Stop The Drowning!

Dr. Monty Downs of the Kaua’i Lifeguard Association has been promoting ocean safety for years, but the 11 drownings this year have added to his urgency in getting the word out that the ocean can be a very dangerous place

Dr. Monty Downs of Kaua’i Lifeguard Association is leading the way in alerting visitors to the dangers of the ocean

Kaua’i’s tumultuous ocean waters claimed their 11th victim of 2013 this month – the most drownings ever to have occurred so early in the year.

“It’s been brutal,” says ocean safety advocate and emergency room physician Dr. Monty Downs.

But Downs tries not to focus on the numbers anymore. “I beat my head against the wall for a while after such good numbers last year,” he says.

Now he is focusing on increased ocean awareness to maximize safety.

“We need to figure out marketing tools that will show visitors that Kaua’i isn’t stucco Fantasyland, this is real Mother Nature and she can get wild,” says Downs, who serves as the face of Kaua’i Lifeguard Association (KLA).

In fact, the majority of the drownings were visitors (And all but one of the 11 victims were male). Yet, none of the drownings occurred at lifeguarded beaches. Therefore, by advising people to swim only at beaches with lifeguards and to be more cautious when it comes to walking on rock ledges and taking heed of intense ocean currents, the loss of life can indeed be mitigated.

Efforts to spread more awareness already are under way. Last week, several organizations, including the Rotary Club of Kapa’a and KLA, launched a new ocean safety video at the Lihu’e Airport’s baggage claim area. The video instructs visitors about the dangers of Kaua’i waters and how to use KLA devices such as rescue tubes when lifeguards aren’t present.

KLA also is in the process of updating county brochures and banners to display images, such as a rock ledge during a calm moment juxtaposed with the same rock ledge buried under a monstrous wave only a few minutes later.

“Rock ledges I’m not a fan of,” says Downs, who attributes many of the drownings to these dangerous shelves.

Queen’s Bath – a location often cited in guidebooks – is one such place where visitors seem to be uninformed of the dangers.

Prior to guidebooks, only shoreline fishermen ever really ventured to these locations. Now, they are brimming with visitors, says Downs, who adds that his wife Elaine, who was born on Kaua’i, had never even heard of Queen’s Bath until travel books mentioned it and visitors started losing their lives.

“There has been such a large amount of suffering that misjudgment has caused,” says Downs regarding the lack of safety information available to visitors, particularly those who stay at vacation rentals where a concierge is unable to offer advice.

The Kapa’a resident began his ocean-safety advocacy decades ago after witnessing two separate sets of families lose loved ones to ocean waters within hours of each other.

“The family was just shattered,” says Downs regarding the first family he was still tending to when a second victim arrived in the ER.

“After the second one, I just started shaking my head and knew I had to do something,” he says.

Downs joined the county’s Water Safety Task Force 20 years ago and has been working hard to boost ocean knowledge ever since.

The New York native, who was raised on the Caribbean island of Trinidad, graduated from medical school at Yale University. He moved to Kaua’i in the early 1970s, when he fell in love with the island after a weekend visit.

Downs, father of six and grandfather of six, worked with a plantation doctor for a number of years before accepting his current position at Wilcox Memorial Hospital’s ER in 1977.

“You can see someone with a cold one second, and see someone with a very, very critical condition another second,” he says of why he chose to become an ER doctor. “It’s challenging to be the first person treating all different conditions.”

KLA board members say it’s an honor and privilege to work with Downs on promoting ocean safety.

“I’m not a very religious person, but I’m happy to consider myself his disciple, even though I haven’t seen him walk on water yet,” jokes KLA board member Jim Jung.

“His aloha is 100 percent,” says Julian Coiner, who also is a KLA board member and part-time lifeguard. “He has a heart of gold, and I am very proud to work with all these guys. Everybody cares.”

“Monty doesn’t just talk, he does the work,” says KLA board member and full-time lifeguard Greg Stutzer. “He inspired me to do more than just be a lifeguard. I don’t think we could have a better leader at the helm.”

Downs has just as many kind things to say about his fellow KLA members and the county lifeguards who put their lives on the line every day.

“I really consider them underpaid heroes,” he says regarding the island’s lifeguards, for whom he always is an advocate to help improve their stations and pay.

Downs’ efforts through KLA also are responsible for hosting two fundraisers, which resulted in the donation of three Jet Skis and four ATVs to the county.

But it’s still not enough. There are roughly 80 beaches around the island and only 10 lifeguard towers.

“We’ve got a ways to go,” says KLA board member and “lifeguard for life” Pat Durkin, who has worked with Downs on ocean safety since the 1970s.

Until lifeguards are stationed at every beach, KLA board members will continue informing as many people as possible about the dangers of the ocean before they enter the water.

“The bottom line is saving lives,” says Coiner. “The best lifeguard is a dry lifeguard.”

“We do this so that others may live,” adds Jung, who was a summer lifeguard in high school and college. “I’ve taken on a mission.”

When Downs isn’t working with the dedicated KLA members, he likes to watch sports and spends time with Kapa’a High School’s football team as its physician and consultant to the coaching staff.

“Sports soothe me,” he explains. He also can “rock” with a har-monica.

“I used to perform in various venues, now mostly ‘living room-kine’ at family gatherings,” he admits.

Still, ocean safety is Downs’ No. 1 pursuit.

“Like all of us on Kaua’i, we are stunned and saddened by the drownings that already have occurred in 2013. Since our KLA mission is to try to reduce drowning, it’s a pretty in-your-face time for us,” he says.

“We have concluded that the truth is that our programs are good, and we just need to work harder and smarter.”