The first major swell of the winter surf season is guaranteed to attract three groups of people to Oahu’s North Shore: experienced wave riders, onlookers and those who aren’t quite ready to tackle the pounding breakers.
On Tuesday, lifeguards with the city’s Ocean Safety Division were busy dealing with all of the above.
“People come to the beach (and) they want to get in the water,” said lifeguard Capt. John Hoogsteden. “It looks like the surf is small, and all of a sudden, they just get blasted with a huge set.”
The deceptive lulls between large sets of waves was responsible for at least three of the seven rescues lifeguards performed Tuesday.
At about 7:30 a.m. three men who went for a swim at Laniakea were quickly swept out to sea. The men, two in their late 20s, and one in his early 30s, were rescued from the grips of a fast-moving rip current by off-duty lifeguards. All three men were said to be recent arrivals to Oahu.
“They were a half-mile from the shoreline by the time the lifeguards reached them,” said Hoogsteden. “They wouldn't have been able to get back on their own.”
At 9:40 a.m., a 16-year-old boy from Waimanalo was rescued along with his mother, after the boy’s leash snapped off his body board at Keiki Beach. Hoogsteden said the boy was warned by a lifeguard not to paddle out. His panicked mother dove in after him when she noticed he couldn’t make it back to shore.
“Both could’ve of drowned,” said Hoogsteden. “They were lucky.”
In addition to timely rescues, North Shore lifeguards performed 1,445 preventative actions Tuesday as of 3:30 p.m. That’s when lifeguards warn beachgoers about dangerous conditions before they get into trouble. Another 490 preventative actions were tallied on Oahu’s west side.
“Listen to the lifeguards,” said Hoogsteden. “We're really risking our health and our lives, and we just want the public to stay safe.”
With a weak El Niño weather pattern developing in the equatorial Pacific, the Ocean Safety Division is preparing for more extra-large swells than normal. Lifeguards now have four roving patrols on the North Shore at their disposal, and two of the vehicles are equipped with personal watercraft that can quickly deploy to assist ocean rescues.
“They'll help us to reach those areas that are unguarded,” said Hoogsteden.
Although the large northwest swell was not expected to peak until late Tuesday evening or early Wednesday morning, large crowds flocked to Waimea Bay, Pipeline and Sunset Beach to catch a glimpse of surfers challenging Mother Nature.
“We were here almost exactly at the same last year, and I was disappointed because I was thinking, ‘Where are all the waves I keep hearing about,’” said Melinda Henne of San Antonio, Texas, who’s visiting Oahu with her husband Robert for the third time. “This is the wildest we've ever seen it.”
Aaron Swanson, 22, was among a handful of surfers sitting on the peak at Pipeline around mid-day. The recent transplant from Kalaheo, Kauai hopes to land a job as a Honolulu firefighter and compete in professional surf meets this winter.
“Pipe either makes or breaks you, and I'm trying to make it,” said Swanson. “Hopefully it works out.”
Ocean conditions throughout the Hawaiian Islands can be monitored by going to the Hawaii Beach Safety website at: http://oceansafety.soest.hawaii.edu/