Russ Yamada, 42, of Torrance, was found unresponsive in the ocean off San Onofre State Beach near his surfboard Saturday afternoon. He was taken to Saddleback Memorial Medical Center in San Clemente where he was pronounced dead.
Garrett Yanai, who was with Yamada at the time, didn't know what had happened to his friend of 25 years until he was out of the water.
"I had seen a surfboard up on the lifeguard tower. I went over to find out what was going on and they told me they had some bad news for me, that he had been found in the water and was unconscious," Yanai said.
Yanai said Yamada was a highly-experienced surfer and a strong swimmer.
"My best guess is that his board hit him on the head and I guess maybe knocked him unconscious," Yanai said.
"He's just everything I want to see in a human being," Yanai said as he held back tears. "If I have kids one day, I just hope they have a little Russ in them."
The National Weather Service lifted the high surf advisories. It had warned that 6-to 8-foot waves with occasional 10-foot sets would hit the coast from San Francisco to San Diego. Conditions remain dangerous because of rip currents.
The surf has created dangerous swimming conditions over the holiday weekend. More than two dozen people have been rescued at Southern California beaches over the last two days.
The rough surf was caused by the swell from a powerful storm in New Zealand, where it is winter.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.