During the second week of July on the island of Oahu, no one could stop talking about the huge incoming south swell. News of it was a hot topic among lifeguards, residents, and visitors alike, and as John Titchen, chief of Honolulu’s Ocean Safety Division, traded texts and emails with other local emergency-response-system staffs in preparation, he noted the anticipation and considered the consequences. Tourist numbers were up, kids were out of school, locals were stoked. He’d watched video footage from Tahiti, where the swell typically rolls through before moving thousands of miles north to Hawaii. They’d treat the event as they would an incoming hurricane or tsunami. It looked to be impressive and rare but not unprecedented.
On Oahu, hype over wave size is largely limited to the North Shore, famous for its monster surf and the pros willing to take it on. But the south shore by comparison, especially the tourist beach hub of Waikiki, tends to fall at the other end of the spectrum, where occasional swells might hit five to ten feet, and swimmers and surfers in the water aren’t always proficient. Titchen made arrangements accordingly—Ocean Safety more than doubled the number of lifeguards on duty on the south shore, from 25 to 65, signed off on longer shifts, and sent four extra jet-ski teams to patrol the waters. It ended up being enough. No one drowned. But it was still a massive effort.
Between Friday, July 15, and Monday, July 18, Oahu lifeguards made 2,105 rescues on the southern, windward (east), and leeward (west) coasts, including 800 on Sunday alone. For perspective, the entire island has tallied an average of 2,400 rescues annually for the past two years. Thrill seekers came out en masse; the two main towers of Waikiki reported 20,000 beach-goers that Saturday—twice its normal daily average. Everyone wanted to see the swell—which a Department of Land and Natural Resources official estimated to be 25 feet off Diamond Head on Sunday, a height not seen on the south shore since 1995—and most wanted to surf it. In fact, according to Titchen, the bulk of rescues made were surfers needing an assist. Here’s how he and a handful of the island’s 272 lifeguards handled the chaos that long weekend, as told to Outside.
Titchen, 47, chief of Honolulu Ocean Safety for almost four years:
We watch weather here the way people watch traffic in Los Angeles. About a week prior to the swell, the island’s various maritime emergency-response units began coordinating. We really started paying attention on Tuesday of that week—that’s not unusual—listening to surfcasters and the National Weather Service. Thursday we started to see forerunners of the waves and knew we were going to have sizable sets. Excitement was building, especially for those who hadn’t seen waves like this before—Hawaiian residents only here a few years, visitors here for vacation, younger, aggressive surfers, teenagers who’ve never seen a 25-foot day on the south shore, and just anyone curious. People like to hear the roar of the crashes, smell the salt, feel the spray in person.
Friday morning, things started to look different; the waves looked particularly epic. Waikiki breaks on an outer reef, but there were eight-to-ten-foot faces on the inside. And because there was a lot of wind—gusts up to 30 knots—there weren’t that many rideable spots. It started to become a handful for guards. It wasn’t just the size of the waves, it was the raw energy, there was a relentlessness to it.
It’s infrequent for us to get the kind of strong rip currents other places see, like the West Coast, where there’s more of a difference between tides. But when we have a lot of water and wind, it pulls people where they don’t want to be, against hazards. These conditions were unique and unusual for people who have surfed here before. Friday was definitely busy. [A reported 305 rescues were made that day.]
On Saturday, we had 15-to-20-foot faces. Other surf spots began to look rideable. But the interval between sets was close, and the channels—which you’re using to get out if you’re on a board or a foil or a kayak—were more or less whitewater. You’re constantly duck-diving. There wasn’t much opportunity to sit out there peacefully and wait for a wave. [Ocean Safety reported 455 rescues that day.]
The swell started to peak midafternoon Sunday. Waves on the leeward coast were unusually large, and spots started to turn on there for surfers. I’d describe it as giant windy surf, and frequently sloppy, but with pockets that were really rideable. On Monday, there were still 20-foot faces, but many people were surfed out and headed back to work. Hardcore surfers were still out, though—the best time to surf is the back side of a swell, after it’s peaked, when you’ll get amazing sessions because nobody is in water and there are world-class conditions.
We communicated dangers—we posted “High Surf” warnings and “Strong Current” hazard signs, made announcements from mobile units and from bullhorns. We gave people information, especially people drinking. But at the end of day, what’s to stop people from going to the beach?
We’re proud that no one was killed. We had two near drownings but no major injuries. We did hand off 20 rescued people to EMS transport. I’d say it’s a testament to our collaboration, we do this collectively. Physical presence is important, overstaffing towers, having people ready on the beach when someone comes in, having jet-ski service. What these men and women do at Ocean Safety, they’re the best in the world at it, working a once-in-a-lifetime swell. We assess someone visually as they walk to the beach. Having grown up in Oahu, a lifeguard may know you need fins in that water, so your brain goes off, and you watch that person enter a water where locals don’t normally, because there’s a hazard, coral, whatever, and then you look past that person, at the sets starting to arrive. Before that person even realizes they’re in distress—boom!—the lifeguard is there. That happened every day. We’ll prepare for future swells the same way again. The goal is to have people know we’re close.
Tristan Fabro, 24, a mobile responder on the windward side who coordinated rescues and patrolled an outlook called China Walls:
I live in Waimanolo, on the east side, and to get to work, I pass every beach in my district. So I see the conditions every day, and in those four days it went from normal to very large surf. Saturday morning, we were like, OK this is manageable. We were prepared and had two nearby jet-ski units ready to respond. Our district is known for dangerous shorebreak—we see a lot of broken necks and backs—and currents.
People in Hawaii live for big-wave surfing, and, especially because the south side doesn’t see swells bigger than ten feet, Sunday everyone showed up ready to surf. We probably did ten rescues as we started to see the increase in swell, because conditions weren’t the best for this area. It wasn’t breaking in a way you could surf it. I’d say we rescued about 75 percent locals, 25 percent visitors. The waves were so big that surfers were losing their boards.
China Walls is a ten-foot-high cliff. People go there to watch the waves—and we had a crowd there—but with giant swell, the wave washes up to where people are standing. People don’t realize that and get swept in. Also, it’s a novelty wave—it breaks off a deep ocean channel onto a rock ledge a quarter-mile into a bay. You’ve got people who will jump in during a break, thinking, Oh yeah! But then, all of a sudden, a huge set rolls in and they don’t know what to do. There’s current pulling out to sea here, or you get blasted into these rocks along the ledge.
On Sunday I walked down there to scope out the scene. Four military dudes were swimming, and I told them it’s not the best place. They said, “We’ve been doing this for an hour, we’re OK.” But I looked at them—no fins, no experience with an area that’s challenging enough when it’s calm, because it’s slippery, with sharp rocks, and the only way to get out is climb back up, and in ten-to-fifteen-foot surf—and thought, You shouldn’t be in the water. I went down the coast. Ten minutes later, we got a notification from dispatch that there was a swimmer in distress. The individual I spoke to, by the time I got there, was 300 yards away from China Walls. Fortunately, we launched a craft into the water and were able to get him before anything bad happened.
In my lifetime, that was the biggest swell I’ve ever seen on the south shore. The North Shore is where we go to surf in winter, but when you get that swell size on the south side, that’s a treat. I paddled out at Sandy Beach, even though it was unsurfable, just to feel what was going on in the water. You could feel how much power there was.
Blake Caporoz, 39, a longtime tower lifeguard on the leeward coast:
Saturday we had a one spinal incident—someone cracked his head on the reef and went unconscious in the water. We pulled him out, and he regained consciousness on the sand. He said he didn’t know what happened, that he was used to surfing 30-to-40-foot waves on the North Shore but that it was his first time surfing this part of the island.
One day a beach recorded eight rescues in 20 minutes. Three lifeguards called and said they were gonna go jump in and get a rescue, but then their radio went silent. We didn’t know the severity and wondered, What’s going on? Finally, they said, “We’re back!” They ended up rescuing one person, then there were seven more rescues—kids getting sucked out on the rip current. At Makaha Beach, where I was, we rescued four people during that same time. The tide was rising and the swell was so high that people lost their towels and slippers and wanted to retrieve them, but they weren’t watching their kid, and their kid ended up getting swept out.
Saturday evening I saw an enormous set on the southwest tip of the island, at Kaena Point. I radioed dispatch that we shouldn’t open Kaena Point State Park until the next day. Those waves looked about 20 feet.
I surfed Nanakuli—to have it going off all day long was rare. There are places that lay dormant the whole summer, smaller places with no crowds that never break—and maybe it wasn’t the biggest, baddest wave, but you think, I may not see that wave in another five or ten years. That’s meaningful as a local, you want to take advantage of those spots.
Simeon Ke-Paloma, 33, a rescue jet-ski operator who worked the outer reefs:
With social media, we noticed how big the waves were in Tahiti—I’ve never seen Teahupoo that big, it looked so angry and violent—so we were like, It’s coming, this is going to be serious and exciting on the south shore! And the waves coming in were nonstop, when usually they’re spaced out every 15 to 20 minutes.
We launched the jet ski at seven on Friday morning. We put so many hours in on the ski—seven to seven. I was patrolling lineups on the outside, the outer reefs, almost a mile offshore. There were a lot of people out there, and I probably grabbed 12 with broken boards over three days. People would end up half a mile down from where they paddled out, because of the sweeping currents. Everyone out there is experienced, but those guys still needed our help, they were all locals. It’s a no-brainer to ask for a grab, we’re saving them a 45-minute swim. Over those three days, we probably did 60 to 75 total rescues off Waikiki.
One day four expert canoe steersmen in an outrigger went out to catch waves. There was a moment when the canoe took off on a wave, but they weren’t able to make the drop, and the outrigger separated from the hull, from the sheer explosion of whitewater. While they were flipped over, they were in the impact zone, getting hit by waves. Me and two or three other jet skis responded, but it was tricky. We were trying to tie up the canoe as it was getting bashed. One of the jet skis sucked up a towline. So imagine a canoe full of water, now weighing 600 to 800 pounds, and a jet ski, also heavy, getting tossed in the waves, with four people in the water—and surfers on the inside and the outside. We had to decide the appropriate moves. Eventually, we were able to tow the canoe and had one jet ski take care of the people in the water.
Brieanna Cantalupo, 25, who worked Waikiki:
I made ten or fifteen rescues myself in a day—and normally I wouldn’t have more than five rescues in a weekend. Most visitors get off the plane and head straight here. A lot assume that if their feet are touching the ground, they’re safe. And it is generally calm water—year-round it’s consistently small swell. But 98 percent of the rescues I made were tourists. Waikiki is a special beach because you could be in the tower yourself, watching up to a thousand people. The salt spray makes it hard to see farther away. You have to be on your A-game. It was mentally exhausting.
Ian Forester, 52, a lieutenant and lead trainer of rescue jet skiers:
I was on the jet ski that weekend, and there was very little downtime: a 911 call would come in, then a tower call, then 911 again. Waikiki was crazy all over the place. On the west corner, there’s a new breakwall to hold the sand, but since they put it in, the current has been bad and tourists end up there, getting shot around. Teams in that area were just picking up the line of people getting sucked out, hundreds of people. It kept us so busy, you couldn’t go anywhere else. That happened later in the afternoons on both days.
People with a wide variety of skill levels were out there testing their limits, even saying, “Let’s learn to surf” in this. When COVID hit, and everyone here was locked down, the locals went to the beach. There’s a vast number of people who learned how to surf during the pandemic—it seemed like the number of new surfers jumped exponentially. So when this swell hit, all kinds of novice and intermediate surfers were out there, getting stuck in the impact zones. Emotions were high. I rolled up on two girls on longboards who were stuck way out on the outside reefs. When I reached them, they were in tears. They’d paddled so far out, they couldn’t get back. Sometimes you have to swear at people. They’re scared, and you’re yelling, “Hey! Grab on to the sled!” Panic has jolted their brain. They’ve got those big eyes. You just never know what you’re gonna get. This weekend was like that. But we train all year for events like this, and you show up, knowing you’ll be busy. But it’s game day. And we get to help a bunch of people.