“Will you come back to Kauai?”
That was one of the most common questions my wife and I were asked after a frightening encounter with a surging wave at Hanakapi‘ai Beach along the Kalalau Trail on Dec. 30. One moment we were having lunch well above the beach, the next moment we were underwater, scraping against sharp, volcanic rocks, and being propelled with rocket-like force away from the coastline.
We escaped with only cuts and bruises, but the experience was shattering because we felt we’d taken the proper precautions. We’d read the warning signs and stayed far back of the tide line. Yet more than 30 of us hikers that day were swept up by the sneaker wave that hit the beach at 12:42 p.m. (I know the time because my wife took a photo just a moment before).
In the comments section of my Jan. 2 story, “Surviving a rogue wave,” several people criticized us for taking a foolish risk. We never went beyond any signs telling us to stay back, yet one commenter called us “idiots” and said that based on a photo, no locals were at the beach that day.
Well, there were locals — we later met a local woman who had stayed at Hanakapi‘ai while her husband hiked to the falls. She said she’d been to the beach hundreds of times and had never seen anything like that sneaker wave until she and her kid were swept up by it.
As I write this, it’s been three weeks since we had our unplanned swim. The cuts and bruises are healing, and the swelling on my feet has receded to the point where I can put on shoes.
But my emotions still echo because of how suddenly it all happened. I love the outdoors and through my adult life have embarked on adventures ranging from whitewater rafting to mountain climbing, but I always mentally prepare myself for the dangers inherent in those pursuits. Now in my fifties, I’m less eager to take risks, and certainly less eager to expose my wife to risk.
And that’s where the sheer terror hit: being pounded by the sneaker wave was disorienting, and we’d been carried so far — and in different directions — that for a few seconds I couldn’t find my wife. She was higher up on the rocks, but my first instinct was to look out to sea. There was an instant of dread when I feared she’d been carried into the ocean, where 15-to-20-foot-high waves were crashing into NaPali bluffs.
Those moments of not knowing and existential fear have lingered. So the question is: what do we do now?
Some might say we should learn our lesson and never get near the ocean again, but I know I won’t stay away. I’ll do my best to minimize risk, and if I ever go back to Hanakapi‘ai you can bet I’ll stay much farther back — same goes for Ke‘e Beach. In a way, Kauai has become our second home, and I wouldn’t want to give that up.
I first came to the island in 2002 for a honeymoon. That marriage didn’t last, but my love affair with Kauai abides. It’s the geographic splendor, from Waimea Canyon to NaPali, from the silver-ribboned waterfalls to the emerald taro fields backed by jagged mountains. It takes my breath away every time, especially the North Shore. I can’t imagine never again going to Tahiti Nui or the Saturday farmers’ market, never going back to Hanalei Colony Resort or swimming with sea turtles at Ke‘e.
And though some criticized us, far more people showed us tremendous kindness. The woman whose husband had hiked to the falls offered us a ride out in the back of their pickup. When we got back to Hanalei Colony Resort, the office crew there was so caring, offering us bandages and words of support. They made us feel like family.
At Makana North Shore Urgent Care, the staff not only cared for the wounded (more than a dozen of us ended up there), but they helped me clean the sand out of my iPhone so I could charge it. And the host and servers at Ama, the Hanalei ramen restaurant where we stopped for dinner, made us feel welcome despite some visible open cuts on our bloody shins.
Our close call at Hanakapi‘ai brought to mind a near-drowning we witnessed five years ago at Queen’s Bath in Princeville. A man had slipped into the water and couldn’t get out. By the time rescuers arrived he appeared on the verge of “climbing the ladder,” the term California coast lifeguards use to describe the steps leading to drowning.
After the rescue, a first responder on shore with us said he wished that he could put a lifejacket on all travelers the moment they arrive and make sure they wear floatation devices until they leave. He knew that wasn’t realistic, but he was making a point: Many travelers don’t know what they’re doing and take foolish risks, consciously or unconsciously.
Yet even when people are trying to be careful, accidents happen and, sadly, scores of locals have drowned, too, according to a four-decade study titled “Drowning Deaths in the Nearshore Marine Waters of the Island of Kauai, Hawaii 1970-2009.”
Ultimately, I know I can’t live a risk-free life, and even if I could I don’t think I’d want to. I certainly don’t want to take senseless chances, but hiking a gorgeous trail and visiting a remote beach out of cell-phone range entails some risk. As do other adventurous pursuits I love, such as whitewater river rafting and ocean kayaking.
I’d never take a risk simply for the sake of taking a risk, but inherent risk is enlivening. It sharpens the senses, wakes us up, keeps us in the present moment. I’m never more alive than when I’m running imposing rapids on a river, knowing that every move I make matters. And I can still feel the surge of adrenaline that coursed through my arteries when I was suddenly thrust underwater at Hanakapi‘ai.
Hiking out we got some unsolicited advice, like: “Don’t turn your back on the ocean.” But here’s the thing: We never did. Just a moment before the wave rolled in, I could see it gathering force. I said to my wife: “Get ready to run.” Which is another lesson: even if you’re paying attention and believe you’re out of the ocean’s grasp, you may not be.
It was a confluence of events that brought us to Hanakapi‘ai at the moment the sneaker wave charged in. I could wonder why we chose that day, that time, to be at that beach, but that wouldn’t be productive. Our unplanned swim is now part of our life, and instead of wishing it didn’t happen, I’ve been asking: What’s the most important thing I can learn from this experience?
It’s not simply that we need to stay even farther away from surging seas.
It’s that love entails risk. And I still love Kauai and its wild places.
Damn right, I’ll be back.
Michael Shapiro is a resident of San Francisco.