On July 6, 2014, shortly after 5:00pm, at the end of a busy Fourth of July holiday weekend that saw the Newport Beach Lifeguard Department make nearly 600 rescues, 32-year-old Ben Carlson laid down his life to save a swimmer in distress.
For 15 years Carlson saved countless lives as a Newport guard. Every year the Newport Beach Lifeguard department rescues over 4,000 people. On the day Carlson lost his life, with a large south swell running, the agency had conducted over 200 rescues. Making a rescue from the lifeguard boat, he went over the falls with a victim and did not come back up. The victim survived, after an extensive search, Carlson’s body was eventually found and he was pronounced dead.
Carlson was the first Newport guard to lose his life in the line of duty since the they first started patrolling local waters in 1923. A former water polo player at UC Irvine and a strong, competitive swimmer, his selfless sacrifice reverberated throughout the lifeguard and firefighting community.
Over 7,500 lifeguards, firefighters, friends and family from up and down California found their way to Newport Pier to pay their last respects. A circle of some 3,000 people formed off the end of the pier in a celebration of life. Later in the day, another memorial was held where an estimated 5,000 people attended. By all accounts Carlson’s paddle-out was one of the biggest in Orange County history.
Carlson was posthumously awarded the Newport Beach Fire Department's Medal of Valor and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher presented the family with a tribute flag in his honor.
“In his 15 years as a seasonal guard he was a mentor to a lot of the men and women coming up the ranks in the department,” said Skeeter Leeper, a fellow lifeguard, roommate, longtime friend and the energy behind the Ben Carlson Foundation.
“Then when the summer guarding season ended, we’d go down to Puerto Escondido together. When it was big, he was always the guy pushing me to paddle out with him,” he continued.
It’s been over five years now since Carlson passed, but his spirit and impact live on in ways he may never have imagined.
The Ben Carlson Memorial & Scholarship Foundation was formed to leverage his legacy through doing positive work in his memory. Earlier this year the organization hosted its first annual SoCal Water Safety Summit (SCWSS). The idea behind the summit was to host a collaborative conference aimed at reducing drowning and aquatic Injuries. Over 150 first responders, medical professionals and data analysts were in attendance to connect and exchange information.
A scholarship fund was set up to award two students annually, and since 2015 has provided significant scholarship packages to students that are also serving their communities. As of 2019, the BCMSF has awarded $90,000 to student scholarships.
Through the 2019 Stoke-O-Rama during the Vans U.S. Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach, the Positive Vibe Warrior Foundation has had the privilege of teaming up with the Ben Carlson Memorial & Scholarship Foundation to help supply funds and pass the positivity along to a group of people that are doing incredible work to make our oceans a safer place.
“Carlson’s story, while tragic, is also inspiring. He sacrificed everything so somebody else could live. And now the work the Ben Carlson Foundation is doing in his name is incredible. We’re really honored to be able to work with them and together work towards the common goals of water safety, education, and making the world a better place through positive action,” explained PVW’s Dane Gudauskas.