Guest Viewpoint for Wednesday – February 15, 2006

This is in rebuttal to The Garden Island’s water safety editorial on 2/11 in which you concluded: “Those that swim and enjoy the beaches and the remote ness of them, must carry some of the burden of blame. Government can’t save us from ourselves.”

This is dangerously close to the ancient and unenlightened attitude that goes “If they don’t know enough to not go into the water in dangerous conditions. Then they kind of deserve what they get.”

What they and their families get is maybe something a serial killer deserves, not something for a kind, hard-working family from the Midwest who saved up for years for their dream visit to our Kaua’i. I accept your conclusion if, and only if, you and I have done everything reasonably possible to prevent their drowning. I’m very familiar with how frustrating it is for us when we are and when we witness the tragic results of people, usually visitors, who naively venture out into conditions that we know aren’t safe. But there are better things for us to do than to fall into the temptation of blaming them. We promote our beauties to them and our economy depends on receiving their tourism dollars and in return we owe them our best hospitality, including safety information and our utmost efforts at protection.

Let’s take a look at ‘Anini on that fateful Super Bowl Sunday. As you noted, that day there are huge waves booming out there on the barrier reef. Many dozens of yards shoreward on the sands of this beautiful reef-protected beach, the water is lapping at my feet. It’s a gorgeous day. The sights and sounds are even more breath-taking than I dared to dream about for our second honey-moon visit to Hawai’i. I think I’ll wade into this protected shallow water and lie down on my air mattress to soak up some sun … Oh dear, oh dear, where am I going?

The answer of course is that she, along with her would-be rescuer husband plus an unrelated heroic retired California firefighter, is being shot out the channel into the heart of the booming waves. We islanders who understand the ocean know that the water being pushed over the barrier reef by the waves has to go somewhere, the lagoon doesn’t just keep rising — and so the water shoots back out through one or more channels. (Ironically enough, surfers regularly use these rip currents to shoot themselves out to their lineups.) Our visitors simply don’t know about this. We didn’t get our knowledge to them until too late, and for that, as their hosts who greet them with open arms, we are to blame.

You are to blame for not doing more with your medium. I am to blame as co-chair of the water safety task force for not doing a better job of developing and implementing Kaua’i’s water safety strategies. The airlines (with the notable exception of Hawaiian) are to blame for not showing a video on their flights describing ocean dangers. The concierge and the bellhop are to blame for not saying over and over, “The surf’s big today on the North Shore, don’t go in the water, don’t go on wet sand, and don’t go onto any rock ledges.” The vendor is to blame for renting out equipment without telling people this message. The guidebooks are to blame for not including proper warnings and information along with their appetite-whetting descriptions of beautiful areas. The hotels are to blame for not having lifeguards on their beaches, as does the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel on the Big Island. The County is to blame for not having an even sounder water safety program, although I credit the County for the great strides it’s taken in the last 10 years. The State is to blame for not doing anything at all to guard their beach parks. Perhaps the only blameless people are the Jetski Lifeguards who, with their amazing skill and courage, prevented the double drowning from being a triple drowning. And I also credit the Visitors Channel (Channel 3 on my cable) for providing excellent water safety information in and amongst their pleasant guided tour of Kauai.

When we all can say that we can’t do a better job of educating and rescuing our beach users and drowning victims, then maybe we can talk about assigning blame to them.

  • Dr. Monty Downs is co-chair of the Kauai Water Safety Task Force.
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