Here’s the 2017 ocean safety year in review

  • Dennis Fujimoto/The Garden Island Dr. Monty Downs at one of the Rescue Tube stations situated at Lydgate Park's South end.

I have a custom, as we welcome in a New Year with all its hopes and challenges, of writing a brief review of how Kauai fared in this arena in 2017.

Starting out with the basics: We suffered 10 ocean drownings. There was also a swimming pool drowning and a river drowning. Our Ocean Safety Bureau administrators spend considerable time reviewing these on a case-by-case basis, to determine if there are lessons to be learned, trends to be addressed.

As is always the case, underlying health issues played a role. Swimming at unguarded beaches played a role. Overall, no quickly correctable patterns emerged from this review.

Bottom line: Despite all our efforts and expenditures, government and private-sector, we hit our year-in/year-out average number of drownings.

Does this mean that these efforts and expenditures aren’t worth it? I will argue no, it doesn’t mean that. It does mean that we live on an island in the middle of a not-very-Pacific ocean. Many of us as well as our visitors love nothing more than being in the ocean, and adverse events (i.e. drownings) are inevitable.

Questions remain such as: Can more be done to minimize these events? If we didn’t make these efforts and expenditures, would there have been more drownings, each one with their attendant family grief and maybe even destruction?

This last question is my favorite one to answer, and the answer is a resounding “yes.” There are all kinds of numbers that back this up: In 2017 our lifeguards carried out 336 rescues, plus 99 Jet Ski rescues, plus 165,309 preventive actions. The beach count for the year at lifeguarded beaches was over 2.3 million, as compared to around half that many beachgoers five years go.

So, maybe one statistical point that can be made is that at least our drownings haven’t doubled even as our beach-goer numbers have doubled. I don’t want to dwell on this since I know that statistics from small numbers can get you. That is, if 20 million people stop smoking and 10 years later there are 50 percent fewer deaths from lung cancer and heart disease — that represents statistical significance.

But when your “numbers” (and let’s never forget that these “numbers” are people) are five or 10 or 15 or 20, you have to be careful before you claim statistical significance, i.e., you might have a good year statistically and the very next year you might have a bad year.

A huge story in 2017 was the maturing of the county’s roving patrol program, in which lifeguards aren’t simply sitting in a tower, rather they are traveling around to the island’s hot-spots, spots that are determined each day depending on weather and surf conditions.

They do this by vehicle and/or by Jet Ski. Looking more specifically at our roving patrol numbers: There were 94 rescues (55 with Jet Skis) and 14,077 preventive actions. Reviewing each rescue on a case-by-case basis shows that a good number of those rescued would have died were it not for this great new program, a program that is still being fully developed and understood.

Only two weeks ago, for example, we rejoiced in a phenomenal roving patrol, Jet Ski-aided rescue of people about to be killed by monster surf after they had been swept out to sea by a rip current in the Anini area. It so happened that one of our roving units was moments away from the drama and our lifeguards made the rescue.

Additionally noteworthy is that the Eastside was flat that day since the north swell wasn’t “wrapping around.” Therefore our ocean safety administrators made the call to send our Eastside roving unit to the North Shore, so that there were two roving units, as well as our tower lifeguards, dealing with the North Shore monster conditions. This expert operational decision, in conjunction of course with our expert lifeguard Jet Ski operators, prevented two otherwise certain drownings.

The cornerstone to Kauai’s ocean safety is our lifeguards, and our Ocean Safety Bureau has never been stronger. Despite retirements of some terrific lifeguards, plus movement of a couple of lifeguards to other job opportunities, we’ve been able to recruit terrific young watermen/ocean safety ambassadors. We thank our men and women of this bureau.

Other 2017 ocean safety presence includes community and lay efforts and programs. Not only do individual local surfers and beachgoers, exemplified this year by a young man named Travis Smith, make countless rescues and preventions at our many unguarded beaches, but also other programs are coordinated by nonprofits such as the Kauai Lifeguard Association (KLA) and the Rescue Tube Foundation.

These nonprofits are in turn supported by you, our caring local people and businesses. A big thank you to each and every one of you, no matter how big or how modest your contribution might be. Note: Kauai Lifeguard Association’s Secretary Laola Aea is developing a program which will honor our many lay rescuers.

Regarding one of these programs, Kauai’s rescue tube program: We documented 26 2017 rescues that were greatly aided by the timely presence of rescue tubes at 210 locations on our beaches. Reviewing the incidents in detail, it’s clear that we might have suffered five to 10 more drownings were these flotation-devices-with-straps not available to the rescuers. It takes commitment and money to maintain these 210 stations.

Once again, the money comes from our caring local people and businesses. And the feet-in-the-sand commitment comes from a hardy group of people including myself, Bill Prinzing, Ashley Martin, Lisa Johnston, Dennis Bosio and Tracy Lyman.

The contribution to this program’s success by Branch Lotspiech, president of the Rescue Tube Foundation, can’t be overstated, nor can the behind-the-scenes fundraising work of Andy Melamed and Chantal Zarbaugh. A huge late 2017 development, which will soon be made very public, is that our Kauai paramedics have taken on becoming feet-in-the-sand “rescue tube stewards.” This should give the program sustainability into the far future.

Other programs include our joint KLA/County of Kauai Junior Lifeguard program, which churns out hundreds of young “force multipliers” every year. Also our KLA publicity program, which regularly sends out safety messages into TV, radio, internet and printed media. As with preventions in general, it’s harder than it is with actual rescues to pin a success rate onto this publicity program, but still we believe in it.

In summary: Our KLA Vice President, James Jung, keeps us very aware of some Buddhist principles including accepting setbacks even as that means not settling for them. We had our setbacks in 2017 for sure, but we had our wonderful successes as well.

This message is ultimately a thank you to each and every person who contributes to Kauai ocean safety, from our top-of-the-safety-chain lifeguards and firefighters and paramedics, to any one of us who takes a moment to tell someone to be careful or who reaches out a helping hand. People are alive and families are intact because of us.

Hoping for a mostly happy and safe new year.


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


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