A 4-year-old girl was in a life-threatening situation Saturday afternoon at Lake Berrryessa when winds kicked up and blew her away from shore as her father watched helplessly.
The threat triggered multiple 911 calls as people observed the girl and her unicorn floatie drift farther and farther toward the center of the lake.
Napa County Sheriff's Deputy Bryan Sardoch said the situation appeared ominous when he got the call shortly before 2 p.m.
"These floaties are toys basically. They don't hold up to chops," he said of the foot-and-a-half waves that had sprung up."
"I'm kind of riding this emotional roller coaster," he said of his reaction to the call. "I have two little girls. Is she sitting in the floatie? Is she getting tired?" .
The girl's situation improved quickly.
After drifting a third of a mile, she was spotted and rescued by father and son kayakers, Sardoch said.
The girl, whose family lives in Contra Costa County, was crying, but unharmed, Sardoch said.
The kayakers paddled her over to Big Island where Sardoch found her when he arrived in his sheriff's Marine Patrol boat.
"She was distraught. She was bawling," Sardoch said.
"We wrapped her up like a little marshmallow. I asked her if she'd like to ride with me," he said. On the ride back to the Oak Shores, he offered to take her photo. With that, the girl stopped crying and smiled, he said.
"The dad was ecstatic," he said. "It was a really scary thing to have happened."
But for the 911 calls and the kayakers, the girl might have drifted 2.5 miles to the lake's empty east shore, Sardoch said.
The Sheriff's Office on Monday said the child's first name is Elliarra. The last name was not released.
Sardoch said the incident reinforced several lessons water about safety at Berryessa.
Lake visitors need to monitor changing weather conditions which can be different on the open water than on the protected shore, he said.
For another, it makes sense for people to wear a Coast Guard-certified flotation device in case of mishaps. In this case, the girl was wearing a life vest that would have supported her if the floatie had failed.
Finally, people on shore should think carefully before trying to swim out on the lake to reach someone being blown away from them. Many would-be rescuers have died in the attempt, Sardoch said.
"The water is colder and deeper than most people expect," he said.
Sardoch said Saturday's incident brought both a California Highway Patrol helicopter with paramedic capabilities and a Cal Fire engine from Spanish Flat to Oak Shores.
It was satisfying that things ended so well, Sardoch said.
"It doesn't take a lot to motivate people when a child is in danger. It's nice people are looking out for each other."