No doubt Kauai has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, many remote and nearly deserted in the fall and winter months. The off-season is also the time when the waves get larger and the ocean currents get less predictable, more dangerous, and even deadly.
Before I get into any sobering statistics about Kauai being the drowning capital of Hawaii, allow me to share my own “close call” with Mother Nature caused by a combination of big waves, personal naiveté and plain stupidity.
During my first year on Kauai, I stopped at Hanalei Bay to ride my bodyboard shortly after lifeguards went off-duty. Orange warning flags were stuck in the sand on the south end of the bay letting beachgoers know the currents were too strong for swimming because a large surf advisory was in effect.
I avoided the zone where experienced surfers were riding giant breakers and headed to the center of the bay to a sandbar where the water was shallow. I figured this was a “safe” place to ride a of couple waves, which were getting progressively larger as high tide approached. I decided not to wear my fins because I could just walk to the edge of the sandbar, flop on my belly and ride the surge from the big breakers back to shore.
I had a couple of thrilling rides before I got into trouble.
What I didn’t count on was the strength of the backwash from the breakers which pulled me off the sandbar into dramatically deeper water where I got caught in a rip current that rapidly sucked me away from shore.
–In less than a minute, I could barely see the teenager who was sitting on the sand next to the shuttered lifeguard stand where I first entered the water.
My distance from shore was unnerving, but the power of the massive breakers created the real “fear factor.” I was getting pounded from all sides by erratic waves that tossed expert surfers into the air like a seasick sailor spewing the contents of his guts after a night of heavy drinking.
Their fiberglass surfboards were snapping like toothpicks, so I knew my cheapie bodyboard could disintegrate at any moment. Still, my goal was hang onto that flimsy chunk of cloth-covered styrofoam which served as my impromptu flotation device.
According to the United States Lifesaving Association’s rip current survival guide, people who drown in similar conditions die because they have poor swimming skills, panic, or get exhausted trying to swim to shore.
I have to admit my adrenaline was pumping, but fortunately, I didn’t panic. I’m a decent swimmer who knows the best way to get out of a rip current is to swim parallel to shore. It may sound a little counter-intuitive, but to survive, I had to swim south toward some even larger waves located outside the rip channel.
That’s when I really missed my fins.
I repeatedly used my strongest scissors kick, but barely moved because the current was so strong and the distance between the cresting waves was exceptionally short. I was starting to get tired and winded, but continued kicking. I was lucky enough to slowly inch my way to some surging breakers which eventually allowed me to catch a ride back to shore.
When I climbed out of the ocean, I was breathless, but relieved to be alive. I was shaking as I sat down next to the Texas teen who’d been watching me struggle in the rip current.
“Whew!” I gasped. “Lesson learned,” I panted, repeating the words of local lifeguards now burned into my brain, “When in doubt, don’t go out.”
Now a few facts to back-up my tale of survival:
Dr. Charles Blay, an educator at TEOK Investigations in Po‘ipu, tells the Garden Island News the high ratio of visitor deaths is due a lack of knowledge of specific beach hazards, particularly in the winter months.
Some of my Big Wave Pics: