Saving Ourselves From Bad Decisions

Heed the warnings!

It’s a critical message that too often is dismissed. Whether it’s in preparation of an approaching storm or the threat of a flash flood, the monthly influx of box jellyfish or monster surf, there’s a reason warnings are issued. It’s not to ruin your day or to cut into your bottom line.

Simply stated, warnings are issued to save lives.

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The cat was hit by a giant wave, sweeping passengers, including a pregnant woman, into the dangerous surf

But not everyone listens and, unfortunately, sometimes even local residents and businesses exercise poor judgment.

The problem recently grabbed national headlines after a huge wave swept whale watchers off a 40-foot catamaran just outside Haleiwa Boat Harbor on Oahu’s North Shore. Ocean Safety officials say waves with 15to 18-foot faces pummeled the catamaran, sending several passengers into the ocean, including a woman who was five months pregnant.

Now, before you ask what’s a pregnant woman doing on a whale-watching tour during a high-surf warning, remember our visitors put a tremendous amount of trust in us.

We are the experts, and that trust should never be compromised.

That said, one would hope people would use common sense in situations like this, but the truth is, sometimes ignorance truly is bliss. In this case, 19 unknowing passengers put their complete trust in the hands of two crewmembers. The guests had no idea they were about to experience a nightmare at sea.

“It was pretty rough, and we got thrown around a couple of times by waves, but we just figured that was part of getting out there,” says passenger Hayley Nitkowski. “The next thing that happened was the wave hit us, and we were all thrown everywhere and some of us off-board.”

One of them was Nitkowski’s friend, who was five months pregnant. Luckily, Ocean Safety personnel were on the scene very quickly.

“On the North Shore, we are fortunate to have two Jet Ski crews,” says Adam Lerner, a lieutenant with Ocean Safety’s North Shore crew. “When our tower guard at Haleiwa first noticed the vessel in distress, he notified all of us via radio. Because of the magnitude of the incident, I made the call to have both crews respond and launch their skis at Haleiwa Harbor.”

Lerner says within minutes of the initial call, both Jet Skis were in the water and lifeguards quickly reached the boat, which was about a mile offshore.

“We all train for moments like this, and knowing that the surf was 20 feet and we were under a high-surf warning,” says Lerner, “we all took this call very seriously, and I think the response times were amazing. Less than 10 minutes from time of call to having two skis at the boat would be my best guess.”

Lifeguards teamed with Honolulu Fire Department to bring the passengers back to shore. The rescue effort took roughly two hours to complete. Emergency Medical Services says a 50-year-old woman was taken to the hospital in stable condition. Five other passengers were treated for minor injuries at the scene.

“I think it’s very important for everyone to pay attention to all warnings and advisories,” says Lerner. “It’s not just the visitors. It’s anyone who frequents the beaches in Hawaii. As cliché as it sounds, we always say, ‘when in doubt, don’t go out.'”

Nitkowski called lifeguards their “guardian angels” and thanked them for “allowing us to come out of it unscathed, ’cause I honestly, with what happened, the strength of the wave, I have no idea how we made it!”

In the meantime, two separate investigations into the boating accident continue. Both U.S. Coast Guard and the state’s Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement are looking into what happened and why the decision was made to continue with the tour.

“Everyone did their best to remain calm under a highly stressful situation,” says Lerner. “If our guard at Haleiwa didn’t see the wave hit the boat and see the people overboard, it would have cost us a few dangerous minutes. If our Jet Skis weren’t able to get in the water in the timely manner that they did, it would have cost us more time. Ultimately, their heroism, training and professional skills saved numerous lives that day.”

We trust they will always be there for us, but it’s something that should never be taken for granted. The result could be disastrous.

rkmizutani@gmail.com