Stab Magazine | North Shore drownings are due to a lack of state funding
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North Shore drownings are due to a lack of state funding

Words by Morgan Williamson  “The shit’s hitting the fan, that’s the bottom line,” 11 year North Shore lifeguard and everyone’s fave Volcom Pipe Pro commentator, Dave Wassel tells Stab. Emergencies don’t always occur between nine and five. And, if you’re a lifeguard on the North Shore, this is a grim reality. Due to a lack of budget and […]

news // Mar 8, 2016
Words by stab
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Words by Morgan Williamson 

“The shit’s hitting the fan, that’s the bottom line,” 11 year North Shore lifeguard and everyone’s fave Volcom Pipe Pro commentator, Dave Wassel tells Stab. Emergencies don’t always occur between nine and five. And, if you’re a lifeguard on the North Shore, this is a grim reality.

Due to a lack of budget and state funding there’s an inundation of serious injuries and drownings before and after the scheduled times of duty, particularly at dawn and dusk. People rarely drown during peak hours because the guards are on it. At Waimea Bay they staff three to a tower. Up and down the seven mile miracle ATV’s patrol the beach. EMT certified personnel man the lifeguard trucks, stocked with rescue boards, backboards, O2 tanks, AED’s (portable defibrillators) and anything pertinent for first response and patient stabilization, the area’s kept tight.

Mr Wassel navigating a feathering Pe’ahi barbarian. Photo: WSL

“The problem we are having,” says Mr Wassel, “is there’s a huge influx of people to waves before nine and after five. We just had somebody pass away at Waimea 30 minutes after our guards left the beach.” Late January, a 53-year old man, vacationing to the North Shore entered the water. He was pulled out lifeless by beach goers and the Fire Department responded. “He was an older guy. It was a medical situation but it was possibly preventable,” Dave continues, “if we still had a guard there at least we could have gotten an AED on him earlier than Fire could and possibly saved him.” When situations escalate to life or death, time is precious and having medically trained guards ready for response merits the extra funding from the state.

“How much is one person’s life worth?” he asks, “it’s definitely worth staffing a beach. People aren’t expendable. We had a hearing this week. Getting the funding for extra staff is on the bartering table right now, we will know by next Monday whether or not that’s going to happen.”

A man that knifes tubes of this caliber is man that will save your life. Photo: WSL

“We’re bargaining for more money,” Dave carries on. “In doing that we will have to allocate enough resources for 50 new full-timers. That’s what the push is. I’m not sure if we’ll get 50, it’s wishful thinking but anything would be nice.” Currently there are 40 guards on staff, which leaves about ten for on call. With the current funding there’s not enough money to keep guards in place before and after peak hours.

“People didn’t realise how fast tourism was going to take over,” says Mr Wassel. “The fact of the matter is we don’t produce pineapple or sugar cane anymore. The only thing keeping this boat afloat is tourism. In the past three years we’ve jumped up 1.5 million visitors, from 7 million to 8.6. No one’s coming to Hawaii to go shopping. They’re all coming for the beaches.”

The lifeguard department has been going strong for 30 years, ever since Eddie Aikau became the first guard at Waimea. “A lot of guys have retired, and we haven’t been able to replace them with our current funding, let alone re-up on what’s necessary to keep the beaches safe. Now, we’re in this crunch. We have 40 guys out there and it’s barely enough. There wasn’t 8.6 million visitors ten, 20, 30 years ago, but there sure is now. Our staff gets sick, they get hurt, it’s dangerous business and the spots need to be patrolled on a daily basis.”

When Jaws beckons, Dave comes running. Photo: WSL

With surf and beach lifestyle being as desirable as it is today, Dave feels we have nobody to blame but ourselves for the masses flocking to the North Shore every winter. “The real problem is us,” he says. “We’ve been posting about how bitchin’ our beaches are and how good the surf is, you know?” he laughs. “Like at the Volcom Pipe Pro, people saw Mikey Bruno, a North Shore Lifeguard go out and get sooo barreled. And the whole world was like I want that! He makes it looks so easy, that’s the problem man.”

“The best thing we got going on with this El Niño winter is the average Pipe swell has been 30 feet bigger than usual,” he jokes. (On the first lay day of the Pipe Pro Dave posted this on his IG: #VolcomPipePro is officially off today because it’s still 100 ft. Next call 7 am HST #WelcomeToWater) If you watched the webcast you’re aware the humour in his commentary is bar none.

“It’s been an insane winter for swell. Look at how many times has Pe’ahi’s broke” he quips. “It’s been going ballistic! When people come down to Pipe they think, I don’t want anything to do with that, and there won’t really be anyone in the water. So, we get a little reprieve there. Instead all the focus goes to Waimea, that’s become a circus.”

“At Waimea people just want to get their feet wet,” continues Dave. “And I tell them not today. I’ll point you to a better beach to get your feet wet before a set washes you into the carpark. Being a lifeguard’s really just educating, sometimes it feels like babysitting. I’ve seen people drag baby carriages down to the beach. You turn your head for one second and see that somebody’s left a stroller at the shoreline. It’s all about talking to and teaching the public about the hazards. People with limited ocean experience genuinely don’t know what’s right and wrong at the beach.”

Lifeguard, charger, commentator and top notch gent, Mr Wassel. Photo: Brian Bielmann

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