Water safety is a fine balancing act

• Editor’s note: This column normally runs every other Wednesday. It was omitted from the March 21 edition but will return to its Wednesday spot on April 4.

• Author’s note: Welcome to the third installment of what we hope will be an interesting and educational feature in The Garden Island. I hope that I and some fellow contributors will succeed in keeping water safety on the front burner for all of us. We’ll be writing the column every other Wednesday and my plan is to chat about the things I’ve learned over my 15 years of working at this issue.

Ocean safety hasn’t been the recent headline-grabber, and we have all been traumatized by the two helicopter crashes and by the anniversary of the Ka Loko Reservoir Dam breach. It’s not always that easy to feel other people’s suffering — we see their names or their photos in the media and we may have a few moments where we can picture their fear or their pain or their loss. But we aren’t in their shoes, at least until our own day comes. What I’ve found I can do is to set aside some quiet prayerful moments for the victims and families (and surely that helps me more than them), live a life showing thankfulness for whatever good fortune I’ve been granted, and try to find ways to prevent future incidents and suffering.

I don’t have helicopter industry qualifications nor am I a dam engineer and I obviously leave it to those experts to urgently and consistently work towards safety.

I have developed interest and knowledge in water safety, and that is what I can work on. Ocean safety’s tragedies aren’t usually as high profile as are accidents where several people are killed, but the numbers grind along and steadily add up — to 12 drownings last year, 11 the year before, pretty much seven to 10 a year — each one with its attendant family agony.

We often have a two or three month lull where no one drowns, and it’s easy to then become complacent and let down our guard on our prevention efforts. (Fortunately our lifeguards never let down their professional presence). It’s very important that during these lulls we all continue to look for opportunities to say those magic words: “Enjoy our Kaua‘i … and be careful.”

I’m very encouraged by what I am hearing these days. I can be in a line in the supermarket and I’ll overhear a local saying those words to a visitor. And when I stop and visit with activities desk/concierge personnel I find that most of them are very conscientious in their spreading the words that can save catastrophe: “Be careful in the ocean. Ask a lifeguard about where to swim safely. Check out our water safety brochure and our Web site.”

There’s a fine balancing act between marketing our beautiful island and providing cautionary information. We are blessed to have experts who are showing the way in how to find this balance. Sue Kanoho, Executive Director of the Kauai Visitors Bureau, is showing world-class leadership in this. I don’t think there’s another visitors bureau in the state which adds the words “Be Careful” to their message of “Come and enjoy our beautiful island.” She has proved that this can be done in a tasteful and positive way, and I believe she has set a new standard for visitor bureaus worldwide. I’ve had people come to our task force meetings saying that we should have “skull and crossbone” signs at each of our beaches depicting the number of people who have died there. Although I can understand this viewpoint, it doesn’t find the balance. Nor does ignoring our drowning problem find it.

Our Kauai Visitors Bureau is finding it — they have put out a safety brochure, they continuously put out ocean safety information on their Web site, they have lobbied airlines to have a safety video, they provided financial support for our ocean safety conference and they were key speakers, they regularly attend all of our brainstorming sessions and lobbying forums. They make Kaua‘i a place to be proud of.

Another expert we are blessed to have is Winston Welborn and his team at Wasabi Design. They created the Web site kauaiexplorer.com as well as the official county ocean safety brochure and the ad that is in the car rental drive guide. Their goal and achievement with all of these has been to make them attractive and welcoming, and then within that framework provide information that can help people make good decisions. There is an art to finding this balance, and they are great artists.

The third expert in this is Pat Durkin, once a lifeguard and now our long-standing leader in ocean safety advocacy. Among his many projects, he now has developed a program called WAVE — Water Safety and Visitor Education. This is a one-hour talk spiced with the definitive collection of stunning photographs of all Kaua‘i’s beaches. With his safety orientation, Pat then describes the dangers that can lurk in these beautiful settings, depending on the season and the conditions (and he goes over these). The program’s (county-sponsored) goal is to have all the hotels and all the visitor industry businesses sign up and catch the WAVE, in order that the day-to-day workers who are in contact with our visitors will have great information at their fingertips. So far the Hyatt and the Po‘ipu Sheraton have received the program and the participants’ reviews were excellent.

You can preview the program at web.mac.com/highsurfadvisory

Please do so and sign up and join the effort.

We can all become experts. Kaupena Kinimaka and Nick Arruda, heads of security at the Kalapaki Marriott and Sheraton Po‘ipu respectively, are masters. They learned it from Kaua‘i’s original master, Percy Kinimaka.

We can all learn to look for a moment, in the line at a supermarket where a family has just bought a mask and snorkel (and fins, I hope), or when we’re at a beach and see some pale-skinned beachgoers dabbling their toes, to smile and say, “Have a fun day and, by the way, be careful, check with a lifeguard.”

I always feel good when I do it.

Try it.

Who knows? Your words may prevent a family disaster.

• Dr. Monty Downs contributes a water safety column every other Wednesday. His next column, April 4, will feature a firefighter guest writer who will describe the anatomy of a rip current.

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