For Chris Pico, not over-thinking is the key to keeping calm in rough waters.
“I try to stay level-headed,” the Kauai lifeguard said. “I’ve been in a lot of scary situations, and I try not to think about it. I choose not to worry about the things I can’t control.”
Rough waters, heavy waves and strong currents are all elements Pico cannot control. What he can control, however, is getting to the people struggling in the water.
“The end result is getting the job done in the best way possible,” he said. “So we’re always training so everything is muscle memory — when we gear up to save someone, we’re not thinking about putting on the gear, we’re looking at the person, and thinking about how to get them.”
Pico’s motto is “Everything is awesome,” even if it’s not.
Diffusing the tension with laughter or focusing on the island’s beauty can get people’s minds off a tense situation, he said.
Pico, the north district ski operator, patrols the North Shore of the Garden Isle, from Hanalei and the Napali Coast to Larsen’s Beach.
The Kauai Ocean Safety Bureau, which is a branch of the Kauai Fire Department, owns three jet skis, which are strategically placed along Kauai’s beaches — on the North Shore, Eastside and South Shore/Westside.
The Jet Skis are used to respond to isolated parts of the island, like Secrets and Lumahai beaches, where there aren’t lifeguards.
“Everyone likes isolation, but you have to think about who will help you if you get in trouble,” Pico said.
There are two lifeguards on a jet ski: an operator, who is in charge of driving the jet ski, and a grabber, who is responsible for pulling people out of the water.
Making sure both parties — the rescuer and the people who need rescuing — are safe presents a challenge, Pico said.
“I need to keep my grabber safe while I search for the victims,” he said. “There’s a bond between us, which is built, not given.”
To ensure Kauai visitors and residents alike have a safe and fun time while on the beaches, lifeguards put an emphasis on prevention, he said.
Prevention ranges from posting signs to talking to people about the tides and currents, he said.
“A lot of what we do is education — I’d rather talk to you then get wet,” he said. “But most people don’t plan on getting in trouble in the water.”
For example, last winter, Pico responded to a call about a woman who got pulled out at Secrets Beach.
“She was just wading in the water, but the water and surf was giant,” he said. “She got caught in the water and was pulled toward the rocks.”
That day, the surf was reaching 20 to 40 feet, and it took a helicopter rescue, jet ski rescue and swimmers in the water to get the woman out of the water, Pico said.
“She lived, but it doesn’t always work out that way,” he said.
Since January, there have been 10 drownings island-wide. Most of those drownings occurred at unguarded beaches, or during times of high surf.
The most recent drowning occurred Aug. 31 when a woman died while scuba diving in the waters off Poipu. The woman, who was visiting from Oregon, was diving with a tour group that morning when she started showing signs of distress.
She was unresponsive when she was brought back to the boat, and was later pronounced dead at Wilcox Memorial Hospital.
Since the beginning of the month, 79,958 people have visited Kauai’s beaches, according to Kalani Vierra, supervisor of the Kauai Ocean Safety Bureau.
Lifeguards made contact with 8,379 people, rescued three and pulled four people from the water using a jet ski, Vierra said.
Changing seasons bring with them a change in water conditions, including stronger surf, high waves and moving sandbars, Pico said.
“The North Shore is going to have bigger waves and more visitors,” he said.
One way Pico prepares for the day is visiting the beaches and hiking the areas he patrols before he goes on duty.
“It gives me an idea of what to prepare for,” he said.
Pico, who grew up on Kauai, got his first taste in ocean rescue when he was 16 and working as a crew member.
“At the time, a lot of tour boats were doing rescues,” he said.
He remembers watching firefighters rescue people who got stuck in caves along the Napali Coast.
“It’s typical for people on boats or kayaks to go in the cave and hit by a wave and get smashed in the back,” he said. “I remember watching the firemen swim in and bring the people out, and thinking ‘That was super ninja.’”
That moment kick-started a 17-year career in lifeguarding, in San Diego and on Kauai.
“The feeling you get, when you know you’ve made a difference in someone else’s life, the high is pretty amazing,” he said.