Water safety: the Ke‘e Beach problem

• Author’s note: Welcome to the next 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 continue to write 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. — Monty Downs Recently we suffered the drowning of Ted Teichgraeber at Ke‘e Beach. He was a 37-year-old devoted husband and father (of a 3-year-old) who was living out his lifelong dream of being an airline pilot, captaining the US Airways Phoenix-Lihu‘e route, and he was getting in some snorkeling during his layover here. The tragedy part of this story needs no elaboration. I will make some comments, however, on the frustration part.

Our dedicated Web site designers, who have given us kauaiexplorer.

com with (among many other features) its daily ocean report, presented a clear description of the conditions that fateful day. The strong tradewinds were creating dangerous conditions at all northeasterly locations. At Ke‘e, the danger is very specific — there is no lifeguard, and the waves break over the reef and thereby generate a strong outgoing rip current that suddenly carries you out the western portal and down the NaPali coast.

In addition to the daily-updated report, the Web site — as well as our water safety brochure — explains what to do, and what not to do, if you get caught in such a rip. Tragically, Mr. Teichgraeber didn’t have that information and he tried to fight the rip to get back in and he lost the fight. His friend, his fellow US Airways pilot, was in the same rip and he somehow did know to simply go with the current. He ended up on a ledge down the coast and was able to make his way up to the trail and he hiked back safely to Ke‘e.

So, frustration No. 1 is that our excellent information isn’t getting out effectively enough. We have to double and redouble our efforts on this, and with “we”, I include our hotels, our activities desks, our car rental companies, our B&B’s, our time-share desks, ourselves. One specific, immediate recommendation I have is that the hotels buy large quantities of Kaua‘i’s water safety brochure. Then you can get your own logo on it and you can put one in every room, and you can/should have a rack of them at your check-in desk and at your concierge desk. Wilcox Hospital has already ordered 10,000 brochures and will soon have them in waiting rooms around the facility.

Please contact me at wmdowns2000@yahoo.com if you want more information about this (or if you have any ideas for spreading the “be careful” message). What the brochure presents, by the way, is great general ocean safety information for Kaua‘i, and it refers you to the Web site for the daily ocean report.

I already alluded to frustration No. 2, which is that we don’t have a lifeguard service at Ke‘e. Anyone who goes there knows right away how busy a beach it is as soon as you try to park your car within 1/4 mile. On flat days it might seem silly to have a lifeguard service there, but when any wave or surge is coming over the reef, it’s a very deadly place even for a young, strong swimmer. And many of the snorkelers there aren’t young, strong swimmers.

Ke‘e is a state beach park. The state doesn’t employ any lifeguards in Hawai‘i, and the mechanism for there to be a lifeguard service at Ke‘e would be for the state to fund the county to hire, train, and equip lifeguards who would staff the tower. Sen. Gary Hooser has demonstrated great leadership and responsibility by introducing such a funding bill every year that he’s been in the Legislature.

This year his Bill 732 made it the furthest it ever has before getting defeated. However, he has found another Legislative avenue. Namely he got the funding request into the budget bill (and you can see it in Section 80). I don’t have enough inside information to know what the chances are for this avenue to succeed. But I and my other Water Safety Task Force members have formally asked Gov. Linda Lingle to do all she can to see this funding through. In fact we were in a meeting with the governor’s liaison about this matter right as Mr. Teichgraeber was getting into trouble. The rescue would have been routine, barely a blip on the radar screen of what lifeguards do every day.

Rumor has it that Gov. Lingle is finalizing plans to celebrate the week of May 22-28 as Hawai‘i Water Safety Week. The theme will be to honor our water safety professionals for the lives they save.

Here’s hoping (let’s go for a more meaningful word: praying) that we will soon add to the number of lifeguards whom we would be honoring, lifeguards at Ke‘e Beach.

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