LIHUE — When a man was drowning at Lumahai Beach, Travis Smith didn’t stop to think about what to do.
And his heroic actions are being credited with saving the life of a Kauai visitor.
“It’s really outstanding to me that that was your instinct,” said Monty Downs, president of the Kauai Lifeguard Association.
“You’re a good waterman,” he said during a recent county meeting. “That was a really lucky card we had in our hand that day.”
Local surfers like Smith, said Downs, are likely to rescue more people than the public knows about. They know the water, they know what to do and they are willing to put themselves on the line.
“You represent a whole lot of people I feel thankful for in the community,” Downs said.
Smith, smiling, just said he was in the right place at the right time.
“I was happy to help,” he said.
Smith, of Hanalei, and his brother Alex had just rolled up to Lumahai to check the waves for surfing about 2 p.m. Oct. 18 when one of their friends yelled that someone was in danger out in rough waters.
“I’ll go check it out,” Smith said.
He started toward the beach “in a bit of a hurry,” but about halfway there began sprinting as the cries for help from bystanders turned more serious.
Smith tossed his glasses, hat, and phone onto the sand, took off his shirt and grabbed a rescue tube that was in his path. He put the strap around his chest and charged into the water.
“He was in the river mouth getting sucked out to sea,” Smith said.
He jumped into the river and quickly swam to the man, who he said was pale, conscious, and in trouble.
“It seemed like he was giving up,” Smith said.
He threw the rescue tube to the man.
“Whatever you do, don’t let go,” Smith said.
Smith began swimming toward shore, kicking and paddling furiously, but after a minute or two, nearly exhausted from battling big waves, he knew he had to try something else.
He estimated the man, getting pounded by whitewash, was about 30 years ago and over 200 pounds.
“I weigh 170, so he pulled me back,” Smith said.
He took the strap off his chest, held it with his left arm while paddling with his right.
That, he said, allowed him to extend his body. A minute later, he felt sand with one of his feet near the edge of the river mouth.
He got both feet into sand, turned around, and reeled the man in. He put his arm around him and pulled him to shore.
“We made it to the beach. I thought my job was done,” he said.
“I thought he was all good. He was still like, not having it.”
His brother Alex, who was paddling out to help, and others on the beach began helping the man recover who was having difficulty breathing.
They put him on his side and kept him awake. About 10 minutes later, lifeguards arrived, followed by firefighters and an ambulance.
They put the man on a stretcher, gave him oxygen, and rushed him to the Wilcox hospital, where he was discharged a few hours later.
The man, said to be from Los Angeles, had reportedly been with friends and was in knee-high water in the Lumahai River when he was swept out.
“The Lumahai River mouth is really treacherous,” Smith said. “I always tell people not to swim there.”
He said at the time, he didn’t think much about the danger he faced in rushing out to help. Smith said he was in the water perhaps three to five minutes.
“I surf and swim in conditions like that every day,” he said, “so I felt pretty comfortable.”
After the ambulance left, Travis and Alex went back to their normal routine. They went out, caught a few waves, went home, and made dinner.
He was honored recently by the county for his actions, which he appreciated.
“That was a pretty special moment in my life, pretty powerful,” he said.
Councilmembers gave him high praise.
“There could have easily been another drowning,” said Arryl Kaneshiro. “You stepped up and you helped save a guy. Unbelievable.”
Councilman Derek Kawakami said the rescue was something you might find on an episode of Baywatch. He said Kauai’s beauty can be doubled-edged and oftentimes, visitors don’t know what they’re getting into. Fortunately, Smith was there and willing to put himself at risk.
“Thank you for your bravery,” Kawakami said.
“Thank you for answering the call,” said councilwoman JoAnn Yukimura. “We’re so proud of you and very grateful for who you are and what you’ve done.”
Smith, 24, grew up on Kauai. He bodyboards, surfs, and swims.
“I like to do any water sports,” he said.
He owns and operates The Sunrise Shack, a coffee stand, on Oahu and hopes to open one in Hanalei.
He said has not ever heard from the man he saved that day, but he didn’t mind.
“I think he’s all good, you know,” he said.
But later, as he thought about what happened, Smith said, “It was really just a crazy feeling. It got to a point where it was actually scary for me. Should I be doing this? Is my life in danger now? It was pulling me under water. The whole situation was pretty scary. I didn’t realize what I was getting into fully.”
Wouldn’t have changed anything. He still would have tried to help.
Smith, who does modeling, stands toned and trim. His strength and conditioning paid off.
“It motivated me to keep on working out hard and being the watermen we are,” he said.