Parker Keawe Smith and Mattaniah Millbrand are lifeguards for the Kauai Fire Department Ocean Safety Bureau. They work on the North Shore, chasing drowning strangers on jet skis in some of the scariest seas in the world. In winter, when the big swells roll in, it’s a life or death job on a daily basis.
Keawe grew up in Anahola, the son of a retired fireman. It’s a profession that runs in the family. Two more of his relatives — “an uncle and an auntie on Oahu” — are firefighters as well. Millbrand joined the Kauai Junior Guards as a teenager and has been a lifeguard most of his adult life.
They both grew up on the Eastside and have known each other since they were kids. Together, they have over a decade of professional experience on the ocean and have been swimming since they could walk.
“I remember my dad throwing me off the pier when I was learning how. I never took swim lessons,” Keawe said. “He tossed me off the pier and went, ‘Good! Swim in!’ And he just walked along the side. That’s how it is for everyone over here though. You learn the ocean first thing.”
Recently, they took the time to talk with The Garden Island about working as a lifeguard from their tower at the Hanalei pavillion. They shared some of the things they’ve learned about the ocean during their time safeguarding swimmers and beachgoers, and what it’s like saving people in the many different types of ocean conditions that occur around Kauai. Often times, two lifeguards go out on rescue missions on jet skis, and sometimes in big wave conditions.
Millbrand: When there’s a long-period swell, what the ocean does is big, long humps. As opposed to, like today, it’s flat, and there’s wind, so it creates a bunch of small ones (waves).
It’s easier to ride over the big lumps; a lot smoother than constantly hitting a bunch of little ones. So you’re response time is a lot quicker.
Smith: Like yesterday we had one (a big wave) and it was one of those, “pound, pound…”
TGI: Like skipping a rock across the water?
Smith: Exactly, but (you want to go) as smooth as you can. Don’t wanna beat up your grabber in the back. By the time you get to the rescue, he’s shot.
TGI: Once you get to where the waves are breaking, then you got a whole different set of problems, yeah? Is that what happened when you rescued the two visitors from Wisconsin from Anini Bay in December?
Smith: Yeah. Anini and Queens Bath and stuff like that was just…angry. That thing (the surf) was big. It was scary, to be honest. The back channel was brown and ripping out like a belt. It’s just a belt, ripping out, you know? Like full flowing, like a river almost. But we found our way in, found the guys.
TGI: How did you decide which route to take to rescue the men?
Smith: (You follow the channels.) They usually use poles or something to mark the channels, for boats and stuff, where there’s a break in the reef. So you also take those channels in and out. But those kinda big days, you can’t see it. Everything is just breaking over. It’s big. It’s happening fast.
Certain spots, depending on the swell direction, especially the back channel at Anini, that magnifies the swell. And the reef sticks out a lot farther, so the swell is drawn into those specific areas a lot more than everywhere else. So like the back channel, Anini — the reason we get so many calls there is the waves (are) way stronger than a lot of other spots.
Cause the amount of water going in over the reef and the water coming out… Think of it like a lagoon. It fills with water, and the water’s bound to go somewhere, and so the closest channel, which is the back channel, just sucks water out. But if you lose your footing, or you know, you’re not paying attention to where you are, and you drift a little too far offshore, you’re, you’re gone. You’re on the conveyor belt. You’re going out to sea.
TGI: You ever see sharks out there?
Millbrand: If the water’s salty, there’s sharks.
TGI: What kind of hours do you guys work?
Smith: We start at 8 a.m., we get an hour to kind of rove around, check the ocean conditions, but we can’t open the tower till 9. And we have to close the tower at 5. I think it’s like a liability issue or something. But it would be nice if the towers were open, especially like, these past few weeks, when the beaches were busy.
There’s just so many people, you know, it’s hard to close the tower and leave, knowing that people are just on the verge of getting in trouble. But luckily for us, our BCs — our battalion chiefs — are really cool about it. If we ask, and tell ‘em, like, “Hey, the beach, there’s thousands of people. Can we stay longer?” nine out of ten times they’ll say yes.
TGI: Let’s talk about risk management. How do you consider safety for your team on rescue missions?
Smith: If you got somebody that’s alive and fighting for their life — in the cave alive — you’re gonna push the envelope, no matter the conditions, you know? If somebody’s in there, and they’ve been dead for two hours, you’re not gonna go in there by yourself, just gung ho, and try and grab the body. You gotta be smart, you know. You gotta weigh out the risk and the reward.
The last thing you wanna do is put your partner, or everybody else that’s gonna have to come get you if you get in trouble, you know? You don’t want to put their lives on the line. So every call you go on — everything you do when you’re working the jet ski — your head’s on a swivel.
You’re constantly checking your surroundings, weighing out the variables, assessing the risk: What do I gotta do? How bad am I gonna put my partner in a position to where, like, can I come back and get him? Do we have backup? Is the helicopter in the area? Is there another jet ski in the water that’s got our back if our ski goes down?
You know, the severity of the call always fluctuates, but as an operator, that’s your job. You gotta constantly assess, like: How bad is this call? Are we gonna wait for a backup? Do you see a window? Are we gonna shoot for it?
Constantly working with your partners, training together, you know? If I drop him off in the surf, and I can’t see him for five minutes, you need to know what he’s thinking and where he’s gonna go. Is he gonna swim out? Is he gonna swim in? That way you guys are both on the same page. All the time. On every call.
TGI: What was the gnarliest rescue you ever did?
Smith: Rescuing a dead guy, or picking up a body. That would be my worst.
TGI: When’s the last time you had to do that?
Smith: That was the same week of (the December 23 Anini rescue), in fact. That was a busy week. I did the Hanakapi‘ai call. I picked up the — I think he was from China, yeah? — picked up that guy.