POIPU — New signs on the cliff overlooking Shipwreck Beach offers a warning for people thinking about making the 40-foot jump into the ocean.
“Diving or Jumping may Lead to Serious Injury or Death,” and, “Undercut Cliff, The Ground may Break off without Warning and You could be Seriously Injured or Killed,” the sign states.
Whether the new signs will make a difference remains to be seen. Alohi Costa, a lifeguard with the Kauai Fire Department Ocean Safety Bureau, is skeptical. When asked whether the sign will prevent anyone from making the jump, Costa shrugged.
“Maybe the older guys. But not the kids,” he said.
Makawehi Point, a rocky outcropping on the South Shore beach near the Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort &Spa, has long been a popular spot for thrill-seeking locals and tourists alike, but the jump can be dangerous.
Dr. Monty Downs, an emergency room physician at Wilcox Medical Center and president of the nonprofit Kauai Lifeguard Association, said he became very familiar with the site over the years, as he treated a steady stream of patients admitted to the ER after a jump gone wrong at Shipwreck Beach.
In an email to The Garden Island, Downs said his research into the hospital’s trauma registry showed that 17 people have suffered serious injuries in the last four years, “including broken backs, broken ribs and limbs, collapsed lungs, and ruptured spleens, and ruptured neck blood vessels.”
One of those patients was 23-year-old Justin Beckerman. Beckerman came to the island on vacation from New Jersey and found himself out at Makawehi Point in May. He watched dozens of people jump and swim away safely, but when he made the leap and hit the water, his legs buckled and a vertebrae in his back snapped.
“I felt it as soon as I hit the water,” he said in an interview with TGI. “It knocked the wind out of me and I knew I needed to swim out, but I didn’t want to move my back.”
Beckerman spent the next few months in a back brace, and as his recovery drew to a close, he and his father Ken Beckerman embarked on a mission to help educate potential Makawehi Point cliff-jumpers.
The Beckermans reached out to Downs, KLA president who has been involved with efforts to make Kauai’s beaches safer. Downs then turned to the landowner, contacting Grove Farm President and CEO Warren Haruki to explain the situation. He received a surprising response.
“It was well within his rights to ignore my letter,” Downs wrote in his email to TGI. “And, in fact, there are compelling liability reasons for landowners to turn a blind eye in situations like this. Posting a warning sign can actually increase your liability exposure as compared to doing nothing at all.”
Grove Farm Vice President Dave Hinazumi admitted Thursday that posting the sign could be a liability risk, but said he thinks it’s important for visitors to be informed.
“The laws on these things can be a little backward,” he said.
Downs continued, “Mr. Haruki chose to not ignore my letter. Instead, he and Grove Farm spent many hours and considerable expense, with attorneys and on-site inspections, studying their options to make the area safer.”
Putting up a fence was out of the question, Downs said, explaining that “the area is too environmentally precious and also too special to local hikers and fishermen.”
Eventually it was decided that a sign was least obtrusive way to warn people of the potential dangers.
A sign was erected on top of the rock near the path cliff-jumpers walk on their way to the edge. It stands about four feet high — “We didn’t want it to ruin the view,” Downs said as he walked past the sign Thursday morning.
Costa said he jumped off the cliff many times growing up on the island.
“That’s part of our training, actually,” he said, explaining that newly recruited KFD lifeguards are required to make the jump and swim to shore.
Downs just hopes to see fewer patients in his emergency room.
“When someone comes in the ER with a broken back, we say, ‘Shipwrecks?’ And they say, ‘Yeah, how’d you know?’”
About an hour after Downs left the beach, a young man walked by the sign on his way to the cliff. He said he has made the jump many times in the past.
“Never saw the sign, though,” he said.
It didn’t slow him down.
Caleb Loehrer, staff writer, can be reached at 245-0441 or firstname.lastname@example.org.