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Filmmaker Documents Coast Guard Rescue Crew

David Wittkower is promoting his documentary about the surfmen who train to aid distressed boats and wind- and kite-surfers outside the Golden Gate. The film will be broadcast on KQED in November.

The life of an independent film maker can be unpredictable and precarious, at least financially speaking, but it can also provide some pretty cool experiences. Documentarian David Wittkower realized that recently when he filmed Guardians of the Gate: The Surf Boats.

The movie documents the U.S. Coast Guard’s second busiest station in the country, Station Golden Gate, the surfmen who serve there and the boats they use.

Wittkower spent part of last year on the station’s 47-foot surfboats.

The aluminum-finished boats are powered by two 435-horsepower motors, can take on 30-foot waves, tow up to 150 tons, speed along at 25 knots (or 28.8 miles per hour) and even roll all the way over. If the boat capsizes, it’s designed to right itself in less than 15 seconds.

While filming, Wittkower and his small crew of cameramen didn’t experience a rollover, but they did get jolted around and slammed as the boats rode up and down 25-foot swells. He found quickly that trying to hold a camera steady while also holding on to the boat to remain standing wasn’t going to work.

"When you get past the Golden Gate, the waves get rough really quickly," he said, adding that he mounted small cameras all over the boat and relied on those a lot because "after a while, you're just holding on."

"It's a bit of a rough ride, but it's fun," he said.

Wittkower was on hand as Coast Guard personnel practiced, patrolled and made rescues near the Golden Gate Bridge in the San Francisco Bay and beyond.

The crew at the station, located on the north side of the bridge, is responsible for helping distressed fishing, recreational and cargo boats; rescuing wind- and kite-surfers who find themselves in trouble; and recovering bodies of people who jump from the bridge, which happens about once every week or two, according to one of the Coast Guard officials in the film.

The latter is, naturally, a duty that hits the crew hard, especially as they think of themselves in terms of being rescuers and lifesavers.

"When you come into the Coast Guard, a lot of times you're coming in to save lives, to be helpful," Boatswain Mate First Class Jessica Shafer explained in the film. "This is one of the few military branches where you can actually truly say that you are there soley to be a rescuer, to save lives, not take lives."

Wittkower noted that during one week in May 2011 10 people jumped from the bridge.

"It's tough for an 18- or 20-year old to have to come in and deal with that," he said. "That's their Iraq."

This isn’t the first time Wittkower, a 15-year Woodland Hills resident and Pierce College instructor, has worked with the Coast Guard. His first project was documenting the Guard’s tall ship, the Eagle. It was Coast Guard representatives who suggested documenting the surfboats and Station Golden Gate.

Previously, Wittkower has produced films about wildland firefighters and rodeos. The latter proved especially difficult because some of the rodeo participants were leary of having a camera close by.

"I asked the Coast Guard if I could film the surfboats and they said, 'Sure, what do you want to do?' I have to say that working with the military is easier than working with cowboys," he said.

In total, Wittkower has produced 11 films and won 27 film festival awards.

He finished Guardians in March. It's already been screened in his native Massachusetts. It will be screened at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, CT, in August during Coast Guard Appreciation Week, and a Maryland PBS station plans to broadcast it soon.

The film will then be broadcast on KQED in November. Here's the program schedule for upcoming broadcasts:

  • KQED 9: Tue, Nov 13, 2012 -- 9:00pm 
  • KQED 9: Wed, Nov 14, 2012 -- 3:00am 
  • KQED Life: Wed, Nov 14, 2012 -- 8:00pm 
  • KQED Life: Thu, Nov 15, 2012 -- 2:00am 
  • KQED Life: Thu, Nov 15, 2012 -- 11:00pm 
  • KQED 9: Thu, Nov 15, 2012 -- 11:00pm 
  • KQED Life: Fri, Nov 16, 2012 -- 5:00am 
  • KQED 9: Fri, Nov 16, 2012 -- 5:00am 
  • KQED World: Sat, Nov 17, 2012 -- 5:00pm 
  • KQED 9: Sun, Nov 18, 2012 -- 6:00pm 
  • KQED World: Wed, Nov 28, 2012 -- 7:00am 
  • KQED World: Wed, Nov 28, 2012 -- 10:00am

Wittkower continues shopping the film for other venues and television stations.

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