When the Willis brothers, Michael and Milton, show up on San Diego’s beaches, other surfers know who they are.
The 59-year old twins have embodied the surfing lifestyle. By age 12, they were shaping boards out of their Solana Beach home. What followed was a life as big-wave riders, travelers, musicians, authors, surf instructors, avocado farmers, and ocean safety experts.
Ten years ago, the brothers started a campaign to change the way lifeguards teach how to get out of a rip current. They say the current standard instruction causes unneeded drownings; they claim that several North County drownings in the past few years may have been prevented by using their “Willis Way.”
Michael points out the danger in the currently taught guideline: swimming parallel to the shore is wrong. What most casual surfers and swimmers don’t understand is there could be other flash or finger (sideway) rip currents nearby. Someone in rip trouble could find a situation made worse.
“Which way do you swim?” quizzes Michael. “Incoming whitewater waves is nature’s escalator of energy marching into the shore. Rips are nature’s energy returning to the sea, said Milton. Once in the waves, which always move into shore, one is safely out of a rip. “That’s what should be taught: swim towards the waves,” says Milton. “It doesn’t matter which way you swim, as long as you are swimming towards waves.”
The brothers spend much of their time now trying to teach the Willis Way and lobbying for a change in national policy. They recently ran a full-page ad in Ocean Magazine, funded by those who support their cause.
But they have met resistance. Years ago, a local lifeguard agency demanded the Willises remove their rip-current ideas from their website.
The Willises declined, demanding the agency prove their instruction to be harmful. The Willises never heard from the agency again.