey Scott: Research Project on Topar-Katso Dory Breach, late 80's, Bolsa Chica, Bud Light Series
Date: March 28, 2010 8:53:39 AM PDT
To: Will Maguire





*** *** ***

As Phil mentioned above, a little over an hour after this incident, he returned to compete in the Ironman, in a truly inspirational and studley exhibition of perseverance and overcoming adversity.

(Phil Topar, "Ironman". Photo by Will Maguire. Used here with permission.)

Many Thanks to Garth, Mel, Phil, Tom, and Scott for contributing to this article. The team efforts of each of the competitors and especially the vigilence of Garth, Mitch, Mel and Katso, and the other bystanders and competitors who rushed to the submerged and overturned dory immediately after Garth's halycon call that I will never forget, "Phil has not come up!!!"

Until next time.....

"County Recurrent" News

Service • Training • Commitment

*** Keeping the County Recurrent "in the loop"..... whether he/she likes it or NOT ! ***

DISCLAIMER: County Recurrent is not affiliated with nor sponsored by LACOLA or LACoFD.

***** ***** ***** ***** *****


spyder said...

That wasn't the first or last time Phil had an issue at San Clemente. A decade earlier he and i went end over the falls in large surf trying to get a jump on the set in order to be in the lead. We breached, went over, broke both sets of a pair of Saylors (his last pair) of ash oars, and floated upside down while the set crashed over us. He faired better then, but he was younger.

Buddy Bohn said...

Hi Will,

Good on ya mate for keeping this young Aussie hero’s death in the forefront. The competitors and general public’s safety should be on our minds at all times and our vigilance at competitive events projects the high level of professionalism we symbolize.
Phil dodged a bullet that day and I’m sure he can attest to the many times our competitors have charged the surf at the site of one of our dories flipping. I think one of the scariest dory crashes I’ve seen was the Mark Montgomery and Dave Story incident at the San Clemente Pier; maybe they’d share what they remember that day. Then there were the pre-helmet days in the sixties and that fateful day at the Huntington Pier when the field of dory crews washed through the pier in big surf and the inshore was then littered with pieces of wood and fiberglass. After that incident the requirement of helmets was a no brainer (no pun intended).