DULUTH – A 26-year-old surfer who was "in the right place at the right time" pulled a man out of frigid Lake Superior waters near the Duluth ship canal Wednesday afternoon.
"That really helped save a life," Duluth Fire Chief Shawn Krizaj said. "It's dangerous — the water is cold."
Darby Voeks had driven up from Minneapolis Wednesday morning to surf the choppy waters driven by high winds. He was about to jump off the pier on the Park Point side of the ship canal to hit one last wave around 2 p.m. when a woman in a wheelchair said she needed help — her dog had gone into the water and her 29-year-old aide had been pulled in trying to get him out.
Voeks, in a wet suit, dropped his surfboard and jumped in.
"The waves were extreme and he was exhausted ... he was spent and couldn't pull himself up (the ladder on the pier)," Voeks said. "I pulled him close to get him to grab on to the ladder, and that was a struggle because the waves were so extreme and he wasn't a good swimmer."
Voeks, who described himself as an amateur surfer but has competed in Ironman challenges, was able to grab one of the life rings on the side of the pier to pull the man in before going back in after the dog.
"The dog's instinct must have totally kicked in — it sat on my legs as I tried to pull myself up and as we got up the cement wall there was Coast Guard and fire department running around," he said. "It's completely surreal, it still feels surreal."
The rescued man was treated for potential hypothermia but was able to leave the area without injuries.
Duluth Police Lt. Robin Roeser said Voeks will be awarded the department's rare Police Partnership Award.
"You put yourself at risk to help somebody else," Roeser said. "I don't know how we didn't lose somebody or lose a dog."
Voeks, director of community outreach for Richfield Young Life and Hope Church, said he was glad he decided to go after one more wave, even though it meant he would be late for a date with his girlfriend Wednesday evening (they were able to push it back a few hours due to the circumstances).
"I think COVID has shown people can be struggling right next to us," Voeks said. "I was out there having a great time and people were out there struggling for their life."
Brooks Johnson • 218-491-6496