Kihei-Wailea Rotarians come to the rescue

Group to provide 28 tubes designed to help prevent ocean drownings

Rotary Club of Kihei-Wailea members Patty Hemmen, MaryMargaret Baker and Dave Hemmen practice setting up one of the rescue tubes the club is scheduled to place at South Maui County beaches next month. Club members were slated to put out 28 of the tubes Saturday, but the work detail was postponed by heavy rains. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

The Rotary Club of Kihei-Wailea is ready to install 28 rescue tubes next month at beaches across South Maui to aid residents and visitors in waters that have accounted for more than a quarter of drownings on the island over the past decade, the nonprofit said.

“We’re really excited because this saves lives,” Rotarian MaryMargaret Baker said.

The tubes had been set for installation Saturday, but rainy weather postponed the work until next month.

The bright “banana-yellow” cylinders are approximately 50 inches long and can keep three adults afloat. They will be placed every 300 feet starting at Kalama Beach Park’s north end to Cove Park, Charley Young Beach and all three Kamaole Beach parks.

The tubes bought from the Rescue Tube Foundation on Kauai will be installed at the high-water mark mauka of the vegetation line. They will be mounted on tall poles topped with a yellow flag and a number affixed to the top to indicate their GPS location.

The numbered locations will be on file with 911 operators and instructions printed on each tube. The tubes are outfitted with a 10-foot tether at one end.

Responders are advised to throw the rescue tube to someone in distress or swim out to make sure they hold on until help from 911 or lifeguards arrives.

Ocean drownings remain one of the leading causes of fatal injuries in Maui County, according to the state Department of Health. Maui’s south shores are some of the most dangerous, accounting for 27 percent of Maui island’s 114 drowning deaths from 2005 to 2014.

Of Maui County’s 139 drowning deaths, 101, or 73 percent, were visitors from 2006 to 2015. More than half, or 59, occurred while victims were snorkeling.

Ocean drownings also appear to be on the rise after climbing from nine in 2005 to 18 in 2014.

“What happens is that visitors do not assume that there’s danger in the ocean,” Becker said. “People just assume it’s all glorious and, of course, it is beautiful. It’s paradise, but there’s also dangers in paradise that you need to be aware of.”

In response to increasing concerns over visitor drownings, the club spent $4,000 to purchase the tubes, Baker said. The initiative began 2¢ years ago and received help from Ocean Safety Battalion Chief Colin Yamamoto.

Yamamoto has been a vocal supporter of the rescue tubes and helped pave the way for several hotels to install them on their properties facing the ocean. The Royal Lahaina Resort installed four tubes in 2013 and the Kaanapali Operations Association installed 27 two years later along Kaanapali Beach.

The Fairmont Kea Lani installed four tubes in 2015, and within a few months had three rescues. Each incident involved a panicked hotel guest caught in strong currents that required bystanders or a hotel beach attendant to rescue them using the tubes.

“They called me up and said, ‘Hey, it really works.’ “ Yamamoto said Wednesday.

Yamamoto said the tubes will never fulfill the role of a lifeguard, but they provide an essential resource when lifeguards are away. He said a key benefit of the tubes is that they prevent “double drowning,” a situation where the rescuer drowns alongside the victim.

“We all know when a family is at the beach and one of their loved ones gets in trouble they’re going to call 911,” he said. “But it’s hard for family members to stand idle waiting for 911 to arrive and certain family members will go out and try to help. This really protects those people.”

During incidents along rocky edges or cliffs, rescuers also can throw the tubes down to people who have fallen into the ocean rather than putting themselves in danger by jumping in after them, Yamamoto said. The victims would then hold on to the tubes until help arrives.

The situation mirrors the death of two Maui High School graduates who were walking along the shoreline to see tide pools near Honokohau Bay two years ago. A wave swept one of them away and the other jumped in to try to save her.

“They both drowned,” Yamamoto said. “That would have been a perfect case where you just throw the tube for the person that went into the water. Those are the things we can try to prevent with rescue tubes.”

Mayor Alan Arakawa and the Maui County Council recently granted the Rotary club permission to install and maintain the tubes at the county beaches. Yamamoto said he is working with the state to install tubes at Makena State Park and its three beaches: Big Beach, Little Beach and Black Sand Beach.

Yamamoto said the written agreement with the county makes it easy for other Rotary clubs in the county to seek approval to install tubes in other areas.

“All we have to do is change the name of the Rotary club,” he said.

Baker said she is very excited about the initiative moving forward and is hoping for more volunteers and donations. She said the tubes cost $100 each, and she hopes the community takes care of them and treats them with “respect and aloha.”

“They’re are our eyes and ears,” she said. “It’s our gift to the community, and we want people to appreciate it.”

For more information, visit MauiRotary.org or send email to Baker at topchick@sbcglobal.net.

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at csugidono@mauinews.com.

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