In Hawai‘i, there’s a tight-knit community of public servants that have traded neckties and computers for swim fins and a rescue board to achieve a different kind of success. Lifeguarding in the Islands is a highly respected profession born from a hard-earned outdoor lifestyle of ocean knowledge, elite physical fitness, and the innate bravery to put oneself in harm’s way to save lives in dangerous situations. And it all begins with the sharing of knowledge from one generation to the next. Water Safety Officer II Kaʻiulani Bowers has been guarding for 10 years on O‘ahu’s rugged Ka Iwi Coast. “When most people are running away from danger, I’m running straight into it,” Kaʻiulani says, one of nine female guards on the force. Kaʻiulani took us on her favorite trail runs and swimming spots on O‘ahu’s beautiful windswept southeast coastline.
Share with us how it feels to be one of only a few women in this line of work.
There are only nine of us out of 300 guards. I really had to earn everyone’s respect—doing double training breaks, going out when it’s huge, taking the rescue board out and getting worked, but just keep trying, keep doing it. It’s a gnarly job. You are constantly putting yourself into harms way. And not everyone’s cut out for it. It takes a really amazing human to want to do this job. It doesn’t matter to me if it’s a boy, girl, man, or woman—just to be able to learn that basic knowledge of awareness, you can apply it anywhere.
You have a comprehensive daily training program. What are some of the activities you get up to?
Lifeguarding is a lifestyle. It’s not just a job for us. I base my workouts on the ocean conditions. If the water’s nice, I’m swimming. If there are waves, I’m surfing. If it’s flat, I’m training—running in the sand and running rocks underwater in Hanauma Bay, which is a great training place because there are a bunch of trials you can run from the beach up the ridges. We’ll also take the boards and paddle all the way down to the sea caves. It’s mental. I also body surf Sandy Beach and Makapu‘u. A lot of times we’ll just do run-swims at Makapu‘u. We’ll run the entire beach, jump in, swim, then double run the beach again and swim back the opposite way because you want to feel what it’s like to go against the current. Sometimes I don’t even feel like I’m working. It’s more like an adventure and it’s something that I’m so lucky to do.
What’s it like to be part of the Hawai‘i lifeguard ‘ohana?
It’s honestly the most incredible family I’ve ever had because these are people I trust with my life. When I go out, I know that if I need backup, they’re going to come. I know they’re watching me.
So now you’re passing that spirit and knowledge along to the next generation of junior guards?
Right. I’ve been teaching the junior lifeguard program for nine years at the Ala Moana site. It’s an honor to be able to help people and be in this lifestyle. I want to pass that on. I tell the kids that whatever you do, just be passionate and give it everything you have. If you can find something that you love and you dedicate everything that you’ve got, then you’ll be stoked the rest of your life, you’ll prosper, and you’ll be able to pass the stoke on to everyone else.