Beach guardians: Lifeguards keep watch for anything that might ruin fun in the sun

  • Freitas
  • Hawaii Fire Department lifeguard Paul Tucker patrols the water on a rescue board at Hapuna Beach. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

  • Hawaii County Lifeguards stay vigilant at Hapuna Beach. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

HAPUNA BEACH — The life of a beach lifeguard probably isn’t as glamorous or dramatic as “Baywatch,” but lifeguards’ presence on the beach and responses to life-and-death situations are vital in a state surrounded by water.

Jason Freitas has been a county lifeguard for 14 years — the past four as a rescue watercraft operator, a job he loves.

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“On my Monday, it’s not a thing like, ‘Oh jeez, I’ve got to go to work again.’ I get to go to work. It’s like that every time,” said Freitas, a 43-year-old Honokaa native who is based at Hapuna Beach State Recreation Area.

Beach lifeguards, while not firefighters, are administered by the Hawaii Fire Department. Capt. Chris Stelfox of the Ocean Safety Division, said Freitas “is tasked with a lot of responsibility.”

“He’s responsible for a much larger area than the tower lifeguards,” Stelfox said.

“When you’re on the tower, your main focus is right in front of you,” Freitas added. “We’ve got to monitor the radio because our area is 9 miles in either direction of Hapuna. Nine miles to the north is a little before Mahukona Beach Park — but we go there. It’s not a hard line at 9 miles; we go beyond. And to the south, we go as far as Kiholo Bay.”

As for offshore distance covered by watercraft lifeguards?

“On paper, it’s a mile, but we’ve gone out 3 or 4 miles — that’s conditions allowing,” Freitas said.

Asked for an estimate of how many rescues he’s done, Freitas replied, “To say it’s into the hundreds is not an exaggeration.”

“At Hapuna, the percentage of tourists greatly outweighs locals. So most of the rescues are tourists there,” he said.

A particularly memorable rescue occurred a couple of years ago with a partner operating the watercraft and Freitas as “the grabber.”

“There was a rescue on the beach off the north end of Hapuna,” he recalled. “Another lifeguard went out to help, and we were watching. He started signaling that he needs assistance. Because they were so far up at the end of the beach, we opted to take the Jet Ski. As we were approaching, we saw that person the lifeguard went out to rescue was unconscious. So we loaded him up on the Jet Ski really quickly, and we drove him back to the main part of the beach, in front of the north tower, where we launched from.

“We got him up on shore, and he was code 500 — which is no breathing, no pulse. We started CPR, and he came around. He started breathing, and it was a successful rescue. He actually came back weeks later to thank us, and we got to see him, standing upright, smiling and thanking us. It turns out, he was a relative of another lifeguard, a really respected lifeguard out of Kona.

“A lot of times, when (those who are rescued) leave the beach, we don’t know what happens to them, because they are shipped off” in an ambulance, he added.

Freitas said many rescues could be avoided if beach-goers exercise common sense, read signs and ask questions.

“A lot of times, right in front of the rip current, we’ll post the ‘rip current’ sign,” he said.

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“So one might want to avoid that area, but people don’t stop and take a minute to read those signs or survey and see where the crowd is swimming and where they’re not swimming.

“They can also ask us questions. Most people don’t. When they do, we thank them for checking in. Ten, 20, 30 seconds of information could save them or a family member.”

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