His care is typical in the deceptively mild Monterey Bay, a federally protected marine sanctuary where in just a few minutes, placid blue water can turn to roiling waves, huge sneaker waves surge over gentle currents, and sunny skies can grow dark with fog.
"Very often people underestimate ocean safety," said Hanna Tuson-Turner, a sailing instructor in Half Moon Bay. "Weather systems can come from out of nowhere and equipment can malfunction."
Maritime safety expert Mitchell Stoller, a former Los Angeles harbor pilot and supertanker captain, said several safety items could have meant the difference between life and death: an inflatable life raft, and an electronic position indicating radio beacon, a $200 device that provides rescuers a location.
Coast Guard Executive Officer Noah Hudson in Monterey paused, sighing, on Tuesday when asked how he felt when a search is called off.
"It's tough for me thinking that we had four people out on the water who were in need of rescue, and to think there might have been loss of life in this case, it's tragic."
But if it was a hoax, "it's unfortunate that we were forced to use so many resources for so much time," Hudson said.
Making a false federal distress call is a federal felony, and perpetrators face up to six years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Yet the Coast Guard handles several hundred hoax calls a year, some involving major rescue efforts. Last year a massive search was launched in the Atlantic Ocean east of Sandy Hook, N.J. ,after a caller falsely radioed for help, saying "We have 21 souls on board, 20 in the water."
Kurtis Thorsted, 55, of Salinas, Calif., was released from federal prison last summer after being convicted, for the second time, of making false calls to the Coast Guard. Court records show he made 51 distress calls over five months, claiming in one case to be in trouble in a kayak off the coast of Santa Cruz.
Associated Press writer Sudhin Thanawala in San Francisco contributed to this report.