LIHUE — Drownings on the Garden Isle have almost doubled already this year compared to last year — with the most recent tragedy occurring at Larsen’s Beach on Tuesday.
“Our No. 1 recommendation — unfortunately, we realize is unlikely to be followed — is to swim at lifeguarded beaches,” said Monty Downs, Kauai Lifeguards Association president. “That will guarantee that you won’t drown.”
The death of 73-year-old Jeff Yann of California at Larsen’s, one of 55 beaches on the island that is unguarded, represents the 11th drowning on Kauai this year. Last year, there were six.
“When you’re swimming at remote, unguarded beaches, you’re taking a chance,” Downs said. “If you decide to take that chance, you need to make sure to take a few moments to educate yourself about it. Ask the concierge about the conditions about that day, and talk to any local people about any hazards and conditions that day.”
Sixty-nine ocean drownings occurred on Kauai from 2006-15, according to the state’s Water Safety and Drownings in Hawaii report. Of those, 77 percent of the victims were non-Kauai residents. Twenty-six percent of the drownings occurred while victims were swimming and 22 percent happened while victims were snorkeling.
Though Downs would like to have lifeguard towers at each of the 65 beaches on the island, he said it isn’t feasible.
“Adding one tower adds $400,000 to the county budget,” he said. “It’s really not something not likely to happen, even though I would love to see towers at all the beaches.”
But Kauai has a plan to keep people as safe as possible while they’re in the water.
Starting Dec. 1, the county will inaugurate the Roving Patrol Program to lifeguard unguarded beaches, said Sarah Blane, Kauai county spokeswoman.
There will be roving units patrolling the north, east and southwest districts, Blane said. Each district unit will be equipped with a truck, Jet Ski and two Ocean Safety Bureau personnel.
“They’ll be acutely aware of the beaches that are at risk that day where the surf is coming in,” Downs said. “On the North Shore, you got Larsen’s, Moloaa, Rock Quarry — you’ve got all these beaches that don’t have lifeguards.”
Thanks to KLA’s recent Fourth Wave fundraiser and donations, KLA will be contributing two trucks and two Jet Skis to the county for the program.
“We’re hoping it will help. I’ve learned the hard way that we’re not going to take this problem down to zero,” Downs said. “Put people and water together, and there’s going to be trouble. We need to figure out ways to (lessen the trouble).”
There 579 drownings in Hawaii from 2006-15. Oahu had the most drownings of any island with 267, while Kauai had the least with 69.
This year’s 11 drowning match the 11 ocean drownings in 2013, according to Department of Health data. Both years represent the most ocean drownings in a year in the last decade.
Downs said many hotels on the island have ocean safety brochures produced by KLA and the county. The Kauai Beach Guide points out quite clearly that the beaches and ocean are beautiful, but dangerous.
While visitors love to find the remote beaches, Downs is concerned many may not have access to that information.
“A lot of our visitors stay in time shares where there isn’t a concierge, or vacation rentals where they may not be putting brochures,” he said. “We can all do more.”
Michael Janis of the Chicago area was at Kalapaki Beach with his family Saturday morning. He said he was aware of the need to be careful while swimming and was keeping a close eye on his three young children. They also visited Poipu Beach earlier in the week.
He said while it looked calm, he still asks around about conditions before letting the family venture out.
In another attempt to encourage water safety, a four-minute video warning visitors of the dangers of the ocean plays on a continuous loop on the monitors at the Lihue Airport.
Something else that has proven effective are the estimated 230 rescue tube stations on beaches around Kauai. It’s estimated 20 lives have been saved because a rescue tube was nearby. One visitor was rescued earlier this year after he was swept out at Larsen’s Beach. A Kauai resident grabbed a rescue tube, swam out, and brought the man to safety.
“We have not had a double drowning on Kauai since the rescue tube program went into effect, roughly eight years ago,” said Branch Lotspeich, Rescue Tube Foundation executive director. “The rescue tube protects the rescuer.”
November through April represents the winter season in Hawaii — with the north and west shores producing waves up to 40 feet, depending on the direction of storms and swells, Blane said.
She said the three most dangerous beaches on Kauai’s North Shore are Queen’s Bath in Princeville, Lumahai Beach and Hanakapiai Beach.
“The strongest rip currents are usually located at sand bottom or sand bars, river mouths, reef channels, or rock-jetty locations,” she said. “Remember, the bigger the surf, the stronger the current.”
Harold Sperazza, who was rescued in July by a Kauai resident using a rescue tube at Larsen’s Beach after being swept out while snorkeling, said the strength of the current caught him by surprise.
“It went from a quiet beach to a heavy surf real quickly,” he said.
Both Sperazza and his partner, Melanie Lyte, told The Garden Island they learned their lesson about the dangers of the ocean. They urge others to be careful on Kauai.
“We were bold, a lot bold, maybe a little arrogant, coming down here,” Sperazza said. “This ocean is very dangerous if you don’t know what the hell you’re doing.”
Ocean Safety Supervisor Kalani Vierra said ocean conditions can be constantly changing during the winter months.
“Always swim at lifeguarded beaches and ask them for safety information on current ocean conditions,” he said. “Remember, when in doubt, don’t go out.”