Each summer, thousands of youth line up to learn ocean rescue skills from the best lifeguards in the world.
As I head deep into the west side of O‘ahu, past the sun-faded towns of Nānākuli and Māʻili, the roadside mini-marts and family homes disappear and the beaches turn vast and quiet. It’s a Tuesday morning, so the weekend crowds haven’t set up shop in the countless parks lining the sand, but the silence is still suspect. The coastline is listless and serene.
Suddenly, idyllic Mākaha Beach presents itself like a crown jewel. I park near a pop-up tent covering a dozen soft-top surfboards and other lifeguard equipment. On the glimmering golden sands, no one is in sight. I trudge through the thick west side grains, the electric blue Pacific Ocean in the backdrop, searching for the Mākaha Junior Lifeguard program, until I hear cheering and yelling. Just beyond a sharp drop in the sand are about 40 kids lined up and sprinting toward the sea, swimming around a buoy, and sprinting back to shore.
Created by the City and County of Honolulu’s Ocean Safety Division in 1990, the program provides ocean safety and awareness education and teaches first aid and surf rescue techniques. Free of charge, and open to all 12- to 17-year-olds who have some swimming experience, each site enrolls approximately 40 participants per week for six consecutive weeks. For many, this program is the hallmark of summer. Nearly 2,000 youth participate in the program throughout designated sites on Maui, Hawaiʻi Island, Kaua‘i, and O‘ahu.
O‘ahu has four beach sites for the program, one on each shore—Ala Moana to the south, ‘Ehukai to the north, Kalama to the east, and Mākaha to the west. From Monday to Friday, morning to afternoon, youth learn skills from county lifeguards, many of whom are legendary watermen in their own rights, having honed their ocean skills in the same waters where they are now teaching.
“The Junior Lifeguard program is important on so many levels,” says Bryan Phillips, O‘ahu director of the Junior Lifeguard program and president of the North Shore Lifeguard Association. “It’s a safe environment for the kids to come, it’s healthy, keeps them active, and it teaches them some really useful lifesaving skills.”
For instance, kids are taught the same rescue techniques that lifeguards use on the beach: the cross-chest carry, the use of fins and a tube, the rescue board, and rescues with the jet ski. They also learn basic first aid and CPR.
Having finished their sprints around the buoy, the Mākaha Junior Lifeguards in training head to the pop-up tents to hydrate. They gather around Brandon Martin, a hulking man in a sea of kids. One of the three Junior Lifeguard program instructors, Martin asks for a volunteer to demonstrate how to properly rescue a drowning victim using a surfboard. He reiterates how to avoid approaching someone, the correct way to efficiently slide someone onto the board, and how to paddle the person in.
“We’re teaching rescue techniques, but we’re also trying to teach kids what they can do in a situation before it comes to that,” says instructor Chad Keaulana. “We want jumping into the ocean to be the last option for them, but at the same time, we want them to be helpful instead of helpless. That requires thinking outside of the box, because if you’re just 12 years old and a big heavy guy needs help, what are you gonna do?”
The west side beach’s rich heritage dovetails with Keaulana’s family history. In 1954, Mākaha Beach served as the site of the world’s first international surf competition, the Mākaha International Surfing Championships, which Chad’s grandfather Richard “Buffalo” Keaulana won in its seventh year. An acclaimed waterman and professional surfer, Buffalo also served as head lifeguard at Mākaha for more than 25 years, during which he organized the Buffalo Big Board Classic—an event that still draws crowds to Mākaha’s broad white beach every year.
Mākaha is also where ocean safety and lifeguarding methods took a quantum leap. Chad’s father, Brian Keaulana, Buffalo’s son and a former Mākaha lifeguard, is the cofounder of Hawaiian Water Patrol. Along with his partner, Terry Ahue, and with the help of big-wave surfers and lifeguards like Melvin Pu‘u and Dennis Gouveia, Brian spearheaded the use of jet skis for ocean rescue around the world.
On the final day of each week, Keaulana and his crew award certificates of completion to the participants. They celebrate by taking the newly minted junior lifeguards out on jet skis to demonstrate water craft rescue techniques invented by their local forefathers.
When I ask Keaulana if this program is like a training ground for Hawaiʻi’s future lifeguards, he nods. “On the west side specifically, I’d say over 60 percent of our lifeguards came from Junior Lifeguards programs. I came from Junior Guards, these other guys did too, even that lifeguard over there.” Keaulana points to a man wearing the telltale uniform of red shorts and a yellow shirt, his eyes fixed on the sea and shoreline.
I also look to the water, to where kids practicing board-rescue techniques pick up the skill with astonishing speed. If these are the future guards that will be protecting our communities, we will be in good hands.