Lifeguard savings lives, deserve our support

In this mid-year report, I’ll start out with some of the tough news.

Despite terrific efforts by many (county, state, Kauai Lifeguard Association, and last but not least, all of our beachgoers, surfers, and Junior Lifeguards), we’re not having a good year in terms of numbers of drownings. Six so far, very much on pace for Kauai’s long-standing average of eight to 12 per year. I always ask myself: Could any of these have been prevented, could any of us have done more to avoid one or more of them? Here’s a quick analysis:

One of our drownings was a young man, husband, father at Queen’s Bath on the Eddie Day, a day when no one should have been there. I have yet to meet a concierge who isn’t fabulous at warning people to not go to Queen’s Bath. Preventable? Yes, although I’m really not sure what else we could have done to prevent this tragedy.

One was mysterious, A strong swimmer who was found having drowned off of Running Waters on a fairly rough day. Preventable? Well, we have our saying, “Please swim near a lifeguard.”

One was in strong water at Shipwrecks Beach in Poipu. This is a very popular beach with a strong shorebreak and powerful currents and it’s on the short list of Kauai’s beaches that should, in the best of ocean safety worlds, be lifeguarded.

Three were snorkelers at various locations (all unguarded) who were in normal snorkeling position (i.e. floating face down in the water), and when someone happened to nudge them there was no response. No struggle was ever witnessed and it’s very much of a mystery what happens in these cases. I certainly understand what causes you to drown if you get pulled out by a rip current and panic. But these cases with no struggle? It’s unknown what exactly happened but they are certainly classified as drownings and they certainly leave behind acutely grieving families. Preventable? Possibly, if every Kauai beach were guarded. However, around nine years ago there was an epidemic of eight such snorkelers who died without a struggle at closely guarded Hanauma Bay on Oahu. When dozens or even hundreds of snorkelers are in the water it’s extremely challenging for even the greatest lifeguard to determine that there’s this type of trouble taking place.

Now for happy news! There were quite a number of amazing and spectacular rescues, especially during the winter swell season on the North Shore. Without all of our resources operating at their top level of function — resources which include preventive efforts, lay rescuers, lifeguards, firefighters, rescue helicopters, police dispatchers — we would have suffered way more than double the drownings that have taken place this year. Some of the rescues were among the greatest I’ve ever witnessed.

The other major happy news is that the County of Kauai has approved funding for the Ocean Safety Division to institute a Roving Lifeguard program. This required close collaboration and support from and between the mayor and the county council, and both agencies can stand tall and proud for giving birth to this program.

What it addresses is Kauai’s basic ocean safety challenge of having 10 lifeguard towers while there are 65 much-used white sand beaches. Our Jetski/Rescue Craft program, well over 20 years old now, has done much to address this challenge, and our lifeguards have rescued dozens, maybe hundreds, of people who would be dead were it not for this program and for the men and women who run it. Kauai Lifeguard Association’s rescue tube program has also contributed very significantly to addressing this challenge.

Currently, the Jetskis are home-based at three towers: Hanalei, Poipu, and Kealia. When a call comes in to dispatch from a remote beach the Jetski at the nearest tower takes off, often pounds for miles to get to the trouble spot. Firefighters by land and AirOne Helicopter also respond.

The roving units — which will patrol both by land and by sea around locales that are deemed to need special attention on any particular day — will serve to shorten the response time to incidents as they occur. I need to note that the Ocean Safety Division has already been operating an occasional roving unit when staffing permits, and there was one great day when the roving North Shore unit allowed for a phenomenal and speedy rescue at Anini. One minute can make all the difference.

Obviously, getting 55 more staffed towers would be the perfect solutions to this challenge I’ve referred to! But, at $400,000 per tower per year, even getting one new tower has proven to be too much for our already-burdened Kauai County budget. I now congratulate and thank the mayor and the county council and the administrators of the Ocean Safety Division for coming up with this budget-responsible program and for supporting it into fruition. This is a real life-saving legacy that they can carry with them forever.

At a new tower, we would have a Hawaiian blessing ceremony. I don’t know how to have such a ceremony for this new program, which will kind of phase in as personnel get hired and equipment gets mobilized and protocols/procedures are fine tuned.

I therefore ask all of you and all of us to take a quiet moment and offer our own blessing. Please bless our men and women with wisdom and courage as they put this program into effect. Places like, Shipwrecks Beach, Longhouse Beach, Lumahai Beach, Hanakapiai Beach, Anini Beach, and many others will be safer than they were. Guarantee no more drownings? Of course not. But safer, yes.

Our Kauai Lifeguard Association will be contributing significantly to this program, thanks to all the donors and sponsors for our upcoming Oct. 22 fundraiser, and thanks as well to our “regular” donors. KLA will be purchasing and then donating to the county a brand new and fully outfitted truck replete with Jetski trailer and Jetski and communications equipment.

Yes, Godspeed to this program, and once again a big Hawaiian mahalo to our mayor and our county council and to our lifeguards and to all of us as we do our part.

I close this piece with a reference to the Navy Hymn. One verse of this beautiful piece of music asks to “hear us when cry to thee for those in peril on the sea.” Another prays to “give thy hand for those in peril on the land.” And a third asks us to “lift our prayer for those in peril in the air.” The final line of this hymn goes “O hear us when we cry to thee for those in air and land and sea.” In the last weeks Kauai has suffered terrible losses in all three of these elements, and we all lift our prayer to the families and friends of those who died in the full bloom of their life.

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Monty Downs, M.D., is president of the Kauai Lifeguard Association.

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