Reading Civil Beat’s Dying for Vacation series last week reminded me how narrowly my family avoided a tragedy last August similar to many of the anecdotes included in those stories. And how lucky we were to have done so.

First, some background. Though I’ve lived in Hawaii for a little less than four years, I’m a native Floridian. I have spent a lifetime around coastal ocean waters — fishing in the Gulf of Mexico, surfing in the Atlantic Ocean and now enjoying swimming, body surfing and snorkeling around Oahu.

My sons don’t have that depth of experience, of course. But since moving here, they’ve both significantly improved as swimmers and have become avid boogie boarders and body surfers. Twelve and 11, they don’t use their surfboards as much, but this past weekend, they both enjoyed catching a few easy waves at Waimanalo.

Following one of the many storms that hit the islands last summer, I took our youngest boy and his best friend to the beach one Saturday afternoon to cool off and enjoy a couple hours of fun. Both kids were just shy of their 11th birthdays.

SUNRISE DROP A bodyboarder makes the drop at sunrise at Sandy Beach on September 16, 2014
The geography of Sandy Beach often produces waves like this that cause real risk to even experienced beach goers, right at the shoreline. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Our family lives just a couple minutes from Sandy, but a brief stop there showed it was the sort of day when even those with deep experience need to stay on the beach. Enormous waves breaking right at the shoreline were punishing the few trying to venture out to the offshore break — the kind of conditions that can lead to a devastating spinal cord injury or worse.

We left without even getting out of the car.

Driving a couple miles over to Makapuu Point Beach Park, we encountered conditions that didn’t seem nearly as harsh as those at Sandy. Lots of swimmers and boarders were enjoying themselves, so we parked and made our way down to Makapuu’s warm golden sands.

But the beach was quite different from our last visit. Recent storms had washed away a sizable portion of the near shore on the east end of the beach. We didn’t realize that a rip current had taken its place, resulting in very challenging conditions beginning in knee-deep water and continuing for a stretch of maybe 10 to 20 yards further offshore.

Some version of the warning signs we commonly see on beaches around the island were out, but like many, we had long since become innured of them; on that day, we didn’t see anything else that, for us, signaled danger.

The boys were eager to swim, and here’s the part where I admit what will be painfully obvious after the next sentence: Sometimes, I can be an absolute moron. I stupidly let them go, as we had on many previous trips to the beach, while I set up an umbrella and beach chair.

I was facing them during most of this, and all seemed well. As they hit knee-deep water, I briefly turned my attention to a few towels I was pulling from a backpack and spreading out on the sand.

Maybe 30 seconds later, I looked up. They were gone.

As I ran like a madman to the water, yelling my son’s name, everything slowed to half time, as people often say it does in such emergencies. I was suddenly aware of a flurry of activity among the half-dozen lifeguards at the beach, several of whom were moving purposefully through the water. Somehow, I knew they were there, in part, for my son. Don’t ask me how, but I was certain he was in trouble.

And he was. Caught in the rip current, he had quickly been pulled under, flipped over and swept away. As the current pulled him away, his head struck one of the big coral rocks lurking dangerously below the waterline, temporarily stunning him before he flipped back over and surfaced.

An experienced local guy — a saint, from my perspective — had positioned himself just off the rocky point at the eastern end of the beach, and was helping lifeguards, who were working hard to keep up with the number of swimmers in crisis. As my son surfaced and yelled for help, the man caught him and waved for lifeguard support.

Makapuu Beach Park looks placid and inviting here, but following a storm last August, a rip current just off shore put swimmers at risk.
Makapuu Beach Park looks placid and inviting here, but following a storm last August, a rip current just off shore put swimmers at risk. Via Wikimedia Commons

My son began screaming for me; waist deep in the water myself, I spotted him and scrambled over jagged rocks to get to him as I scanned the water and called out frantically for his friend. The son of a Coast Guard officer, the boy had been trained on how to get out of a rip current; though I couldn’t see him, he had put his training to good use and had gotten himself safely out of the current’s pull.

Moments later, a lifeguard delivered my boy into my arms. Badly shaken and in pain from banging his head on the rock, he nevertheless held it together as we both spotted his friend and ran back toward him, motioning him in from the water.

I circled back to the lifeguard who had brought my son in from the water, thanking him profusely. He accepted the thanks as he caught his breath, intently watching rescue activity continuing just offshore.

“We’re all working doubles out here today just to keep up. We’ve fished out so many people, I’ve lost count,” he said, taking off to help with yet another rescue.

The whole incident unfolded in no more than a couple of minutes. With both boys safe and wrapped in beach towels, my son broke into tears, as his buddy and I comforted him. The enormity of the tragedy we had so narrowly avoided hit me like a solid punch to the chest. I struggled to maintain my composure, holding it together for the boys’ sake.

We decided to go home, quickly gathered up our chair and towels and trudged back up toward the parking lot. The boys stopped to rinse off in the showers, while I took our things to the car. As I sat down in the driver’s seat, I felt a few tears finally roll down my own cheek, as the emotion of the incident washed over me and the adrenaline began to subside.

It was only then that I noticed my lower left leg covered in blood. I had fallen running over the rocks and gotten up without noticing the long, inch-wide gash on my shin.

Five months later, the wound has healed and the scar left behind has faded to a light purple; it will no doubt diminish further over time. The lessons of that day, however, remain sharply etched in both my son’s mind and mine.

He’s not the kind of boy to let such a memory hold him back. He was back in the water the next weekend, though not at Makapuu. We didn’t venture there for another couple of months, but within minutes of arriving, he was out enjoying thankfully more manageable Makapuu waves with his brother and a few friends.

Dying for Vacation is full of great information on where tourists tend to get into trouble in Hawaii’s coastal areas and what both visitors and locals can do to keep themselves safe. But my takeaways from our near tragedy at Makapuu gave me a few additional and very personal lessons that will forever inform how our family acts in and around Hawaii waters.

  • Conditions following storms can be dynamic and different than what you usually experience, even at familiar locations. If the waters are rough or if winds and heavy wave action have changed the shoreline, don’t risk your safety. Go to another beach with calmer, more stable conditions or postpone beach fun for another day.
  • Read the warning signs. Take them seriously. “High Surf,” “Strong Currents” and “Dangerous Shorebreak” are just a few of the different warnings, and they each carry a warning in all-capital, bold-face letters across the bottom: IF IN DOUBT, DON’T GO OUT. Don’t ignore that message. We’re blessed with fabulous weather year round, and making the right choice on a risky day ensures you’ll be around to enjoy the beach some other time.
  • Don’t allow your kids in the water by themselves on days with big waves or rough seas, even if they’re capable swimmers and the beach is familiar to them. Too much can go wrong so quickly, and if you or another adult are not already in the water close by, you may not be able to get to them in time to prevent a tragedy.

I nearly learned all those lessons the most difficult way imaginable. I thank the creator, mother nature, good fortune, the heavens and the incredible, indefatigable and dedicated lifeguards at Makapuu Beach Park for sparing us that fate. It so easily could have turned out differently.

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