In May 1964, Frank Sinatra nearly drowned in Wailua Bay.

While on Kauai to film the WWII flick, “None But the Brave,” Ol’ Blue Eyes dipped into the ocean fronting the old Coco Palms Resort (where Elvis filmed “Blue Hawaii”) and unknowingly swam himself straight into a riptide.

By the time firefighters reached him, the Hollywood icon had been carried 200 yards out to sea. Back on shore, Sinatra’s face had reportedly turned the same color of his famed set of eyes.

Chuck Blay, a geoscientist on Kauai, points at Sinatra’s near-drowning and shakes his head in dismay.

Although some other areas are considered more hazardous, tourist-heavy Poipu Beach was the location of the most drownings on Kauai during the years studied. Courtesy: Kyle Pearce/Flickr

“They always say, ‘Oh, stupid tourists,’” says Blay. “They’re not stupid, they’re ignorant. We have all the data, we know the dirty dozen beaches where these drownings are inclined to happen, but we don’t share it. It seems like in order for things to change we’re going to have to have some major celebrity drown instead of Joe Blow who comes out here on vacation with his family.”

Blay, who has given expert witness testimony in drowning-related legal proceedings, has studied the history of drownings on Kauai from 1970 to 2012. All told, 316 people drowned in the island’s waters during this 42-year period.

The average age of the victims is 46. Men drowned more frequently than women by a ratio of 9 to 1. All told, 75 percent of the Garden Isle’s drowning victims were tourists.

Drowning is the leading cause of death among visitors to Hawaii.

“The most dangerous thing you can do when you go to Hawaii on vacation is go to the beach and jump in the water,” says Blay, who continues to collect drowning data and is working to update his research to reflect present-day numbers.

Blay says the more recent data has not bucked any of the trends presented in his research.

Although swimming areas such as Queen’s Bath in Princeville and Hanakapiai Beach on the Napali Coast receive a lot of hype as danger zones, Blay’s data shows that the deadliest swim zone is actually the heavily trafficked waters fronting Poipu Beach.

Frequented by sunbathing Hawaiian monk seals and tourists staying in nearby resorts, Poipu Beach is a union of two bays separated by a narrow sand spit. In 2001, Dr. Steven P. Leatherman, better known as Dr. Beach, ranked it at the top of his annual roundup of America’s Best Beaches.

Of Kauai’s nearly 70 public beaches, Poipu Beach is one of 10 with a lifeguard station. Yet its seemingly swimmer-friendly waters has taken more lives on Kauai than any other stretch of shore. All told, 41 people drowned there from 1970 to 2012, according to Blay’s research. During the same time span, seven people drowned at Queen’s Bath and 29 people drowned at Hanakapiai Beach.

“You can change the names of the victims and the time and the date, but most drownings on this island happen in the same few places and we know that information,” Blay says.

Geoscientist Chuck Blay studied all the drownings on Kauai from 1970 to 2012. 

Blay is an advocate for more effective signage closer to the shoreline. Specifically, he says warning signage should include data on how many drownings have occurred at a given beach. Blay says the warning signs used on many of Kauai’s beaches seem tailored to prevent liability more than to prevent drownings.

“The Hyatt has red flags, but they don’t have any other color, so it’s like they’re crying wolf all the time,” Blay says. “There are some signs at Poipu Beach, but they are really tame.

“You might not see big waves for 20, 30 minutes, and then you go into the water and all of a sudden there are these huge waves because there are long-time periods between these events, and who warns people about that?”

In 2015, six people drowned on Kauai. That number more than doubled last year, when the island had 14 recorded drownings.

So far there have been seven drownings on the Garden Isle in 2017.

“It doesn’t matter what you do and what you say, people are still going to drown,” Blay says. “But with all the money we spend on water safety, you should see the number of drownings go down, not up.”

For more on this subject, read Civil Beat’s series, Dying For Vacation.

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