jet skis to the rescue

Michelle Liu
May 24, 2024
lifestyle

Jet skis are a thrilling way to speed and splash through the blue waters off the coasts of Hawaii. They also help save lives.

In 2022, Honolulu’s Ocean Safety and Lifeguard Services Division conducted nearly 3,500 rescues. Of those, 77% required a jet ski. “Our rescue watercraft perform some sort of rescue or preventive action every day,” says Kurt Lager, acting chief of Honolulu Ocean Safety.

That’s why the Hawaiian Lifeguard Association is pushing to standardize the techniques and skills in jet ski water rescues. The nonprofit organization recently held a “train the trainer” course in Kaneohe Bay, inviting agencies from across the state to collaborate and share knowledge.


Train the trainer course in Kaneohe Bay.

Patrolling the open waters
In the early 20th century, lifeguards mainly used paddleboards, rescue tubes, and wooden boats to save the lives of distressed swimmers and surfers. In the 1990s, world-renowned watermen and lifeguards Brian Keaulana and Terry Ahue pioneered the use of personal watercrafts to rescue people in the waters off Oahu’s North Shore.

“In the beginning, it was hard to sell the idea that we’re using a jet ski to rescue people,” says Kalani Vierra, president of the Hawaiian Lifeguard Association. “But once we started bringing people back to shore safely, it opened everyone’s eyes that this is a valuable tool.”

Traversing the seas
Using jet skis cuts down on response time because they’re versatile and maneuverable in high surf. Lifeguards can also ride the watercraft onto the sand, bringing patients up the beach quickly, as many as three at a time. When it’s a life-or-death situation, seconds matter.

“The quicker the response, the higher the patient’s chance of survival,” says Vierra. “The rescue craft is the firetruck for lifeguards and the most important tool in our operation. We can start CPR before we even bring the patient back to shore.”

That’s because a rescue sled is often attached to the back of jet skis, making it easier to tow people through choppy waters.


Conducting a rescue with a rescue sled attached.

“Whether we respond 100 feet from shore or 60 miles down the coastline, we’re zipping in and out of the open ocean to rescue people in rough conditions,” says Vierra.

Big wave season
Hawaii is known for its big surf, especially in the winter season when waves can reach more than 50 feet. Huge swells are often found on the north and east shores from November through April.

“We’re home to the mecca of surf. It can be so beautiful, but so dangerous,” says Vierra.

Because of this, lifeguards need to be able to navigate unpredictable and potentially hazardous conditions. To join Honolulu Ocean Safety, applicants undergo 200 hours of intense training, and they need to pass both written and physical exams.

“It can consist of a run, swim, pushing a jet ski on the sand and into the water, and maneuvering through a course,” says Lager. “It’s very strenuous and in-depth.”

The levels of required training for certified rescue operators vary from county to county. That’s why the train-the-trainer course in Kaneohe Bay helped ensure lifeguards across the state are on the same page.


Certified rescue operators with jet skis.

“We wanted every island to learn the new technology of rescue crafts and new techniques, so we can all do the same standard life-saving techniques,” says Vierra.

“When we train collaboratively, it’s more seamless when it comes to working together on a rescue,” adds Lager. “It flows better; we’ll know what they’re doing and they’ll know what we’re doing. And it’s all to rescue someone’s life.”

Road map of jet ski rescues
While Vierra’s immediate goal is to set the standard for jet ski rescues in Hawaii, he also hopes these techniques will become a map for life-saving agencies around the world.

“The Okinawan Life Saving Association sent 10 lifeguards from Okinawa to train with us,” says Vierra. “So now they can go back to Okinawa and start sharing their knowledge.”

The Hawaiian Lifeguard Association is working on a manual that teaches agencies how to use rescue crafts and what they can do when starting their own jet ski rescue operation.


Ocean Agencies and military lifeguards participated in the training.

“I’m just passing the baton – we really owe it all to Brian Keaulana and Terry Ahue for their guidance and vision in making jet ski rescues possible today,” says Vierra. “It all started here in Hawaii; they created something so valuable that’s saving lives around the world.”

Photos courtesy Hawaiian Lifeguard Association

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