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City, state officials push ban of Waikiki Fourth of July Flotilla

Published On: Jul 06 2012 07:13:00 PM HST
Updated On: Jul 07 2012 11:18:51 AM HST

Lifeguards say the mixing of alcohol with ocean activities is one of the most common causes of drowning, and after assisting dozens of party-goers back to shore Wednesday, lifeguards are calling for an end to the annual party.

HONOLULU -

The annual Waikiki Fourth of July Flotilla, a loosely organized party offshore of Queen's Beach, is being targeted for closure by city and state officials after lifeguards assisted 175 to 200 people back to shore Wednesday through 5-foot surf.

Jim Howe, operations chief for Honolulu's Ocean Safety Division, said many of those brought back to shore by watercraft were inebriated.

"The ones that we actually went out on based on 911 calls, they were staggering drunk," said Howe. "It's just a concern for the health and safety of the people involved."

Wednesday's flotilla party hosted as many as 1,100 people, many of them paddling a quarter of a mile to a half-mile out to sea on anything that floats: inner tubes, float toys, kayaks and surfboards. The party took place in the midst of a rising south swell that had lifeguards on high alert.

A meeting was held Friday morning with various stakeholders concerned about the situation, including representatives from the Honolulu Police Department, the city's Ocean Safety Division and the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.

"This behavior is clearly inappropriate for this particular area," said DLNR Director William Aila. "We want to take a look at getting this situation under control before it becomes 4,000 to 8,000 (people) like San Diego."

Flotilla supporters contend the large number of assists by city lifeguards doesn't point to any potential danger, but rather an easy ride back to shore.

"If this lifeguard comes up to me on a Jet Ski and says, 'Hey, do you want help in?' I would say, 'Yes.' Who would say no?" said Kahi Pacarro, who has attended many past flotilla parties. "There were 175 assists, but they weren't saves."

However, city lifeguards are troubled by the rampant boozing during the offshore party. It's a known fact that the mix of alcohol and ocean activities is a sure recipe for disaster.

"A couple of them got into pretty bad trouble out there, and it's concerning," said Dr. James Ireland, director of the city's Emergency Services Department, which oversees city lifeguards. "It can be fatal, and we're lucky it wasn't this past week."

Aila is examining whether DLNR can craft new administrative rules that allow the agency's enforcement arm to issue citations to anyone possessing alcohol on a flotation device. However, the exact course of action may not be known for weeks or perhaps even months.

"We're going to a look at all the options that are available to us, what we feel the prosecutors will prosecute, and then try to find the appropriate tool," said Aila.

If there is a crackdown on next year's Fourth of July Flotilla, Pacarro said revelers are likely to pick up and go elsewhere, perhaps a beach not manned by lifeguards.

"The party is going to happen," he said. "It'll happen on land (or) in the water. It's July Fourth."

Pacarro also points to the difficulty of policing any alcohol ban so far from the beach. Many flotilla participants use unlabeled beverage containers to hold their alcohol, and could simply dump the drinks if officers approach.

"Enforcement would be extremely difficult," said Pacarro.

In June of last year, DLNR banned alcohol and drugs from the Kaneohe Sandbar for 120 days during three-day holidays after a man was beaten to death at Heeia Kea Pier during the Memorial Day weekend. The agency is now considering making the rules at the sandbar permanent.

Pacarro, the executive director of Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii, led a group of volunteers Wednesday as they gathered trash from flotilla partygoers on a 5-foot by 10-foot floating iMat. The effort was an attempt to keep criticism of the offshore party at bay, as the group collected about 300 pounds of recyclables.

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