calvinmen@santacruzsentinel.com

SANTA CRUZ -- Surfers and swimmers had been warned: a high surf advisory along the coast meant the waters here could be deadly. The fire department even stationed would-be rescuers on the cliff. But the boogie boarder at the center of a tragedy that unfolded Friday afternoon apparently chose to ignore the warnings.

Authorities on Saturday had not released the name of the man caught up Friday afternoon in a drama that held witnesses spellbound. They watched as he paddled about the growing swells. They watched as lifeguards went out to warn him of the danger. And then, later, they watched as another set of huge waves throw him against the rocks and to his death.

About 4:30 p.m. Friday, two lifeguards on Jet Skis went to check on the man, who was on a boogie board wearing fins, said Rob Young, a battalion chief for the Santa Cruz Fire Department.

He was kicking and paddling calmly when the lifeguards checked on him, said witness Kate Falconer.

Yet something didn't seem right, said Falconer, who had called 911 to alert authorities that the man might need some help. She said he was floating in a stretch of surf "where people normally don't hang out."

Yet despite warnings that the surf was dangerous and being told that he should move, the man, who appeared to be in his 20s or 30s, assured the lifeguards he was fine, Young said. After watching him for about 10 minutes, he said, the lifeguards left.

John F. Hunter, a professional photographer from Capitola, was on the cliff watching the man. He said the boogie boarder appeared to be out of his element.

"You take one look at him,'' said Hunter, "and he just didn't look like he had experience in heavy surf like that."

The man was positioned in front of a large rock and spectators on the cliff yelled to him, trying to get him to move away. Hunter said "everybody was screaming. It was intense."

The rough seas were not a surprise to the people on the cliff. The National Weather Service Station in Monterey had issued a high surf advisory for the day, predicting swells from 11 to 13 feet. Josh Coleman, marine safety captain for the city's fire department, said rescuers were poised in the ocean, regularly making contact with people in the water to ensure they were safe.

"It was a dynamic surf, strong currents and incoming tide," he said. "The sun was setting, and you had just larger than normal surf."

Not long after rescuers talked to the boogie boarder, a large set of waves came in, Falconer said. "After the second wave, he got hit really hard," she said. "It took him right into the rocks."

Witnesses flagged down rescuers and said the same man was in distress, with waves pushing him into a rocky area between the rocks and the mainland, known as the toilet bowl.

"All the currents were converging against the rocks," Young said. "He probably banged into the rocks and into the heavy foam. It's hard to stay afloat."

Two rescue swimmers were sent in -- one coming in from a jet ski and another jumping from the cliff -- to pull the man out but couldn't get to him because of the waves, Young said.

The rescuers were overwhelmed by the rough surf and struggled to swim around the rocks themselves, Hunter said.

"They couldn't even get to the guy," Hunter said. "They had to drop their flotation device because it was dragging them into the rocks, too."

The rescue was made difficult by the large swells and 10-foot waves, Young said.

The rescue swimmers, who suffered injuries themselves after swallowing water and being swept up against rocks, suffered from exhaustion and eventually got out themselves. They then boarded a Santa Cruz Harbor Patrol boat and were taken to Dominican Hospital for treatment, Young said.

A second set of rescue swimmers were sent in and were able to pull out the man, Young said.

Rescuers, including Santa Cruz city lifeguards, brought him to Cowell Beach. From there he was taken by ambulance to Dominican Hospital, where he later died.

Staff writer Patrick May contributed to this report. Follow reporter Calvin Men at Twitter.com/calvinmenatwork.