HONOLULU (KHON2) — A high surf advisory has been placed in effect for most of the state’s north and west-facing shores through the morning of Monday, Nov. 1, and is expected to jump to a warning level on Tuesday, Nov. 2.

Honolulu Ocean Safety said they are prepping for a busy winter surf season with more visitors and more people in the water, but the season comes as the department faces staffing issues. These issues have resulted in lifeguard towers being closed at any given time across Oahu.  

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Ocean Safety Chief John Titchen said the north and west-facing shores on Oahu will be prioritized during high surf events, which could take personnel away from other beaches on the island on the given day. Although the high surf advisory went into effect at 6 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 31, waves did not pick up until the late afternoon.  

“Today is a perfect example of a very dangerous day,” explained Lt. Kerry Atwood, Honolulu Ocean Safety. “We have people showing up on the beach. It looks calm, they want to get in the water and on top of that, we have a building swell; so that poses a lot of risk and hazard.” 

Places like Sharks Cove are dangerous because there is no lifeguard tower, and people venture out in the seemingly calm water.  

Ocean Safety made warning announcements to the public on a megaphone, but a few minutes later a set rolled in, pushing people over sharp rocks below. Tuesday’s swell is expected to reach warning levels, according to the National Weather Service, where wave heights may reach 25 feet in the North Shore.  

Full winter staffing for North Shore includes three guards at each tower, two rescue craft operators, ATV units and lieutenants patrolling in trucks.  

“We don’t want to shortchange other areas of the island, but if we have to draw some personnel to ensure that those areas are fully staffed in-country and on the Leeward Coast, we will,” explained Chief Titchen. 

The staffing issues stemmed from a mandated extended hours program that began in July.

Chief Titchen said more personnel is needed to accomplish the program effectively, as more and more people head to the beach each year.  

“We’re being asked to do an extended hours program with essentially the same folks,” Chief Titchen stated. “So, what we want to do is figure out how do we cover those hours now.” 

“We will work very carefully and look at options that may have employees on a longer workdays, or an alternate work schedule. It may require moving some folks around and creating another rescue team. For example, the rescue ski team that we deploy is hands down the best, most practicable and most economical way to achieve coverage, in accordance with our mandate as the primary responder for the beaches and near shore water.”

Ocean Safety Chief John Titchen

He also added that increasing the rescue craft team is the best answer for Ocean Safety for a quick answer as they grow the extended hours program. 

“Eventually, we would like to tell the public that we are on duty for longer hours in towers and keep those towers open longer. Now, that is not the most practicable way; we’re hopeful we will get support for growing our mobile rescue team and being able to deploy more of them,” Chief Titchen said. 

Chief Titchen said Ocean Safety hopes to fill about a dozen or more positions in the spring, but said it will not immediately help this winter. 

“There simply are not that many men and women that are physically capable of performing the duties of a North Shore or Leeward Coast lifeguard in winter; we recognize that it’s a very valuable skill, and one that is acquired over time. So, I’m confident that we can use the resources we have right now to cover through winter,” he said. 

Wintertime is extremely dangerous on north and west shores. Ocean Safety is preparing to see more people who picked up surfing during the COVID pandemic and who may want to test their abilities this winter — on top of thousands of additional visitors coming back as well.

“If you’re there early in the morning or late in the day and you see the towers closed, it does not mean we’re not on duty. Call 911 If you see someone in trouble, but the reality is we do expect to see a lot more people try to tackle surf that they may not have tackled before in their lives, and the biggest piece of advice we can give people is to know before you go.”

Ocean Safety Chief John Titchen

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Lifeguards are in towers from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and guards in towers can be asked to stay overtime if surf conditions are big enough.  

Ocean Safety lieutenants are on mobile patrol starting at 7 a.m. to sunset daily.