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2016 Ocean Safety Year in Review

I hope this New Year is starting out well for you. On Jan. 27 we will start the Chinese New Year, the year of the rooster. I myself am a rooster baby. Chinese culture considers it to be both a special year when you hit your every-12th-year cycle year, and at the same time it considers it as a cautious year where you’re best off being particularly careful and watchful. Wear bright colors during your year (to ward off the spirits that want to claim you for their own during your special year), even if it’s an undergarment or socks. Fellow roosters, keep that in mind. And to our outgoing monkeys: Thank you for your presence with us and we’ll catch up with you again in 12 years.

With this annual year-in-review article, I traditionally start out with the sobering side of the coin. So here it is: We suffered 13 drownings in 2016. There are many ways to break this number down and our county administrators spend a lot of time doing just that, as they try to determine strategies that might help in the future.

I won’t go into too lengthy detail, but here are a few key subcategories in this data:

1. Zero drownings at lifeguarded beaches, as expected given the great work that our lifeguards do both in prevention and in rescues. (142,476 preventions in 2016, 168 rescues which includes 55 Jet Ski rescues, for 2.1 million beachgoers at guarded beaches — which is double the number from five years ago.)

2. Five snorkelers who drowned. Note: This number correlates with statewide ratios of drownings from snorkeling as compared to other causes.

3. Two drownings which possibly were intentional, i.e. suicides.

4. Two drownings where visitors were at areas where they would not have been had they been aware of the extreme hazards, i.e. swept off the rocks at Queen’s Bath, sucked out to sea at Larsen’s.

5. One kayaking disaster on the Na Pali.

6. One scuba tour disaster, with the victim likely having an underlying and underestimated medical condition.

7. Three fairly innocent-seeming swimming drownings where again underlying medical conditions almost certainly played a factor.

These numbers are quite academic-sounding, but we all know that each one represents agonizing and extreme pain for the families that are left behind. I take this moment to extend our sadness and our sympathy and our condolences to the families, and also to thank Gina Kaulukukui and her Kauai Life Bridges team for the amazing work they do helping the affected families.

Snorkeling stands out a bit in these numbers. Kauai Lifeguard Association’s 2017 Ocean Minded Community campaign will be specifically addressing snorkeling. Our position is that no rental company should ever hand someone a snorkel without:(a) assessing the renter’s prior experience, (b) carefully reviewing how you have to blow out forcefully (to clear water from your snorkel) before you breathe in, (c) insisting on always snorkeling with a buddy and keeping close contact with him/her, (d) handing out fins, and (e) reviewing the day’s ocean and weather conditions and the safest locations.

Now, let’s move on to the happier side of the coin: Thanks to a key development that took place in 2016, we have a good start for 2017. I’m referring to the start of the Roving Lifeguard Patrol program, which officially came into being on Dec. 1, a day that began with a most beautiful blessing ceremony conducted by Jade Waialeale-Battad.

This program is an attempt to address what I call Kauai’s ocean safety challenge — namely 10 lifeguard towers for 65 frequented beaches. The mayor and the county council and our fire department and Ocean Safety Bureau administrators deserve high praise and thanks for establishing this program.

There are other factors that are already in place to try and address our Kauai challenge: Our tower lifeguards themselves have already become much more mobile than they used to be 20-30 years ago and this is due to our ATVs and jet skis. For example, the lifeguards at Haena Beach Park are frequently going back and forth to Tunnels, which is a good 1/2 mile away from the tower. And ever since 1991, when Kauai got our first rescue jet ski, our phenomenal lifeguards equipped with jet skis and rescue sleds have responded to distress situations at every single beach on this island and they have saved hundreds of lives.

Installing and maintaining rescue tubes on their PVC beach-implanted posts (Thank you Branch Lotspeich and Bill Prinzing and Mike Wilson and the two Dennis) has been another attempt to address our unguarded beaches. This program was initiated 10 years ago and — with great thanks to our watchful beachgoers who have used the rescue tubes when appropriate — it too has been responsible for dozens of lives saved.

Our surfers have, over many decades, made an untold number of rescues and preventions. They have been force multipliers going back to the day when we had a mere handful of lifeguards.

Our number one prevention message, wherever and whenever we can extend it, addresses this challenge when we say, “Please swim near a lifeguard.”

And you readers, any one of you who has ever asked someone to be careful, are a key part of our mission toward a safer Kauai.

Now we have our Roving Patrol program as another arrow in the quiver. We’re hoping it will be a really big arrow. The day-to-day workings of these patrol units will by definition be imprecise. The idea is for these roving lifeguards to spend time at the beaches that need the most attention that day. It might be the ocean conditions that dictate the best place for them to be. Or it might be the number of people at a particular beach that dictates this.

A huge part of their job will be as always be preventive. (There’s that saying that the best lifeguard is a dry lifeguard). But after just a few weeks we’ve already had instances where the Rovers’ closeness to a problem spot has proven to be the seconds’ worth of difference between a catastrophe and a happy ending — i.e. a saved person and a saved family.

Will all this lead to a smaller bottom line number of drownings in 2017? We of course hope so, but we’ve learned that can never be sure. There remain far too many variables that can claim a victim on any given day.

We are, however, sure that this program will lead to saved lives, and every single one is a Hawaiian blessing and a cause for great celebration, here on Earth and in the heavens above.

Best wishes for a safe and mostly Happy New Year, and let’s take care of ourselves and each other as best we can.


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


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