Clifford Carlton “Gavvy” “Cactus” Cravath (March 23, 1881 – May 23, 1963,) was an American right fielder and right-handed batter in Major League Baseball who played primarily for the Philadelphia Phillies.
In the seven years from 1913 to 1920 he led the National League in home runs six times, in runs batted in, total bases and slugging average twice each, and in hits, runs and walks once each. Cravath had part-ownership in a 40-foot boat, the Thelma.
On June 14, 1925, the Thelma was leaving Newport Harbor with 17-people, going out for a fishing expedition.
“The fishing party, including high school boys, left early and found a smooth sea until within 150 feet of the Jetty, Bland (the skipper) testified, when one wave turned the craft sideways. The boat rode the second, but the third, said to be at least 20 feet high, crashed over the boat.” (San Bernardino County Sun, June 15, 1925)
“When she neared the end of the breakwater a large wave smashed the engine room hatch, disabling the motor. Another wave, closely following, carried away part of the rigging, leaving the craft overturned, but another wave righted it.” (San Bernardino County Sun, June 15, 1925)
“Big green walls of water were sliding in from the horizon, building up to bar like heights, then curling and crashing on the shore. Only a porpoise, a shark or a sea lion (ought) to be out there.”
Some surfers were nearby; one had his board with him the others ran for theirs. What follows is a recounting of the events that followed.
“It was obvious that the Thelma had capsized and thrown her passengers into the boiling sea. Neither I nor my pals were thinking heroics; we were simply sunning – me with a board, and the others to get their boards – hoping we could save lives.”
“I hit the water hard and flat with all the forward thrust I could generate, for those bobbing heads in the water could not remain long above the surface of that churning surge.”
“Fully clothed persons have little chance in a wild sea like that, and even the several who were clinging to the slick hull of the overturned boat could not last long under the pounding.”
“It was some surf to try and push through! But I gave it all I had, paddling until my arms begged for mercy. I fought each towering breaker that threatened to heave me clear back onto the beach, and some of the combers almost creamed me for good.”
“I hoped my pals were already running toward the surf with their boards. Help would be at a premium. Don’t ask me how I made it, for it was just one long nightmare of trying to shove through what looked like a low Niagara Falls.”
“The waves were pounding so furiously that when a breaker came in, he had to scramble beneath the board and hold on with all fours as the waves broke over him. Fighting his way out, he came upon the havoc of the sinking boat and began grabbing its occupants and shoving them onto the board, begging them to hold on.” (Sports Illustrated)
“The prospects for picking up victims looked impossible. Arm-weary, I got into that area of screaming, gagging victims, and began grabbing at frantic hands, thrashing legs.”
“I didn’t know what was going on with my friends and their boards. All I was sure of was that I brought one victim in on my board, then two on another trip, possibly three on another – then back to one.”
“It was a delirious shuttle system working itself out. In a matter of a few minutes, all of us were making rescues. Some victims we could not save at all, for they went under before we could get to them.”
“We lost count of the number of trips we made out to that tangle of drowning people. All we were sure of was that on each return trip we had a panicked passenger or two on our boards. Without the boards we would probably not have been able to rescue a single person.” (as quoted by Burnett and HawaiianSwimBoat))
After the ordeal, 5 had died, 12 were saved (8 were saved by the primary rescuer.)
“At an inquest held at the Smith & Tuthill parlors at Santa Ana yesterday afternoon the Jury brought in a verdict of ‘unavoidable accident’ and thus absolved Bland, a cigar store owner and pilot of the craft, from blame.” (San Bernardino County Sun, June 15, 1925)
The primary rescuer, known to many, received a hero’s welcome.
The Los Angeles Times reportedly noted, “His role on the beach that day was more dramatic than the scores he played in four decades of intermittent bit-part acting in Hollywood films. For one thing, that day he was the star.”
The Hawaiian Society of Los Angeles presented a medal of heroism on September 25, 1925. On Christmas Day 1925, the Los Angeles Athletic Club honored him with a gold watch.
Several decades later (1957,) three of the survivors thanked him in person before a national television audience of ‘This is Your Life.’
The humble hero, Duke Kahanamoku, reportedly simply replied, “That’s okay.”
This is Your Life – Duke Kahanamoku
The Newport Beach, Calif., chief of police was quoted in the newspapers as saying, “Kahanamoku’s performance was the most superhuman rescue act and the finest display of surfboard riding that has ever been seen in the world.” (Sports Illustrated)
In addition to Duke, rescuers included Antar Deraga, captain of the Newport lifeguards; Charles Plummer, lifeguard; Thomas Sheffield, captain of the Corona del Mar Swimming Club; Gerard Vultee, William Herig and Owen Hale.