No support found for lifeguard tower move

Testimony calls for the funding of new tower at popular tourist beach

Maui County Ocean Safety Officer Willie Lisk surveys Hanakao‘o Beach on Tuesday afternoon. A proposal to move the lifeguard tower at Hanakao‘o to Black Rock further down the shoreline in Kaanapali received no support at a meeting Tuesday in Lahaina. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photos

LAHAINA — Residents and lifeguards unanimously rejected the Maui Fire Department’s idea of moving the county Hanakao’o (Canoe) Beach Park lifeguard tower to the vicinity of Puu Kekaa (Black Rock) in Kaanapali at a meeting Tuesday.

They said the state and Kaanapali resorts should fund a new tower at the popular but sometimes dangerous tourist beach.

“Everything in the local community is getting robbed,” Lahaina resident Mike Tihada said during a community meeting at the West Maui Senior Center. “We get one multimillion dollar industry fixing hotels and revitalizing Kaanapali. What is a couple lifeguards on state property? I understand we need them, but I don’t think we should strip Canoe Beach.”

Colin Yamamoto, battalion chief for Maui County Ocean Safety, gave a presentation to about 40 people on the proposed relocation. While the move was supported by Fire Chief Jeff Murray and Mayor Alan Arakawa, all of the nearly two dozen people who spoke during the meeting, including West Maui Rep. Angus McKelvey and Council Member Elle Cochran, opposed the move.

Over the last nine years, Canoe Beach has recorded four incidents involving ocean or beach ambulance response, Yamamoto said. During the same period, 39 of those incidents occurred off Whalers Village, Westin Maui Resort & Spa and Marriott’s Maui Ocean Club, and another 81 were reported off Ka’anapali Beach Hotel and Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa.

Snorkelers swim in the waters near Kaanapali’s Black Rock on Tuesday morning. Black Rock has been the site of many drownings and near-drownings, especially by visitors. A proposal to move the lifeguard tower at Hanakao‘o Park to Black Rock received opposition from those attending a meeting Tuesday night in Lahaina.

Black Rock is the second deadliest area for drownings in the state with 22 over the past decade and 18 since 2011, Yamamoto said. Hanauma Bay on Oahu is first with 23.

More than 80 percent of the victims were tourists. From 2007 to 2016, 156 of the 169 snorkel drownings statewide were tourists. Maui County averages 12 to 25 drownings per year with 72 percent being visitors.

Yamamoto explained that moving lifeguards to Black Rock could save visitors who are more likely than residents to drown there. With trained lifeguards, there is only 1 drowning in 18 million visits to the beach.

He added that of the county’s nine lifeguarded beaches, Canoe Beach has the lowest number of people. The Kamaole beach parks have double the number of people as Canoe Beach.

“That’s why I want to move over there to maximize our prevention and education efforts of our lifeguards,” he said. “They can make the biggest impact over there versus Hanako’o. Yes, it is heavily used by local residents . . . but this is our backyard.

About 40 people attended Tuesday’s meeting to discuss the relocation of the Hanakao‘o (Canoe Beach) Park lifeguard tower to the Black Rock area in Kaanapali at the West Maui Senior Center.

“The greatest impact for lifeguards can be done further north.”

Residents expressed concern that moving the tower off the county park could leave the county open to lawsuits. Canoe coaches and local regatta officials also said that they rely on the lifeguards to look out for young paddlers with as many as 30 to 40 in the water at one time.

Lifeguards at the beach also resisted the move and felt it would be trading one problem for another. They suggested the state and resort association fund a tower for Black Rock.

“You’re just going to be reversing the numbers,” lifeguard Mike Ritter said.

Ritter said 500 to 600 people visit Hanakao’o Beach and lifeguards average 30 to 50 contacts a day.

“Lifeguard presence saves lives,” he said. “The safety is tenfold when lifeguards are present. If the tower is moved it’s going to drop immensely.”

Wayne Hedani, president and general manger of the Kaanapali Operations Association, said the resorts have tried to help in the ’70s and ’80s with a volunteer helicopter that rescued people from the water. He said the Fire Department requested they stop.

The association has placed 30 rescue tubes along the 3-mile coast of Kaanapali and plans to have another 30 by January. He said the association already pays millions to the state and feels the state needs to manage its funds better.

“I think people think the hotels can be an endless trust of money,” he said. “We pay $150 million to state coffers, and we’ve done that for the last 50 years. That’s what the resorts pay in taxes and fees and contributes to the economy. If it’s a matter of lobbying for lifeguard services then we would be happy to help.”

McKelvey said the reason the lifeguard tower was placed at Canoe Beach and not Black Rock was because the resort industry did want to help with the funding. So the county put the tower at its own park.

He said the visitor industry would benefit directly from the expansion of lifeguard services and that it could be funded by the transient accommodation tax and surcharges. Resort fees, which go toward amenities, also could be used to fund tower coverage throughout Maui, he added.

“I think liability-wise, it’s in their best interest because they’re going to get sued anyways because they have knowledge of all the accidents occurring,” McKelvey said. “I think we should maybe back off from this and be looking at expanding services, not robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

Officials with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Boating and Ocean Resources were invited but did not attend the meeting.

Yamamoto asked if residents would be open to having lifeguards at Canoe Beach on the weekends and at Black Rock during the week. All in attendance rejected the compromise.

“All of the concerns everyone brought up I agree with them. It’s obvious that it’s a state responsibility because there’s no county park,” Yamamoto said. “For the state to say they don’t have enough money, I don’t think so, they have money, they just have to spend it in the right area.”

Yamamoto said the state should spend less money on marketing and more on infrastructure. He said he was glad he could make the community aware of the issue and knows now that there is no support for the move.

“I felt responsible because these people are dying, and I got to do something,” Yamamoto said. “Now, it’s off my conscience.”

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

Correction

• Lifeguard tower. West Maui state Rep. Angus McKelvey said the reason a lifeguard tower was placed at Hanakao’o (Canoe) Beach and not Black Rock was because the resort industry did not want to help with the funding. So the county put the tower at its own park at Hanakao’o. The story published Wednesday on Page A1 and continued on Page A4 incorrectly stated the resort industry’s involvement.

The Maui News apologizes for the errors.

* The Maui News wants to promptly correct errors in fact or make clarifications on information appearing in the newspaper. To report an error or clarification, please call 242-6343 or send email to citydesk@mauinews.com.