“Simplicity is the essence of ingenuity, despite the intricacy of much of the equipment with which modern life is surrounded,” an unknown author wrote in the March 1921 issue of Popular Mechanics magazine.
“That tools used by sea-beach life-savers should be designed without complexity is especially fitting, for when man becomes an aquatic animal, he takes simplicity as his keynote; his equipment is usually nil, and his garb is reduced to the conventional minimum.”
Thus was the forerunner of modern rescue tubes being installed on dozens of Hawaii beaches today introduced a century ago in a story headlined “Torpedo-like Buoy is Efficient Life-Saver.”
Published accounts credit the American Red Cross Life-Saving Corps with the first use of a “torpedo buoy” named for its shape created by lifeguard Henry Walters at Pablo Beach (later Jacksonville) Florida in 1919.
Walters designed his 10-inch-wide, yard-long steel shell weighing six pounds to support six people, replacing a slow-moving “donut” contraption that could only keep two or three people afloat. A rescuer would swim Walters’ “sturdy, one-piece, fool-proof construction” to strugglers, who then held tight to side handles while the device was reeled to safety via an attached cable anchored on shore.
Today’s rescue tubes being installed by service organizations on Hawaii’s unmonitored public beaches are sleek 2-pound, vinyl-covered foam descendants of Walter’s bulky invention.
“Every lifeguard has a rescue tube. It’s to lifeguards what a stethoscope is to doctors,” said Dr. Monty Downs, president of the Kauai Lifeguard Association (KLA).
With just 10 lifeguard stations and nearly 70 public beaches, Kauai annually averages 10 to 12 drownings.
Downs said that when resident John Tyler unofficially hung a rescue tube on shrubbery at Larsen’s Beach in 2008, “and a couple of weeks later they were used to rescue somebody, I jumped on board” to get the easily-recognizable lightweight devices onto beaches without lifeguards.
To get permission, the state required sponsoring nonprofits to pay all costs, guarantee regular maintenance and assume liability.
KLA and the Rescue Tube Foundation, created by the Rotary Club of Hanalei, have installed 240 rescue tubes on Kauai. Downs and two volunteers “who aren’t even members of KLA” regularly monitor the unmanned sites.
“I used to be a pretty good waterman and I’ve been in trouble in the water,” said Downs, a Wilcox Memorial Hospital physician. “Anybody who goes into the ocean can get in trouble. I’ve been an ER physician for 45 years and actually have proof (that tubes) are lifesavers because I keep a log of deployments I hear about.
“It’s a great record. I don’t claim it is a complete one, but I have personally met five people in the ER who would be dead without a rescue tube. One man I worked on who had swallowed a lot of water said ‘I was on my last breath and this yellow lifesaver thing appeared moments from death.’”
Downs’ log — “Known Rescue Tube Deployments as of 6/8/17 notes events where it would be highly likely that one or more lives would have been lost were a rescue tube not present” — offers details of 132 Kauai emergency ocean incidents from 2008 to 2016, and nine this year.
Branch Lotspeich is the Rescue Tube Foundation’s executive director. He and fellow Rotarian John Gillen, dubbed the “Tube Dudes,” partnered on the group’s ocean safety project in 2008 to work with Downs and KLA.
Since then, Lotspeich has helped ocean safety officials and service clubs initiate and organize rescue tube efforts throughout the state.
“Both Branch and Monty have worked through the trials and challenges of deploying public rescue tubes on Kauai and will be the first to tell you these lifesaving devices do not take the place of professional lifeguards,” said Bridget Velasco, coordinator of the health department’s Drowning and Aquatic Injury Prevention Advisory Committee.
“However, they work as hard as they do to maintain rescue tubes on the island because they believe even one life saved makes it worth it.”
Since 2010, about 1,000 rescue tubes costing about $125 each have been distributed in Hawaii and on the mainland, Lotspeich said. More are on order, he added.
The Rotary Club of Kihei-Wailea raised $4,000 to buy flotation devices deployed in south Maui and Hana in May. Besides local Rotary Club sponsors on Kauai, Hawaii Island and Maui, an Oahu Lions Club recently gave away 101 tubes to publicize ocean safety awareness. Hotels and other beachfront private property owners also buy tubes.
“We order the school-bus yellow tubes with black silk-screened instructions directly to our specifications from China and then drop-ship them,” Lotspeich said. “Our volunteers manufacture and assemble individually numbered support poles, a yellow flag, whistle, and Velcro straps in our Kilauea shop and mail those directly.”
Each support pole has its own identification number. Lotspeich’s goal is to integrate that ID into a GPS database that can be used by 911 call centers to determine the exact location of an emergency.
“One of the few drowning preventions is a shortened response time to keep that person afloat until first responders arrive,” he said. But so far, they haven’t been able to develop usable software.
KLA and RTF consider the rescue tube project a success, since the use of the tubes is spreading, there have been no thefts and only minor vandalism.
Echoing the Popular Mechanics author of a century ago, Lotspeich said “we took a good (rescue tube) idea and made it simpler. We used yellow instead of the previous red color for tubes because it’s easier to see. We put a flag on top of the pole. Directions are permanent.”
Downs is convinced the proliferation of tubes is helping prevent double drownings.
“The first thing it says on the tube is ‘If you can’t swim do not use this device, do not go in the water,’” Downs said. “If you can’t swim you have no business trying to rescue somebody. We had three double drownings on Kauai in the five years before the rescue tubes. I pronounced double drowning victims dead before the rescue tubes came, but not since.”
Downs had hoped putting rescue tubes on unguarded beaches would reduce Kauai ‘s 10 to 12 drownings annually by half.
“It hasn’t, so I feel like I’ve failed,” he said.
“But the number of beachgoers on Kauai has doubled in the last six or seven years (2.5 million projected in 2017) and the number of fatalities has stayed stable. So I figure without the tubes we could have had two or three more drownings every year.”
Read Civil Beat’s investigative series, Dying For Vacation, about Hawaii’s high rate of tourist deaths, most by drowning, and efforts to help the situation.