Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Avoiding a Killer Vacation

Hawaii hosts nature's most violent events: hurricanes, volcanoes, tsunamis, and earthquakes. Yet, today, thanks to enhanced warning and forecast systems, few people are harmed. When mother nature punches the ticket in Hawaii, she often does so on the nicest of days, in the prettiest places, and when the victims are least suspecting. Tourist deaths happen at least monthly somewhere in the islands, in spite of great concern and efforts by the Hawaiians. The good news is that virtually all recreation-related fatalities are avoidable. Especially yours.

Among the ways to die while having fun in Hawaii, drowning is the most popular, normally caused by near-shore rip currents. The best way to avoid rip currents is to swim at a beach with a lifeguard present and to ask advice. If at a secluded beach, always spend many minutes observing the waves and reading the current before entering the water. (Higher  waves mean stronger the rip current: That's  the cardinal rule. Current is created by incoming wave water finding its way back out to sea; you can notice riffles on the water surface, a breaking down of the wave tiers,  and blue channels though the reef.)

Every beach can be perfectly safe and lethally dangerous, depending on wave conditions. Don't assume it's safe to swim because you see surfers or other people in the water. To test rip current (after observation), throw in a stick to see if it floats away. Swimming with a buddy is a good idea, probably safest when the buddy is on shore watching and able to call for help. A mask and fins greater enhance your swimming power and efficiency. While snorkeling, float face down to see if you are being carried away. If there is a strong current, get out. If the current is mild, swim against it while snorkeling so you'll be able to swim with if on the homeward leg. If you do get overpowered in a current, don't panic (easily said) and don't fatigue yourself by swimming against the force. Breathe and stay calm. If people are on shore, wave for help. Swim sideways to the current, thereby getting out of the "river." Rip current is a near-shore phenomenon, and it will release you not far offshore. Then swim around the direction of the current and back in.

All of the above tips and precautions are trumped by the mantra of sea safety: When in doubt, don't go out. For more details on swimming safety, see page 58 of No Worries Hawaii, and observe the precautions noted for the beaches in the Trailblazer guides for each of the islands.

Other common killers (that can be avoided!) include rogue waves, falling from cliffs, flash floods, and getting lost on hikes. These are also covered in No Worries Hawaii, in the Trailblazer guides—and will be the subject of future blogs. Aloha!