I saw at the beginning, when the swimmer got separated with the boat was that he was downwind from the boat. A wave swept the boat over his head and he could not catch it any more from upwind and lost it.
You don't want to stay downwind in waves - the boat can hurt you. Also, hold the boat by the safety lines in a way that won't twist your wrist or snap fingers if the boat flips unexpectedly, and quickly move to one end so that you can control the boat by the carry handle at one end.
There seemed to be a "gale force" wind, so paddling against it with boat and swimmer in-tow probably was not an option (one can barely maintain position in 40+ mph winds alone, and towing would be hard due to the waves too).
The "beach break" was somewhat nasty in the distance, but where they landed there was hardly an issue - nice smooth sand patch with 2-feet foamies that were not even dumping, just spilling on shore. So, getting out there was probably the safest and fastest option.
Lastly, there seemed to be a current going into sea at the near side of the screen. I thought that the party could have used that counter-current to their advantage if beaching was not an option. It almost looked like there was an eddy there, where the photographer was standing. But of course, I can't see what's actually there, so there might have been some hazards...
As for paddling and getting out of the "beach break", see this video -;): http://youtu.be/Yd-3bDSFMNg
URCHIN Portable Anchor
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