Kauai’s sentinels of the sea

LIHUE — Born-and-raised Kauai resident Cheston Omo loves the ocean and his job.

“I was in the ocean all day anyways, so might as well get paid for it,” he said with a laugh while standing atop the Lydgate Beach Park lifeguard tower Wednesday. “It’s a beautiful day.”

Omo is one of approximately 40 lifeguards on the island. He’s held the position for five years. And while the job comes with unique challenges, he wouldn’t trade it for anything.

“I’m happy to be here,” he said.

Lifeguard Kleve Zarbaugh agrees.

“It’s a good job,” he said. “Healthy lifestyle, that’s for sure. Stay fit, out in the elements … I love the ocean.”

Today, there is a need for more people like Omo and Zarbaugh. The County of Kauai is hoping to hire several new lifeguards, which would prevent having to close towers, including Kekaha and Pine Trees, as has happened several times in the last month due to staffing shortages.

“The Ocean Safety Bureau is looking to expand and improve our service to the community by fully staffing our division,” OSB Supervisor Kalani Vierra said in a release. “We currently have vacancies for lifeguard positions and we are actively hiring qualified applicants to join our Ocean Safety team. Now is the time for interested individuals to apply.”

Randy Ortiz started out as a lifeguard 25 years ago and is now the Kauai Fire Department’s ocean safety training captain. He said that while a lot of people try, many cannot meet the physical requirements of the job, including being able to pass a performance test consisting of a variety of swim and rescue exercises.

“If they really want to be a lifeguard they would have to train, you know? I mean, it’s the ocean,” he said.

In other words, not just anyone can walk in and become a lifeguard. Ortiz said applicants must be in top shape, as well as enjoy the outdoors. They also must be able to work and communicate with the public. Eighty percent of the job, he estimated, is prevention — warning people to stay away from dangerous areas, out of the water during high surf and encouraging them to swim at beaches where lifeguards are present.

Dealing with the public is what Ortiz considers most challenging.

“You got to realize, sometimes they come up, it’s not all positive, yeah?” he said. “A good example, they’re upset that you closed the beach. Especially tourists, they don’t understand why. Shark sighting, high surf would be a couple of examples. They come here, they spend X amount of money and now they can’t swim at a specific beach.”

Those looking for daily praise and pats on the back can look elsewhere, according to Ortiz. But that’s not to say the job is without perks and rewards. There’s spending each day outside on Kauai’s beautiful coastline, staying physically fit, interacting with local residents and tourists, and, oh yes, saving lives.

In his long career, Ortiz has rescued many people — in the hundreds. One incident, however, stands out in his mind. In the early ‘90s, he saved a surfer who got in trouble in 20-foot waves off Poipu Beach.

Back then there were no jet skis, so Ortiz paddled out after him.

“When I got out there he was already underwater, I just saw his hand so I grabbed him up,” he recalled.

If Ortiz had gotten there a minute later, the man would have surely drowned. To this day, the man he rescued makes a point of thanking Ortiz every time they run into one another.

While saving people is part of the job, prevention is key.

“We as lifeguards, we cannot forcibly grab you and tell you not to go in the water,” Ortiz said. “You know, we could give you scenarios. ‘Hey, if you go in the water, this is going to happen to you.’”

Chris Pico is a lifeguard in Hanalei. During last month’s monster swell, Pico could be found patrolling the bay on a jet ski, making sure surfers were safe. When one wiped out, Pico was there to swoop in between waves and bring the person out of the whitewash.

Most surfers who venture out in bigger waves know what they’re doing. However, there are some who shouldn’t, like the man who paddled out last month in high surf on one of the foam boards from Costco, according to Pico. That’s when prevention proves crucial, he said.

“A huge part of our job is just education and prevention,” he said. “We’ll talk to people and hopefully avert some kind of injury.”

Currently, there are nine vacancies at the Ocean Safety Bureau, including six full-time and three on-call positions. Ortiz said the job pays around $15 per hour to start. The next performance test is slated for April 9.

Ortiz said Kauai is home to an excellent group of lifeguards. And for those thinking of becoming one, he has this bit of advice.

“You can be an Olympic swimmer, but the ocean is not something to mess around with,” Ortiz said. “To me, you got to respect that. Once you don’t respect the ocean, it’s going to bite you.”

Lifeguards patrol guarded beaches at an assigned station to protect lives, prevent accidents, enforce safety regulations and assist persons in distress, states a county release. Applicants must possess a valid motor vehicle operator’s license and have knowledge of swimming and water rescue lifesaving techniques, and emergency life support procedures. Persons seeking appointment must be able to swim long distances, efficiently use lifesaving equipment, rescue persons from the water, and administer artificial respiration and/or CPR.

For a detailed description of the position, visit the county employment site, www.kauai.gov/personnel, or call the Department of Personnel Services directly at 241-4956.

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Chris D’Angelo, environment writer, can be reached at 245-0441 or cdangelo@thegardenisland.com.

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