Kaua’i’s Tragic Season

March 25, 2013 § Leave a comment

A map of Kaua'i. The sites of recent drowings are marked with X's.

A map of Kauai. The sites of recent drownings are marked with X’s.

Recently I visited Kaua’i, the island I consider my second home. Despite a lot of recent development on the South Shore, Kauai has retained its essential nature: rural, lush and mysterious, with a permanent population of less than 67,000. It is always a pleasure to return.

Of the million visitors came to Kaua’i last year, many were day trippers off cruise ships, while most of the rest stuck mainly to the resorts.But among the more adventuresome, a few befell the accidental deaths for which Kaua’i is notorious: drowning after falling off rocks and cliffs, or after being swept out by rogue waves and rip tides. (It’s not only tourists who drown: the changeable waters that make Kaua’i one of the best surfing spots in the world regularly claim the lives of residents as well.) In 2012, two people drowned off Kaua’i.

2013 has been a different story: between January 18 and March 14, ten people drowned off the island, seven tourists and three locals, exponentially more than in a typical year, let alone a two-month period. Just before my trip, I learned about the first tragedy–in which two San Francisco men drowned after one was swept off rocks by a rogue wave and the other tried to save him–via a New York Times travel article (which, oddly, wasn’t even about Kaua’i). When I arrived, I mentioned the accident to the car rental agent, who said, “The same thing happened yesterday–in the exact same place.”

Then I learned about the other eight drownings (there has since been another). Heart attacks and other health issues seem to have played a role in about half, while three (all in the same place–Kalihiwai, on the North Shore) involved men who walked along the rocky coastline despite posted warnings and either slipped or were swept off by high surf. One drowning was a freak accident: when a sudden flash flood in the Hanakapiai Valley stranded fifty hikers and two rescue personnel, a tourist from New York was swept away by the rising water.

In light of these tragedies, visitors should know that Kaua’i’s waters change seasonally: on the North Shore, the surf is high in the winter and low in the summer, while on the South Shore the situation is reversed. They should never turn their backs on waves, walk in restricted areas such as rocky coastlines, or swim at the mouth of a stream or river, all of which are likely to result in being swept away by waves or currents. Another precaution is one I didn’t know until fairly recently: swimmers should carefully observe the ocean before entering, avoiding places where the waves aren’t breaking parallel to the shore.

Much as I like to think I’ve never had any problems while swimming off Kaua’i, I actually did have one when I was 8, while body surfing at Brennecke’s Beach in midsummer. The waves were big that day, and there was a current that sucked me down after a wave broke on my head. I was upside down in the swirling green water for what seemed like minutes. When I resurfaced, scared and gasping, I found my family strangely unconcerned. Of course they were aware of my habit of swimming underwater in our pool at home, but it was a close call, and one that might have ended differently if I had been less able and less lucky.

As it happens, the most recent incident on Kauai ended as uneventfully as mine. On March 17th two men were swept out off ‘Anini Beach on the North Shore, but one made it back on his own, while the other got an assist from rescuers and reached the shore uninjured. They were lucky, but they also knew not to fight the current; instead, they let it carry them out and release them.

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