Lifeguard rescue boats shoot water to honor Ben Carlson

Three lifeguard rescue boats from neighboring agencies shoot their water cannons into the sky during memorial paddle out service for Newport Beach lifeguard Ben Carlson at the Newport Pier on Sunday. (Susan Hoffman / Daily Pilot / July 13, 2014 / July 14, 2014)

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The tide was low and little wind was blowing Sunday morning, but hundreds of mourners hauled their surfboards to Newport Pier.

More people also arrived by boat or gathered at the pier to observe the paddle-out being held in honor of Newport Beach lifeguard Ben Carlson, who died a week earlier during a rescue.

"The water's behaving," Newport Beach Fire Chief Scott Poster said, glancing toward the ocean from the lifeguard headquarters building as early arrivers began to congregate.

Participants all too aware of the water's power mourned the loss of Carlson, who died during one of many rescues made by the department during the July Fourth weekend, when warm temperatures drew swimmers and surfers into rough water.

They grappled with a sense of shock, but demonstrated a show of support for the man they have embraced as a hero, as well as for his family, his peers and the many others in the community affected by his death.

Tributes to him were everywhere.

"RIP Ben," said the bottom of one surfboard.

"Ben Would Go," a mantra used to describe his willingness to do whatever it took, had been written on the bottom of another board, printed on hats, produced on T-shirts and even scrawled on the backs of two young boys.

Hats read, "Ben did Go." (At least two people posted pictures of "Ben Did Go" tattoos on Instagram.)

"You feel nauseous. It just hits home," said Robin Levinson, court liaison officer for the Laguna Beach Police Department, remembering the recent loss of officer John Coutchie, who died in an on-duty motorcycle crash last fall. "It's like you lost your brother, your best friend."

Participants returned to the ocean that Carlson loved in a sort of prelude to a beachside memorial service that would be held that night.

Members of other fire and lifeguard departments from Los Angeles County, the city of Orange, Del Mar and San Clemente were drawn to the event.

Those with badges had slipped a black band around them as a sign of mourning.

Wahoo's Fish Taco, where Carlson also worked, passed out breakfast from a food truck.

"I can hear his voice and see his smile right now," said Justin Fassnacht, Ben's roommate, speaking to the assembled crowd from a guard tower east of the pier.

With family and close friends in the lead, the paddleboarders marched into the water just after 9 a.m., moving in a slow mass. Then they flopped onto their stomachs and began to paddle, the bright colors of swimsuits and boards shining against the rich, blue water. Others joined in canoes or on stand-up paddleboards. Some shared a board with a friend.

They wore leis and clutched flowers, which they would later drop into the water. Assembling into a massive ring in the ocean, they awaited the three yellow lifeguard boats.

A water polo coach and an avid big-wave surfer, Carlson was passionate about "basically anything that had to do with people and water," Fassnacht said, and loved working from the boats as a lifeguard.

His favorite surfboard was allowed to slip into the water from one of the vessels, and it floated toward the center of the circle, topped with a wreath.

Silence and cheers alternated throughout the morning. Three helicopters flew overhead during the ceremony, eliciting more whoops from the crowd, and visiting boats squirted water toward the paddlers.

"It really demonstrates a togetherness and a close-knit community that the lifeguards have," Poster had said earlier that morning. "This is their time."