The Guardians: Meet Hawai’i’s Fearless Waterwomen

female lifeguards
Images by Jenny Sathngam

O‘ahu’s female lifeguards are some of the most elite and respected waterwomen in the world. Every day, these fearless first responders test their power to save lives against the formidable Pacific Ocean.

She sits alone in a white tower before a sea of bobbing surfers waiting for the next set, capped swimmers following imaginary perpendicular lines, bodyboarders flirting with pounding shorebreak. She is tracking every silhouette in her line of sight, searching for the harbingers of trouble—the child ignoring his mother’s warning to stay close, the snorkeler inching closer to the current, the stand-up paddler with a beginner’s stance. While O‘ahu’s locals and visitors enjoy another day at the beach, she waits vigilant as bodyguard and guardian angel, ready to risk her own life to keep the sea from claiming the lives of those she protects.

“You go into tunnel vision,” says Kawehi Namu‘o, a 39-year-old lifeguard stationed at Pōkaʻī Bay Beach Park on the island’s west side. “You’re running from the tower, your shades are flying off, you don’t see nothing around you. It’s just you against the ocean in that moment.”

Hawai‘i is one of the few places in the world where lifeguarding is a year-round and full-time job.

The staff of Ocean Safety and Lifeguard Services, a division of the City and County of Honolulu Emergency Services Department, can’t afford to tear their eyes from the sea for longer than a few seconds at a time. Lifeguards are on duty seven days a week, including holidays, typically for eight-hour shifts, or longer if there’s high surf. The 42 towers on O‘ahu are split into four districts: South Shore, Windward, North Shore, and Leeward—each with a captain and two or three lieutenants, plus two teams of eight personal rescue watercraft operators. Of the 126 lifeguards, only nine are women, and there’s never been awoman in a supervisor or watercraft position.

Hawai‘i is one of the few places in the world where lifeguarding is a year-round and full-time job. It’s also one of the most dangerous places to be a lifeguard, mixing inexperienced swimmers with hazards like strong currents, high surf, and sharp rocks. These risks are compounded by the growth of stand-up paddling, kayaking, hydrofoiling, and kitesurfing—sports that have high percentages of beginners. In 2017, local lifeguards assisted in 3,340 rescues, according to Shayne Enright, public information officer for the Honolulu Emergency Services Department. These included responding to 1,300 major medical cases (traumatic injuries, near drownings, and other calls requiring emergency medical services on the scene) and 16 drownings.

In 2018, O‘ahu will likely surpass the 23 million beach visits it saw the previous year—and more visitors means a greater potential for injuries, even fatalities. Ocean Safety continues to fortify the best defense it has in minimizing collateral damage from ocean recreation by finding and recruiting first responders like Namu‘o. As a kid, she was always on the beach near her home in Nānākuli learning how to dive for tako (octopus) with her grandpa and teaching herself to surf. Working with the sea was all she ever wanted to do. On her days off, she surfs her favorite west side breaks or leads paddling crews as the head coach of Mākaha Canoe Club. The only female lifeguard with EMT certification, she says it gives her more confidence in caring for victims of severe injuries.

You’re running from the tower, your shades are flying off, you don’t see nothing around you. It’s just you against the ocean in that moment.

When Namu‘o first began lifeguarding, she rotated through the west side beaches and fell in love with Pōkaʻī Bay, a one-tower beach tucked in from Farrington Highway. She requested it as her permanent assignment. Having spent most of her 15-year career here, she has watched it go from a sleepy local hangout to what she calls the “West Side Ala Moana,” a location popular with tourists and locals like Ala Moana Beach in Honolulu. Today, the majority of her rescues involve visitors who are stand-up paddling. “It’s definitely higher stress,” she says. “A lot of stand-up paddlers have a false sense of confidence. They’re following dolphins and heading out in the surf now instead of staying in the flat water.”

FLUX Lifeguards

When it comes to getting the job, Ocean Safety holds everyone to the same high standards of performance, regardless of age or gender. Candidates participate in two-day tryouts packed with physical strength, stamina, and skills tests. High-ranking recruits are invited to apply for employment, and if they are hired, intense training begins: two weeks of accelerated medical instruction in the classroom culminating in an emergency medical responder certification exam followed by two weeks of water-based exercises. Instructors incorporate training scenarios based on real-life situations former lifeguards have faced. Emergency Services department director Jim Howe says these methods help guards overcome the barriers of fear. “When you’re presented with a situation that is life-threatening, the normal human response is fight or flight, and neither of these responses is appropriate in a rescue situation,” he says.

Ocean Safety training hits all the fear points: deep water, rough surf, confined spaces, sharks. Exercises might entail scaling a coral bench in surging water at Witches’ Brew in Hanauma Bay or jumping into a cove at Lāna‘i Lookout and then swimming the coastline to the area designated for pulling victims out of the water.

The new hires are taught highly technical survival and safety maneuvers. One day they might learn how to move a victim of a spinal injury onto a 12-foot rescue board in dangerous shorebreak, and the next they might execute mock rescues in both small and big surf. Freediving is also integrated, including diving a minimum of 30 feet to retrieve a weighted dummy posing as an unconscious swimmer. They do open-ocean swims and sit in the impact zone where waves break to practice maintaining clarity in high-stress environments. They learn how to effectively communicate with hearing-impaired and non-English-speaking guests. For the final test, the lifeguards must reach a flag in the back of Moi Hole—a jagged lava cave in Wai‘anae that is the site of one of the most dramatic rescues in Ocean Safety history.

What O‘ahu’s lifeguard inauguration lacks in comfort it makes up for in camaraderie. Surviving the grueling training and working together in the field creates a strong, lifelong bond—because saving lives largely depends on trusting your colleagues. United in this high-stakes role, the guards have each others’ backs. “I don’t go out of my way to prove myself, but over time you earn respect, then you’re tight,” Namu‘o says. “We all hang out outside of work. It’s one big family.”

Exceptional water skills aside, the women lifeguards all share a deep love for the ocean. “Most of us just do it because we’re most comfortable when we’re in the water,” says east side lifeguard Elizabeth Bradshaw. “We all feel that connection. I couldn’t tell you the last day I didn’t go jump in the water.”

At age 15, Bradshaw watched her brother try out for the lifeguard program in Crystal Cove State Park, California.

“I remember being so upset because I wanted to be able to jump in on it, thinking I totally could have done that,” she says. A year later, in 2013, she became a lifeguard at Crystal Cove. After moving to O‘ahu for college, at age 19, Bradshaw was hired by the Ocean Safety division. The island’s strong currents were challenging at first, and she had never used a rescue board before, but the men and women in her district helped her get acclimated.

In June 2018, Bradshaw saved 70-year-old snorkeler Lawrence Gambone at Hanauma Bay by performing CPR for eight minutes. Along with the EMTs and other guards who responded to the incident, she reunited with Gambone in his hospital room two weeks later to celebrate his dramatic rescue.

This deep-rooted team dynamic is what makes the victories possible—and carries the guards through the tragic losses as well. “It’s like having a second family. When you have incidents that are heavier or harder, you have 50-plus brothers and sisters who are around,” Bradshaw says. “Everyone will come together and jump in the water and check on each other.”

Successfully manning 198 miles of O‘ahu coastline and near-shore waters out to a mile also hinges on the Ocean Safety crew following a very precise code of conduct. “Before we go out on a rescue, we have to alert the neighbor towers,” explains south shore lifeguard Marianna Pires, who is stationed at Ala Moana and Waikīkī. “They watch the rescue and wait for hand signals—it can either be, ‘It’s all good,’ ‘I need assistance,’ or ‘unconscious person.’” Then it’s up to the guards to focus on filling in the gaps of what happened and wait with the victim until the paramedics arrive, offering life support if necessary.

The rescues tend to get all of the glory, but the guards actually spend most of their time on preventive action and administering medical attention for emergencies like heat exhaustion, stroke, cardiac arrest, seizures, and Portuguese man-o’-war encounters. Lifeguards are constantly talking to beachgoers about the day’s conditions and hunting for behaviors that could put people at greater risk for injury. Says Bradshaw, “At Sandy’s, sometimes I’ll see people walking up carrying floaties and I have to tell them, ‘That’s not a good idea.’”

Behind the scenes are the lifeguards manning the Safety Dispatch Center in Waikīkī, where a team of four take 911 and emergency calls from tower guards and then coordinate with Honolulu Fire Department, Honolulu Emergency Medical Services Department, Honolulu Police Department, and Honolulu Department of Parks and Recreation to get them the support they need. “It’s just like on the beach, some days everything goes well, and some days everything is going wrong,” says lifeguard Chelsea Bizik, who left her east-side post to join dispatch in February 2018, when she was seven months pregnant. “You get a call from the east side—a broken neck—and then two minutes later a possible drowning on the North Shore. It’s crazy to see the teamwork side of it all.”

Bizik returned to dispatch after maternity leave, but she hopes to resume her beach post soon. “I’m seeing all the different situations the tower guards go through and it’s made me more confident,” she says. “But the feeling of saving someone is priceless. I wouldn’t mind being a lieutenant, and maybe even a captain one day—how amazing would that be?”

Mentoring Ocean Safety hopefuls in the Junior Lifeguards program, Bizik encourages young girls to focus on developing their strength. “A lot of women care about looking skinny and petite, but that’s not us, we’re strong women,” she says. “You need the muscle, and you need to be able to pull somebody onto your board and swim them in past a three- to five-foot shorebreak.” She advises them to get in the water as much as possible to swim, surf, and practice quick turns on a longboard. Sitting and watching people interact with the ocean is also important, she says, to start developing an eye for spotting trouble.

“After a few years, you see the patterns of people who know how to swim and people who don’t—you can pick them out just like that,” Bizik says. She and the other guards have a saying, “lifeguards for life,” that speaks to this notion of “the eye” as an ingrained response. It’s not something you can turn off or age out of.

Former south shore lifeguard Helene Phillips saw a lot of changes over her 33 years of service, but one thing that never wavered was the close relationships formed among the guards. “We were a lot smaller then—about 50 of us—and everybody knew everybody,” she says. “I always felt it was a brother-sister relationship with male lifeguards. The competitiveness was a bonus to the job; it was so cool to be inspired by each other and push each other to get better.” She retired from Ocean Safety in 2014 after lifeguarding alongside respected waterwomen Rell Sun, Pua Moku‘au, and Marie McCauley, who went on become Honolulu Police Department’s first female deputy chief.

Looking back, Phillips feels grateful for the opportunity to spend her days right next to the sea, and for the fitness habits she parlayed into a lifelong training regimen. About five days a week, she heads to Ala Moana Beach to exercise and reflect. “The sprints are getting harder, but the run-swim still feels natural to me today,” she says. “Then I’ll sit on the bench near my old tower and think, I’m home.”

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