Since its inception in the early 1990’s, the Hawaiian Water Patrol have become the stuff of legend within the water safety community, representing the best of the best, constantly tested in Hawaii’s treacherous waters and abroad. Brian Keaulana and Terry Ahue founded the group and developed the PWC rescue equipment and techniques still in use today. They have since been invited around the world to share their techniques with rescue teams from every corner of the globe.
The following story is about one particular rescue that took place in 1993 at the infamous “Moi Hole” at the West end of Yokohama Beach, which brought national attention to their new life saving systems. The three lifeguards involved, Brian Keaulana, Craig Davidson, and Earl Bungo, all received the Valor Award from the Department of Parks and Recreation for the incredible feat, and Brian received the highest award a lifeguard can achieve, the Medal of Valor.
Click here to learn more about how the Hawaiian Water Patrol began. Click here for more info on the Big Wave Risk Assessment group, founded by Brian Keaulana, Kohl Christensen, Danilo Couto, and others.
On January 25, 1993, Hugh Alexander, 26, and his friend Katja Teip 25, both of San Francisco were vacationing in Hawaii. They were out on a rocky ledge near Yokohama Bay overlooking an area known as the “Moi Hole”. At approximately 2:30pm, as the two were sightseeing, a large wave came crashing over the 20-foot high ledge and swept both victims into the surf below. Katja was pulled from the water and up onto a cliff by a group of soldiers who witnessed the incident. Hugh Alexander was not so fortunate. He landed in the water at the mouth of a 10 foot high cave known as the “Moi Hole”. The huge waves and the currents swept him into the sea cave. The mouth of the cave is mostly underwater, but the inside has an above water chamber with ledges onto which a person can hang. Only by crawling into a deep recess in this upper chamber was Hugh able to avoid being smashed to death by the pounding waves which now were about 8 to 10 feet high.
Responding to the emergency were Lt. Brian Keaulana, Buffalo’s son, and Craig Davidson, both are water safety officers of the Hawaii Department of Parks and Recreation, assigned to Keaulana Beach Park. They responded to the scene on a Yamaha Waverunner. Also dispatched to the scene was a Honolulu Fire Department engine and a fire rescue helicopter. “When we arrived at the scene, there was no one there”, exclaimed Keaulana. They searched the water in the area and found nothing. And then it hit Keaulana, the victim had been swept into the cave. “We began making passes at the V-like cove opening of the cave between sets and we could hear him in there yelling, ‘Help Me, Help Me’. A person swept into that cave will live until they are smashed to death against the cave walls or die of hypothermia. Swimming out of the cave is rarely a possibility, even for a strong swimmer,” said Keaulana.
Just then a huge wave hit the jet ski on which the two lifeguards were riding and swamped it. They were not able to get it restarted in the pounding surf and had to have it removed. Davidson stayed with the jet ski as it was towed away by the helicopter.
Keaulana then tried to swim with fins and rescue tube into the cave. “I get into the cave, and these giant waves are crashing in. I could hear him, but I didn’t know where he was. The pressure was incredible when the waves hit the cave. Then one wave hit, and I knew the only thing I could do was to dive to the bottom and hold on. I thought this was it, I was going to die! I surfaced and grabbed a breath and took one shot at swimming out of the cave. I got lucky and made it. “
At this point, another lifeguard, Earl Bungo arrived with another waverunner. Keaulana took over the operation of the waverunner and Bungo took a position on the rescue sled behind the jet ski. They made repeated passes at the mouth of the cave calling to the victim. At this point the victim escaped from the cave and was momentarily in front of the cave. As Keaulana and Bungo attempted to make a pass at him, a big wave crashed and drove the victim back into the cave. Keaulana and Bungo continued to make passes at the mouth of the cave, during lulls in the sets of the 10-foot waves. After two hours of courageous rescue efforts and trying to coax the victim out of the cave one more time, the victim appeared during a lucky well-timed lull between waves. As Keaulana maneuvered the jet ski into position, Bungo grabbed onto the victim at the same time the victim grab Bungo’s arm. “I knew if we didn’t get him this time, he’d die and if we did, we still might all get killed,” stated Keaulana. Bungo then managed to get the victim onto the rescue sled. “I saw another set coming, and I just swung it and hit it. The wave hit us, and they were both knocked off the sled,” exclaimed Keaulana. Keaulana swung around and picked both of them up as Bungo secured the victim on the sled one more time. Keaulana then raced the jet ski into deep water and safety.
The rescue took more than 2 1/2 hours. The victim was treated for lacerations to his head and back. “The victim was fortunate to escape with his life and suffer only scrapes, cuts and bruises,” said Ralph Goto, Water Safety Administrator. Keaulana credited the Honolulu Fire Department with helping communicate from shore. “We were already in the water when they got there and they could tell us with megaphones how the sets were running so we could time our passes at the cave,” s aid Keaulana. “Lifeguards Brian Keaulana, Earl Bungo and Craig Davidson conducted the difficult rescue operation under harrowing conditions. The lives of the rescuers as well as the victim were threatened,” proclaimed Goto. The three lifeguards received the Valor Award from the Department of Parks and Recreation.
At the last National Board of Directors Meeting of the USLA, Brian Keaulana received the highest award possible from his peers, The Medal of Valor. Congratulations to Brian, Earl and Craig for a job well done.
And who could forget this moment from the 2016 Eddia Aikau event? The biggest set of the day closed out Waimea Bay and forced all the rescue jet skis to u-turn and outrun the avalanche of whitewater all the way to the beach without getting engulfed. One of the scariest moments in one of the scariest events ever run, and it didn’t even involve the surfers.