Glass Beach Rescue

By Kirsti Scott

helicopter rescue from high tide at the beach

There is a sea glass beach near the quaint and picturesque town of Port Townsend, Washington, located on the northeast corner of the Olympic Peninsula. Downtown streets are lined with 1890s Victorian buildings, and historical mansions dot the bluff overlooking the town and the ferry landing in the inlet waters. With the Olympic Peninsula’s natural beauty, the charms of the town, and the lure of a sea glass beach, Port Townsend is a popular destination for beachcombers, art lovers, and history buffs.

view of port townsend washington

Waterfront view of old Victorian era architecture in Port Townsend, Washington (cdrin/Shutterstock).

North Beach Park is a starting point for people and pets out for either a leisurely stroll and for serious beachcombers looking for sea glass. Walkers should leave plenty of time for an unhurried, steady hike to Glass Beach, as it is known, which is about six miles round trip. I ran into Cynthia Neidecker and Lorie Librande on a trip with my husband, Matt, to search for sea glass in late summer. While there, they told me about their biggest adventure at Glass Beach, which took place in late 2020, when a storm surge created higher tides than normal.

beachcombers at sea glass beach in washington

Cynthia and Lorie have been visiting Glass Beach twice a year for the past few years. “We always love the hike out to Glass Beach, looking for beach treasures in addition to beach glass along the way,” says Cynthia. They go to this beach at least twice during the summer months; enjoying not only the beachcombing, but each other’s company. Cynthia adds, “The hike can be challenging in spots, with large rocks and fallen trees and limbs to navigate.”

Lorie always checks the tide schedules before they choose their dates to go to Port Townsend. “It’s important to know the high and low tides at this beach because the beach has many coves, and some are very close to the water’s edge,” says Lorie. “On the opposite side of the beach are 70-foot sandy bluffs.” Cynthia and Lorie look for the lowest tide and the longest time available to spend on the beach before high tide, always allowing at least two to three hours for the walk back.

port townsend wa sea glass beach

On Tuesday, October 13th, 2020, Lorie and Cynthia headed out with their daypacks stocked with snacks, water, and other supplies needed for a day on the Beach. “And thankfully, a phone,” says Lorie. It was an uneventful morning and they arrived at Glass beach around 10:00 am. The day was warm and Lorie soon took off her red rain jacket, draping it over a tall branch and planning on picking it up on the way back to the parking lot.

trapped by tides port townsend glass beach

When they arrived at Glass Beach, things looked off. “The beach had a different appearance, with red algae covering most of the beach. It was thick and made our search for glass nearly impossible,” says Cynthia. Lorie adds, “The tide didn’t appear to be out as far as we expected, and with some concern we decided to head back around noon.” The skies were getting darker and after they walked about a mile, the wind seemed to pick up and the waves were coming in faster and higher. The beach is littered with fallen trees, a result of erosion, which is challenging, particularly if the tide is coming in. “We ducked under tree branches, trying to move quickly as we rounded each bend from one cove to the next,” Cynthia explains.

high tide trapped on beach in washington

Suddenly, Lorie saw the red jacket she had left earlier, now caught between a couple of big logs that had rolled in. And soon, the beach ahead was inundated and they couldn’t go any further. They quickly climbed up a small bluff where they could see a short distance to the next bluff, but not around it. “Sitting about ten feet above the vanishing beach, we could see the waves rolling in higher and faster, now bringing in driftwood,” Cynthia says. Lorie hoped that they could make it back if they walked extremely fast, though they would get very wet. “I was still holding on to the belief we could make it on our own,” she says. As they were huddled together, looking over the situation, Lorie says she still didn’t think about calling 911. “I was still leaning towards making a run for it.”

Cynthia was more realistic and wasn’t willing to chance it, wanting to call 911. Lorie remembers thinking, “Seriously, call 911?” They had never been in a situation like this before—with an overwhelming sense of helplessness. They had a major problem.

So, without knowing what to expect, Lorie called 911. “Considering we were on the side of a 70-foot bluff, we were surprised the reception was as good as it was,” says Lorie. The dispatcher had the fire department call her back and explain to them how to pinpoint their exact location on her cell phone. As they stayed huddled on the side of the little hill, with gray skies, wind blowing, and the tide rolling in, they heard buzzing. Hovering above them was a drone. “We figured it was determining if we did indeed have a valid emergency,” Cynthia says. They waved and it left, returning several minutes later. A while after it disappeared, a helicopter came by, but it left as well. “At this point, there was no more phone communication, so we had no idea what was going on,” Lorie says. About 20 minutes later they heard a helicopter and the orange and white Coast Guard helicopter hovered over the water close to the bluff. “We both remember thinking this can’t be happening,” says Lorie.

“We clambered down the hill when we saw the rescue swimmer exiting the helicopter on a cable with the rescue basket,” Cynthia says. The Coast Guard rescuer helped Lorie wade out into the water up to her waist and then climb in the basket. “I realized then that we never would have made it in that frigid icy water,” says Lorie. The cable pulled Lorie up and into the helicopter with the crew. They left for safety, leaving Cynthia with the rescue swimmer on the hillside.

“The swimmer told me the seas were about a foot higher than the tide expectancy and assured me that we made the right decision to call for help,” says Cynthia. They were evacuated to a private residence on the bluff above the beach. Waiting for them was an ambulance in case of injuries and a police car to provide them transportation back to the parking lot. “We discovered later that we were still over three miles from the parking lot at North Beach Park,” adds Lorie.

beachcombers at port townsend glass beach

This was a day of firsts for both Cynthia and Lorie. “First time stranded on a beach, first helicopter rescue, and first time in a police cruiser,” says Cynthia. They went back to their motel—wet and cold, but very grateful for their rescue. They will always remember that day, and offer their sincere thanks and appreciation to the Coast Guard team on the MH-65 Dolphin rescue helicopter, the Fire Department, and the Port Townsend Police Department for getting them home safely.

Quick postscript: After Lorie posted online about losing her jacket, a friend who was on the beach the next day salvaged her jacket and mailed it to her! 

best beaches for beachcombers

Learn more about the best beaches and destinations for sea and beach glass, seashells, fossils, rocks, and more beach finds around the world. Articles ›

All photos courtesy of Cynthia Neidecker and Lorie Librande except as noted.

This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine January/February 2023 issue.

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