HAENA — At age 22, Hikari Oberman has already been a lifeguard with the Kauai Fire Department’s Ocean Safety Bureau for four years. And he’s been training for the job his whole life.
During his shift at the Haena Beach Park lifeguard tower last week, Oberman talked to The Garden Island about how he helped save three lives during a recent rescue on a day when North Shore swells reached 25 feet.
“Two weeks ago for the rescue was intense. That was definitely good-sized surf,” he began. “But, basically, how the whole thing went down was, my coworker and I, Kevin Pa‘a Cope, we were both working Anini that day.”
On Dec. 30, Oberman and Cope were manning a roving patrol unit. A little after 2 p.m., they were parked in their truck at Anini Beach when two county workers ran up to them.
“They were like, ‘Hey! I think someone’s getting sucked out at back channel!’” Oberman said. “We’re like, ‘Oh OK. We’ll go check it out.’”
“I grabbed our equipment. We started rolling out down there,” he said. “So, as we’re making our way down there, before we’re even on scene, I radioed our north ski to be on standby.”
The lifeguards keep a Jet Ski posted on the North Shore to assist with any rescues. On that day it was stationed at the Hanalei Pavilion lifeguard tower.
“So I gave him a little heads up that we might have some swimmers in distress at back channel and to start suiting up. It took us maybe three minutes to get down there, because it’s a short drive. So we’re coming around the corner, and we start to see a standup out in the back channel — a standup paddler,” he said. “When we were close enough, we were able to see that there was two in the water, plus the standup. So they’re smack dab in the middle of back channel, easily 300 yards out.”
There was water sucking up off the reef on both sides, creating waves coming in from the right and the left, and the deep channel formed a strong current, pulling straight out.
“I was like, ‘OK, I gotta get out there,’” he said. “I grabbed the board and started heading out.”
His partner called dispatch to give the location and details to the Jet Ski crew at the Hanalei Pavilion tower. When he got out there, Oberman found the standup paddler, a man in his late 30s, struggling against the current, with an elderly man clinging to the back of the paddleboard.
“Seventy-three years old. He did not have fins, just a body board, and he was like 280 (pounds) or something. He was big,” Oberman said.
Asked what a man in his 70s was doing in the ocean on a day like that, Oberman responded, “Beats me. There was a surf advisory on the radio. We had signs posted up down there that you shouldn’t be entering the water.”
By the time Oberman’s partner finished the radio call and made it out there, the situation was getting dire.
“The standup guy was starting to freak out. He’s like, ‘I can’t get in with this guy! Get him off me!’” he said. “My coworker grabbed him. He was on the inside of the rip, so he was able to break away from it and get the guy in. Meanwhile, I’m stuck with the older dude.”
“So I do what’s called a dead man roll, where I flip the board upside down, I have him hold onto the rail and flip him onto the board because he didn’t have enough strength to get on,” he said. “The good thing about him being bigger was, he’s a floater, so I don’t have to worry about him going under as much. But I got him onto the board. I tried paddling with him; I’m like, ‘OK, we’re not going anywhere.’”
Normally, Oberman said he would pull the distressed swimmer up, lay him on the surfboard, climb up behind and paddle from there. He tried that technique at first and quickly realized it was not a feasible option.
“We’re not really going anywhere, and I look behind me and I see the surf breaking, and I’m like, ‘OK, we can’t end up there. That’s the impact zone. That’s where we’re going to get in trouble.’”
Waves were smashing against the razor-sharp reef about 30 yards behind them, and the current was pulling them into it.
“It’s right behind us. If I stop paddling, we’re definitely going to be in that — 15 to 30 seconds, we probably would have been in that zone, and that would’ve been bad,” he said. “I have a leash on the board. I have him get onto his bodyboard and hold onto the leash so that way I can start tugging him.”
They started making progress toward the reef, where they might safely be able to climb out. Oberman just focused on forward movement and kept thinking, “As long as we’re not going backwards that’s good.”
After about five minutes — “even though it felt longer” — Oberman said his partner had gotten the paddleboarder safely to shore and started coming back out to help, along with two firemen from Princeville, who had just pulled up in a truck with their rescue longboards.
“With the extra boards around, we’re trying to figure out the easiest way to get him in. We get him onto one of the firemen’s surfboards, ‘cause its a bigger board,” he said. “And we’re all around him just trying to tug him in, but we’re still not going anywhere. Meanwhile, a kayaker is coming out.”
The fire department’s rescue crew was flying overhead, en route to rescue two injured people who had been smashed against the rocks by a big wave that surprised them.
“Air One was one their way to Hanakapiai,” he said. “I’m stoked, looking up, like, ‘OK. This is a legit rescue. Perfect.’”
There wasn’t much time to enjoy the moment. Oberman was still paddling against the current with an elderly man in tow, while the two firemen tried to get him into a rescue tube. Meanwhile, the kayaker, pulled by the current, had drifted close and caused a whole new set of problems.
“He had a rope off of the kayak and it got tangled with the tube. So we’re like, ‘OK, this is great,’” he said, rolling his eyes.
Oberman was still tethered to the exhausted man with virtually no ocean experience and in a current trying to drag them into deadly waves that are still only a few dozen yards away.
“I get my leash off of him, and we’re just trying to get this rope off him now,” he said. “And I look back, and I see our ski unit. He’s finally coming in the channel, and I’m like, ‘Perfect. We’re not gonna have to worry about that now.’
The Jet Ski pulled up with two lifeguards on board. The one on the back — referred to as “the grabber” — jumped off and started working to get the man tethered to the ski.
“So we get him onto the ski, but the problem is that rope is still on him,” Oberman continued. “And our main concern is, we don’t want that rope going into the prop of the ski, cause if that happens we’re gonna have a dead ski in the water. But luckily enough we were able to fish the rope out and get him onto a sled and out of there.”
“It was a good rescue,” he said. “We were so glad we had a heads up from Makala and Nanu, the parks keepers, because five minutes later, the situation would have been 10 times as worse and possibly a recovery situation.”
When asked what it feels like to save someone’s life, Oberman responded, “Aw, I love it! That’s why we do it!” But as exciting as it might be to perform a big rescue, he explained that the most important part of his job is to keep people from getting into trouble in the first place.
“I would say 90% of our job is preventative action,” he said. “A dry lifeguard is a good lifeguard.”
Caleb Loehrer, staff writer, can be reached at 245-0441 or firstname.lastname@example.org.