Between dangerous rip currents, jagged coral reef and shark encounters, being a lifeguard on Maui's south shore is no easy feat, but veteran lifeguard Kekai Brown has proved that she can handle herself and others in times of emergency.
Brown, who has been a lifeguard on Maui for 17 years, was promoted to Maui County Ocean Safety South District captain this month and oversees activity at Kamaole Beaches I, II and III. She is the first and only woman to be appointed to a district captain position in Maui County, officials said.
"Kekai has good leadership skills where she includes everybody, people listen to her and follow her as a captain," county Ocean Safety Operations Chief Archie Kalepa said. "Sometimes, as a female, that's not easy. But that just shows what kind of person Kekai is. She thinks about everyone when she makes decisions, and that's important in the public safety field.
Maui County Ocean Safety South District Capt. Kekai Brown sits in her captain’s truck Thursday. Brown is the first and only woman to hold a district captain’s post in the county.
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo
Maui County Ocean Safety South District Capt. Kekai Brown speaks into her radio Thursday.
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo
"The department is pretty fortunate to have her as a captain," Kalepa said.
Brown, 35, has been filling in as acting captain for South Maui intermittently over the past two years but was officially appointed to the position Nov. 1.
"I can't see myself doing anything else," Brown said last week. "Being a captain, I'm more in the office and not out in the sun anymore, and I'm constantly busy. But I wouldn't want to do anything else. I have one of the best jobs in the world."
Brown started lifeguarding when she was 17 years old because she "didn't know what I wanted to do after high school."
What started as a summer job after graduation from Baldwin High School soon grew into a career and then a lifestyle. Since then, Brown has done everything from rescue paddleboarders who were blown out to sea to recover severed body parts in the aftermath of a gruesome shark attack.
She said that her most exciting moment as a lifeguard happened just a couple of years ago offshore of Makena Landing, when she pulled a snorkeler onto a sled attached to her personal watercraft as an 18-foot-long shark circled just 5 feet away. Someone had called in a shark sighting, and ocean safety officials were in the process of closing down the beach.
"I saw the dorsal fin come up and actually bump the guy I was trying to get onto my sled," Brown said. "He was in shock, he couldn't move so I had to pull him on."
Brown was able to successfully rescue the man and his family members who were also snorkeling nearby, with no injuries reported.
Brown's affinity for helping others may not come as much surprise, as she comes from a long line of public safety officials. Her father was a rescue captain at Kahului Fire Station, an uncle and cousins are also Maui firefighters, her brother is a former lifeguard on Maui's north shore and another uncle is a lifeguard on the north shore.
In addition, her husband, Keola Brown, is the county's Ocean Safety North Shore District captain.
"With both of us in this field and now both of us captains, it's like when we're home, we're still talking about work and how to better the department," Keola Brown said. "We put our two brains together."
He said that he was very proud of his wife for getting the promotion, a move he said was "a long time coming."
"All the guys down there really respect her and look up to her. She has that mindset that 'I'm not doing this for me I'm doing it for everybody,' " he said.
There are five district captains in Maui County, and a total of 54 ocean safety staff, which includes lifeguards, captains and administration, a county official said. Only three of the 54 employees are female.
Kekai Brown said that being one of the few female lifeguards on the island never really bothered her, as she always considered herself "one of the boys." And her credentials speak for themselves - in addition to being a veteran lifeguard, Brown is certified as an instructor for the American Red Cross Lifeguard Training program, an instructor for CPR/AED classes and the island's first female rescue watercraft operator.
For now, Brown looks forward to many more years of helping and teaching ocean safety, whether from the office or at the beach.
"People think they're invincible once they get in the water sometimes, but you should always talk to the lifeguards about the dangers of every beach and always be aware of your surroundings," she said.
* Eileen Chao can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.