Watermen discuss crowded surf lineups, educating inexperienced surfers

Local News

HONOLULU (KHON2) — The largest swell in decades hit Oahu’s North Shore two weeks ago and resulted in dozens of rescues from lifeguards statewide, but it was a video of a thrill craft jumping over a massive wave at a spot called “Himalayas” on Oahu’s North Shore that went viral and showcased the dangers of warning level surf.

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The video showed massive waves rolling in while dozens of skis safely moved towards and over the mountain of water. Some skis booked it towards shore and four of them make the last-second decision to go over the wave; one flew over 30 feet in the air.

“I couldn’t even believe what I seen,” said Kolomona Fernandez, a longtime Personal Watercraft Operator and Maui waterman. “I watched it like 20 to 30 times and I said ‘oh my God.’”

“Could you imagine if that landed on someone’s head?” he said.

Fernandez has been a watercraft operator at Peahi — also known as Jaws — on Maui’s north shore for years.

“The variables of the things that could have happened negatively outweighed the positive, and reacting like that, it could have been 100 times a worse situation than it was,” he said.

He said, having a watercraft is like a double-edged sword because it can save lives but also hurt people too.

Fernandez was at Peahi on Saturday, Jan. 16, now called ‘Super Swell Saturday,’ where wave faces reached up to 70 feet.

He said, the surf lineup that day was busier than usual.

“We’ve definitely noticed a change,” he said. “It’s crazy, just more and more people and you know, a lot of experienced people and a lot of inexperienced people. It’s definitely overwhelming.”

Fernandez said, he has seen many inexperienced watercraft operators and surfers in dangerous conditions, but educating them helps to keep everyone safe.

“I feel like if we don’t share that knowledge with them, something potentially bad could happen,” he said.

“Now a days, everybody seems like they want to be a daredevil and kind of don’t have their plan and there are proper protocols in place to be out at a place like Jaws,” he continued.

Brian Keaulana, considered one of Hawaii’s greatest watermen, helps run the Big Wave Risk Assessment Group (BWRAG) that trains and educates surfers and watercraft operators how to handle extreme conditions.

“For me, I was like shocked,” he said of when he saw the video. “Because I see panic, I see fear, I see just non-educated people that really shouldn’t be out there, and I see people educated knowing what to do.”

“A lot of times people run out to sea and that’s not safe, the thing is to run back to shore because you want to deal with the mouse, not the monster,” he said.

Keaulana said, education is absolutely necessary when it comes to big waves and being out during high surf conditions.

“Rather than to point fingers and say, it’s his own problem and get rid of the problem, because we all want to surf and I love big waves, and it’s just making a better process. I think the best thing you can do is take events like that, and debrief and learn from them and make a greater lesson and a teaching tool,” he said.

A thrill craft operator in Hawaii needs to take an eight-hour course before being certified to operate. There are other regulations involved for surf tow-in operators.

“For me, there is a difference between certified and qualified, you can be certified, and have all the plastic cards you want, and it really doesn’t qualify you to be out in conditions way over your head, mentally, and physically, even spiritually,” Keaulana said. “It’s a different beast, when you’re dealing with big waves.”

BWRAG teaches athletes and operators how to handle the most extreme situations.

“You have to train yourself for those nightmares, for those hold downs, for these events, like when your machine breaks down and you have to swim in. If you can’t swim out, you shouldn’t be out there, because you got to swim in,” he said.

Fernandez said, people should utilize classes and courses like BWRAG so they can be prepared for any unexpected situation.

Courses like that spear people and educate them in the right direction to be ready for a potential bad situation,” he said.

“You could blink your eyes and have your life flash before your eyes if you’re in the wrong situation and I think that’s what people don’t understand,” Fernandez continued. “You need to be educated. Education is key no matter what you do in life, and if you’re not educated, something’s going to happen.”  

Keaulana said, his group does debriefings after situations like the one that occurred at “Himalayas” to create more safety protocols and learn from them.

He believes putting up zones would help — having a red zone for the most dangerous position to be in and a green zone as the safest spot to be or to retreat in a bad situation.

“We would like invest in drones, not for filming, and have speakers on the drones and fly them to different spots, and kind of looking out and saying ‘hey, guys, there’s one set coming, so you can talk to the crowd,” Keaulana said.

The drone would inform different operators of risks on the horizon and inform them which zone they should be in.

“So just talking to people that would be one great tool, and I work in government, but I’m not waiting for government, and I’m not depending on government, I just personally get one passion about trying to create safety where safety doesn’t exist, and it doesn’t matter. You know, who can get involved with me, I just want to get involved with whoever is passionate about our ocean,” Keaulana said.

Experienced surf photographer Ryan Moss was on one of the skis that went over the massive wave at “Himalayas.” He injured his back and spent six days in the hospital after the ski he was on landed wrong.

New video shows that everyone was caught off guard by the size of the wave coming in. People can be heard yelling to move fast and skis started to head towards the wave in the video.

“For whatever reason, no one really saw that coming,” Moss said.

Moss is home now and continues to recover and said he is doing much better.

He said, he has not been on a ski in two years and agrees that it is crucial people keep up with training and their certifications.

“Just making sure like any other job, whether you’re a doctor or lawyer, or firefighter, you have to do certification courses to keep that to keep your practice going,” he said. “I just think brush ups here and there, going through more safety, requiring certain things, more regulations, as much as that stinks, I think it would also help out a bit in those type of scenarios.”

“I’m guilty too. I’ll be the first one to raise my hand and say, we probably should have been better prepared,’” Moss said.

His message to fellow ocean lovers; “there is nothing to substitute being prepared and kind of always running through every scenario and knowing the escape plan,” Moss said.

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