LIHUE — Andy Melamed took a look at the crowd at the Kauai Lifeguard Association’s Mahalo Beach Bash, and he was pleased.
It was this kind of effort that’s making a difference when it comes to preventing drownings.
“That is the way we help save lives, by coming together,” he said. “Thank you very much.”
About 350 people attended the event at the Kauai Marriott luau grounds setting before an unusually calm Kalapaki Bay on a sunny and warm Sunday evening.
With emcee Dickie Chang at the helm, it was a festive affair that included music by Paul Togioka, Brother Noland and John Cruz, rescue demonstrations, prizes, aloha wear fashion contests and a buffet dinner.
It was both a KLA fundraiser and thank you to the supporters of its Kauai Ocean-Minded safety campaign, with the ultimate goal of saving lives.
While the celebration went on, there were a few people swimming, taking advantage of the peaceful bay conditions under blue skies.
But such conditions can change quickly, said Dr. Monty Downs, KLA president.
Sometimes, a person goes in the ocean to snorkel or swim, is having a good time, and suddenly finds themselves pulled out to deep waters. Key is staying calm, but some don’t. When they panic, they start to flounder, hyperventilate and can’t breathe.
“If we can somehow get that word out there to people, don’t panic,” Downs said. “If you’re panicking like that and a wave hits you, then it can happen very quickly.”
Kauai has had five drownings this year. The most recent was when a 69-year-old man from Massachusetts was found unresponsive in waters off Waiohai Bay in Poipu on May 1. He had been snorkeling in shallow water.
Melamed said some people who visit here, even locals, aren’t aware of rip currents, rogue waves and other ocean dangers. “It’s up to us to communicate that,” he said.
KLA’s ocean-minded safety campaign has several components, including a new video, a brochure, roving patrols, Junior Lifeguard program, urging people to swim at lifeguarded beaches, and providing safety briefing at resorts.
“All of those things snowball together to get everybody to participate in awareness of ocean safety,” Melamed said.
Chang said local efforts to prevent drownings are second to none.
“No other island, no other county, does what we do here on Kauai,” he said.
While the ocean-minded safety campaign requires a lot of work and expense, it’s necessary, Melamed said, and it’s making a difference.
In 2016, KLA recorded 120,000 preventative actions and 220,000 personal contacts by lifeguards.
“You cannot put a price on a life,” he said. “To be honest with you, more money should be spent on this stuff and not have to rely on the community to pitch in. We’ve got a lot of other things to worry about, but at the same time, when you’re losing lives, we’ve got to do something about it.”
Robert Westerman, Kauai fire chief, said if someone is in trouble in the ocean, a rescue tube might be enough to help them. If that doesn’t work, a Jet Ski can come into play.
“When that can’t happen, we get you with a helicopter,” he said.
Jim Jung, KLA vice president, said KLA’s basic rule is: When in doubt, don’t go out.
“Always respect the ocean,” he said. “Never turn your back to it.”
Down shared a similar comment.
“The ocean is there every day. The dangerous conditions are every day.”