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INSIGHTS ON PBS HAWAI‘I
What Can We Do to Mitigate Sea Level Rise in Hawai‘i?

 

Rising sea levels are a concern here in Hawai‘i and other coastal communities around the world. In December 2017, the State Climate Commission accepted the first major study on Hawai‘i’s vulnerability to rising sea levels. Our well-informed guests for the program are experts on this subject and they will highlight the concerns and recommendations from this report.

 

Join us during our live discussion by phoning in, or leaving us a comment on Facebook or Twitter. INSIGHTS is also live streamed on pbshawaii.org and Facebook Live.

 

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RICK STEVESʻ EUROPE
Southeast England

 

Join writer and host Rick Steves as he experiences the local culture, cuisine and fun in some of Europe’s most interesting places.

 

Southeast England
Rick travels from Canterbury to Dover. Then he hikes the trails that top the towering chalk cliffs of the South Downs, wanders into the resort of Brighton, and on to Portsmouth.

 

INSIGHTS ON PBS HAWAI‘I
The Right of Access

 

More than 50 years ago, under Chief Justice William S. Richardson, the Supreme Court of the State of Hawai‘i ruled the public had the right to access all beaches throughout our State. But for decades there have been disputes — clashes throughout the islands — involving access pathways that lead to our beaches.

 

What do you think? Is is time we settled this “right of access” dispute linked to one of the most historically significant rulings in our history?

 

Your questions and comments are welcome via phone, email and via Twitter during the Live Broadcast.

 

Phone Lines:
462-5000 on Oahu or 800-238-4847 on the Neighbor Islands.

 

Email:insights@pbshawaii.org

 

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Join our live discussion using #pbsinsights

 


GLOBE TREKKER
Vietnam

 

Trekker Zay Harding discovers the checkered and often-dangerous history of the Vietnamese railway. His journey takes him to Hanoi, Hue, the DMZ and Ho Chi Minh City where he meets a general who led the final attack on the Presidential Palace during the Vietnam War.

 

GLOBE TREKKER
Turkey

Globe Trekker: Turkey

 

Host Adela Ucar encounters whirling dervishes and tranquil tea gardens in Konya, then treks along the Lycian Way and relaxes on the sun-kissed beaches of Myra. Later she visits the Sabanci Mosque and samples exquisite cuisine in Adana. She also explores the bustling bazaars of Gaziantep and experiences Kurdish culture in the basalt-walled city of Divarbakr.

 

Il Volo: We are Love

 

Il Volo is a young trio of tenors that has won hearts across America with their exquisite vocals. In this live concert of love songs filmed in Miami Beach, Florida, the group performs “Questo Amore,” “I Bring You to My Senses,” “We Are Love” and other songs in Spanish, English, Italian and French.

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
John Clark

 

Original air date: Tues., Aug. 31, 2010

 

Keeping Hawaiian Stories Alive

 

In this edition of Long Story Short, Leslie Wilcox talks story with a true Renaissance man. John Clark relates how learning to surf at a young age led him to become a waterman, lifeguard, fire fighter, historian, and writer. The author of a series of books on Hawaii’s beaches, John Clark took the innate curiosity that we all have and hunted down the source and mo’olelo, or stories, behind the names of Hawaii’s surf spots and shoreline landmarks. Find out how this descendent of a sea captain is doing his part to keep Hawaiian stories and characters alive.

 

John Clark Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

One of the guys that I interviewed was a man named Kerr. He was born back in the 1890s, so he was a surfer as a young child. By the time he was already ten years old, he was already surfing in Waikiki. And Queen was still alive at that time, and she had a home called Hamohamo, which is right where the Pacific Beach Hotel is. And she had a pier that ran out from her home, that went out into the water. And she would sit out on her pier, and she would watch the surfers, which were right out in front of her. Anyway, this guy and another friend of his, she would ask for them; she would ask them to go out and surf, just so she could watch surfers while she was sitting on her pier. He and his friend named the spot Queen’s. And that’s Queen’s—

 

That’s Queen’s Beach?

 

That’s Queen’s Surf.

 

Oh, Queen’s Surf.

 

[CHUCKLE] Queen’s Beach is a little further down the road. So anyway, that’s Queen’s Surf that’s almost now—it’s almost straight out from the Duke’s statue.

 

We’re surrounded by water, so it’s only natural that many of us play and work in the ocean. But as we’re enjoying our beaches and reefs, how many of us are curious enough, and persistent enough, to learn the background of our favorite fishing or surfing spot, what its name means, who’s responsible for naming it, and what role does it play in Hawaii’s history? Next, on Long Story Short, we’ll meet a man who’s combined a love of the ocean with an insatiable curiosity.

 

Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.

 

Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Welcome to Long Story Short. When you think of a name, do you ever wonder what’s behind that name? For instance, why is a place called Toes, or Snipes, or Gums? How about the name John Clark; a relatively simple name, only two syllables, but the simplicity of the name hides the complexity of the man. He served in the Army. He was a lifeguard at Sandy Beach, waterman, and firefighter who worked his way up to Deputy Chief of the Honolulu Fire Department, author of a series of nonfiction book about Hawaiian waters. Somehow, it seems only natural that this complex man, with a simple name, is a descendant of a sea captain.

 

His name was William Carey Lane, and he came here in the 1850s. And in 1853, there was a smallpox epidemic that was going on in Honolulu. So he was here. He had decided to make his home in the islands. And he was asked to take some medicine to a Hawaiian couple down where the Royal Hawaiian Hotel is. So he did; he met their daughter, he married her, and ended up making Hawaii his home.

 

But he planned to do so, even before he met—

 

Met her

 

—and fell in love.

 

Yes.

 

Was he at the end of his career, or did he just decide, Heck with my career, I’m staying?

 

He—exactly that. He decided that he didn’t want to go to sea anymore. And he really loved Hawaii, he decided to make it his home. So he married her, they ended up having twelve children, six boys and six girls. And the first Clark that came to Hawaii married one of the six girls. So anyway, going back to that marriage between the sea captain and Kahooilimoku—that was her name, I’m fifth generation from that marriage.

 

You seem to concentrate your fascination and your—

 

[CLEARS THROAT]

 

—passion where the sea intersects with the shoreline.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

The coastal areas, not the deep sea that your—

 

Yes.

 

—your ancestor loved, or once loved. You love that, where water and land connect.

 

Yes; exactly right. My mother likes to say that she and my dad had me swimming even before I walked. They took me and put me in the ocean before I was even a year old. So that connection for me and the ocean and the beach has always been there from the very beginning. And that was really reinforced when I learned how to surf. I started surfing when I was eight years old. And—

 

Who taught you? Or did you learn yourself?

 

Oh, no, not at all. My dad was in construction here in Hawaii, and one of the guys he worked with was a man named Clarence Maki. And Clarence was an avid surfer—actually, an avid surf photographer as well. So anyway, he and my dad were talking one day, and Clarence just told my dad that he’d be willing to teach me how to surf. He did, and I’ve been a lifelong surfer since.

 

What was your upbringing like? Where’d you grow up, and what was it like?

 

I grew up at a place called Kaalawai, which is over between Black Point and Diamond Head. It’s a little community there.

 

Were you right on the water?

 

Oh, no, no. We were back up towards Diamond Head Road. But anyway, that’s where, really, that I learned to surf in Waikiki, but that whole Diamond Head-Kaalawai area was my backyard.

 

What was it like? I don’t know that area, except to walk along it. What—

 

Oh.

 

—was it known for?

 

Actually, Kaalawai was known for several things. As far as traditional Hawaiian resources go, it was an area known for limu, for seaweed. There’s a lot of limu there—or there used to be. There used to be wawaeiole, which is a thick, green limu, and then a finer one that

everybody calls ogo now. But we used to call it manawea, limu manawea.

 

Did you gather that for salads?

 

Yes, we did. So those two, I find them every once in a while when I go back there to surf. But not too much. But there were also octopus there. People would come spearing for octopus. And there’s a seasonal fish that used to run through there, the mullet. And they would start off in Pearl Harbor in schools of thousands, and they would just start flowing around the island, and they’d run all the way down the coast, all the way around Makapuu Point, and then head up towards the windward side.

 

Does that still happen?

 

No, not like before. We don’t see those mullet runs before. But the throw net fishermen, when they would run, and it would be in the fall, when the anae, the mullet used to run through there, the throw new fishermen would come from all over the island to throw net on the schools.

 

Did you go down to the beach every day?

 

Almost. [CHUCKLE]

 

What was your routine? Before school and after school, or after school?

 

No, only after school. [CHUCKLE]

 

[CHUCKLE] ‘Cause lot of folks came to school with their hair dripping wet.

 

Yes; no, that wasn’t me. [CHUCKLE] But I did surf a lot after school. And like I said, that was my backyard, all those spots. I surfed a lot.

 

What kind of boards did you surf on, as you went along?

 

I started off on balsa. So I started surfing in 1954, and that’s just when the foam boards are starting to make their appearance, mostly in California, and they’re just starting to make their way to Hawaii. We don’t actually get a foam surfboard factory here, which was the Velzy Factory, until 1960. So those first six years of my life, or my surfing life, anyway, from ’54 to ’60, I was riding a balsa board. So it was what we used to called a Malibu. It had a kick in the front, and it was just a single fin. And of course, no leashes.

 

And there are two of your surfboards behind you. Tell—

 

Yes.

 

—me about those boards. They look like they’ve seen a lot of action, and—

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

—and they’ve been cared for.

 

Yes, they are. Those are called alaia’s, and the alaia’s are traditional Hawaiian surfboards. Anyway, one of them, the one with the round nose, is made out of redwood and pine. And the other one is made out of all traditional Hawaiian wood; it’s wiliwili with koa strips, stringers. So anyway, the alaia’s are boards that I still ride ‘til this day, as opposed to a regular surfboard. And—

 

No fins?

 

No fins at all. So they like to side slip; they don’t a line quite like a regular surfboard does.

 

And they’re not that long.

 

No; they’re only five-feet-two, both of them. And they’re very thin too; they’re only three-eighths of an inch.

 

What size waves are they best on?

 

They’ll ride anything up to like double overhead waves. Just gotta get out there and fly. [CHUCKLE]

 

And what’s the story of how the boards were made?

 

Besides board surfing, besides learning how to surf on a surfboard, I’ve also been a paipo rider all my life. And one of the guys that I ride paipo with builds paipo boards. So when I started researching my book on traditional Hawaiian surfing, I wanted to know what it was like to ride a traditional board. So I just asked my friend—his name’s Bud Shelsa; I asked Bud if he would build me an alaia board, and he did. So we started off with the one with the round nose, and then I got to know that board. And then I decided to try something a little different, shape wise, and we went with the second one, the one with the wiliwili and koa.

 

 

In the Hawaiian culture, moolelo, storytelling was crucial in passing down the history of the Hawaiian Islands from generation to generation. In today’s world, the moolelo behind many of Hawaii’s beaches and landmarks would be forgotten and lost without people like John Clark.

 

So you were an early swimmer, an early surfer?

 

Yes.

 

But those skills are different from collecting and writing about swimming and surfing, and coastlines. How did that all come together?

 

It actually started with surfing. When I got into my teens and I started surfing around the island, when I got a driver’s license and my friends did too, we started surfing all the different spots around the Island of Oahu. And I actually got interested in the names of all these different spots; where the names came from, what the story was, the moolelo behind the names. And I just started just collecting these as I went along over the years. So anyway, in 1970, when I got out of the Army, I became a lifeguard at Sandy Beach. And as I sat there on my tower, I decided that I was gonna do something proactive to try and reach people and before they got in the water, and got in trouble. So I started writing about Sandy Beach, I started writing about water safety. But when I read this material over, I thought it was really boring. I thought no one would be interested in it. So all this stuff that I’d gathered about surf spots and names, and where the names came from, I decided to combine that information with the water safety stuff. So I just rolled it all into one, and I ended up with a book.

 

Speaking of names, Sandy Beach—

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

How more basic can that be?

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

Does that have a Hawaiian name, or a history that’s more interesting than the words, Sandy Beach?

 

So the area where Sandy Beach is, is called Wawamalu. And if you go out and look at the old highway bridge out near the entrance to the Hawaii Kai Golf Course, you can see the name Wawamalu; it’s still on the bridge out there. But anyway, the name Sandy Beach actually came from the ulua fishermen that fished at Bamboo Ridge, which is over by the Blow Hole. And they would fish at Bamboo Ridge, and they would just call the beach next door … the sand beach. They’d call it Blow Hole Sand Beach; that was one of their names. Anyway, Blow Hole Sand Beach got edited down to “sand be”—Sandy Beach, and nowadays, the kids just call it Sandy’s. Simple.

 

There are so names that make you wonder. And there are also more than one name for a place.

 

Yes.

 

So you had to figure out which is the more appropriate. And then, there are probably different versions of how things came to be named the way they are.

 

Yes, there are. So that’s something that I’ve done all my life, just collect all of these stories, and then just kind of balance the stories one against the other, and try to come up with what I think is the original version, the original moolelo for that place name.

 

How do you go about finding the moolelo? I mean, how do you do it? You show up at a beach, you’re curious about it, and then what?

 

Well, because I’m a water person, I guess I can talk surf speak, or I can speak the language. And I just talk to guys or girls in the water, and I say, What do you call this spot? And, I mean, where did the name come from? So I just pick up stories as I go. And I also go through literature. People besides me have written about surf spots and about beaches, and just different places. So I gather all this material, and I just kinda sift through it, and come up with what I think is the legitimate story behind the name.

 

Do you try to find people who are living there, or associated with the beach a long time ago?

 

Oh, yes.

 

You go away from the beach to find the story?

 

Yes, I do. In fact, that’s one of the things that I’ve done religiously over the years, is going to the communities and talk to the kupuna; the people that were born and raised there, that know the area, that know the names. And the Fire Department was wonderful for that. Because everybody has a fireman in their family, or everybody knows a fireman. So I would ask the guys at work. I’d say, Oh, you’re from Kaaawa. Do you still have family out there? Can I go talk to your grandma or your auntie, or whatever? And then you get the ripple effect. So I talk to the grandma in Kaaawa, and she says, Oh, now,you gotta go talk to my sister in Punaluu. Or, You need to go talk to my dad, who’s out in Laie.

And did you know you were gonna put the information into books? Did you have that idea to begin with?

No; I never did, you know. Just going back to Sandy Beach in 1972; I never thought that I would ever put all of this information into books, into what turned out to be an entire series of books. They were just things that I was interested in, you know, I gathered the information.

 

And you were methodical about it. You thought, back in 1972, to take down names, and commit—

 

Yes.

 

—it to paper.

 

Yes. I really valued the information that people gave me, and I thought it was important to recognize them, to honor them for, confiding in me and helping me with what I was after. So I did. That’s something that I’ve done all these years, is acknowledge everyone who’s contributed to my work.

 

Can we take some surfing sites that lots of people know—

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

—but they may not know the origin of the name.

 

Sure.

 

For example, along Ala Moana and Waikiki, there are all kinds of surf breaks.

 

Yeah.

 

And people know the names, but they might have forgotten the reason. Some—

 

Sure.

 

Some, you can tell, some not.

 

Sure. Well, if you want to start at Ala Moana, first of all, you have Magic Island. And there’s a spot out there that’s called Bombora’s. And Bombora is actually an aboriginal word; it came from the Australian surfers who came here to Hawaii. And somebody just tagged that name for the surf spot out there. You move—the next spot down, going west now, is Baby Haleiwa’s. That’s named, because that spot breaks just like the surf spot Haleiwa on the North Shore. It’s got the same right with a pocket on a shallow reef on the inside. So that’s for a geographical comparison. And then you hit Courts, which is named for the tennis courts—

 

Which are right across.

 

Exactly right. Straight in; that’s your landmark. You go a little further down, you hit Concessions, right out in front of the food concession. So anyway, all of the spots, they all have a story, they all have some reason that they were named. A lot of the names come from just geographical location.

 

There was one near where I grew up, Niu Valley, called Snipes. Do you know the origin of that?

 

Yeah; Jerry Lopez told me that story. Snipes are birds.

 

Mm.

 

And the snipes were the little seabirds that were running back and forth on the beach at low tide, just foraging for food.

 

There’s another surf spot called Gums. What’s the story there?

 

[CHUCKLE] Okay; Gums is out on the North Shore, and Gums is at Ehukai Beach Park, right next to the Pipeline. Anyway, Randy Rarick told me this story.

 

Who grew up in Niu Valley, by the way.

 

Who grew up in Niu Valley, and who surfed at Snipes, and he named Toes too, by the way. Randy is the one that came up with that name. But anyway, getting back to Gums. Randy said that there was a surfer out there who had false teeth. And one day, he got hit in the mouth by his board, and he lost his false teeth.

 

M-hm.

 

So everyone was teasing him about coming in toothless. So the spot just got tagged Gums.

 

Gums.

 

Which it’s been ever since.

 

There’s also Yokohama Bay, which folks on the Waianae Coast have now taken to calling by its original Hawaiian name.

 

Yes.

 

Keawaula.

 

Keawaula; exactly right. So anyway, back when it was called Yokohama, the train, the OR&L train used to run from Honolulu around Kaena Point to Haleiwa, and actually beyond. The train actually ran up ‘til 1947. But anyway, there was a camp out there, um, of repairmen who were mostly Japanese workers. And their job was to repair the tracks. So Yokohama was one of the ports where a lot of the Japanese came from, when they came to Hawaii. So that name just kinda got tagged with them, to that particular bay, Keawaula Bay.

 

And why was it called Keawaula? There must be a reason for that.

 

There is.

 

That Hawaiian name.

 

[CHUCKLE] Well, the name Keawaula is actually three words in Hawaiian. It’s ke, which is, the; awa is harbor; and then ula is red. So it means, the red harbor. And there are squid in the Hawaiian Islands, besides octopus, now—these are the true squid, and they school. And when they come into a harbor and they’re schooling, and they’re mating, they turn red. And so it looks like the water turns red, because the schools are so massive. So anyway, that’s the moolelo behind Keawaula, is because of the squid schools that used to come in there seasonally.

 

You know, we were talking a lot about …

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

—things you can see, you know, surf sites.

 

Yes.

 

But … I live on the North Shore, and—

 

Oh.

 

—I’ve always lived around or among surfers.

 

Okay.

 

And … it appears to me that there’s a whole world out there that a lot of us don’t see, but it’s as real as anything to those who are in the waters a lot. So many people know the underwater landscapes just as well as they do the streets of—

 

Yes.

 

—the town.

 

Yes. Well, you’re actually making a very good point. Surf spots are ocean parks. And that’s how surfers see them. So if you think of your favorite park, or your favorite golf course, or the tennis courts where you play tennis; to a surfer, a surf spot’s the same thing. That’s his park, that’s his area where he does his recreation, his activities. So you’re right. The surfers know the ocean bottom, they know all the quirks, and the currents, and what happens if it’s high tide and low tide, whether it’s summer or winter. All of that stuff plays in, and they know their spots just as well as golfers know their golf courses.

 

No matter how random life is, sometimes people become who they were destined to be. In the case of John Clark, he channeled his love of surfing, his career as a firefighter, and his passion for historical research into leadership of the Hawaiian Historical Society.

 

I’ve always liked English. I’ve always been a very good reader. A voracious reader, actually. So I thought I would be an English major, and that’s what I started off doing up at UH Manoa. But as I got into it, I realized that I really didn’t want to be a teacher, which is pretty much where you have to go if you’re an English major. So I switched; I switched my major to Hawaiian Studies, which was what I was personally interested in. And at that time, I was already in the Fire Department, so I didn’t have to worry about my degree being my profession.

 

I see.

 

I already had my profession. So I got a degree in Hawaiian Studies.

 

How did you go, all of a sudden, from water to fire?

 

[CHUCKLE] I was a lifeguard for two years; that was from 1970 to 1972. And my roommate at that time was a guy named Aaron Young, and Aaron was working for Hawaiian Tel. So anyway, Aaron decided that he wanted to be a fireman, and after he got in, he said it was a really good job, it was a good lifestyle, and he encouraged me to take the test, which I did. And one of the reasons I did is because at that time, there wasn’t any upward mobility in the lifeguard service. If you were a lifeguard, you were a lifeguard pretty much for life. So there wasn’t too much chance of me moving up in the ranks, getting higher pay; you know, that kinda thing.

 

M-hm.

 

And in the Fire Department, it’s just the opposite. They’re a big organization, lots of mobility, lots of room to get promoted.

 

And lots of different aspects of the work.

 

Yes; including ocean rescues. The Fire Department here does ocean rescues. So that’s something that I did as the years went along, too.

 

And when you ended your career after thirty-three years—

 

Oh, yes.

 

—Deputy Fire—

 

Fire chief.

 

—Chief.

 

Yes.

 

Far away from the water.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

And even fires, right? You were in an—

 

Yes.

 

—executive role.

 

Yes. So the last seven and a half years of my career were as the Deputy Fire Chief of HFD. But even that was good, too. During that time, I went and got a master’s in public administration. And I really took that job seriously, of being a public administrator of a first responder agency.

 

You’ve spent a lot of time gathering information, writing, and taking—

 

Yes.

 

—care of the publication of books. Why do you do it? Do you make a lot of money from it?

 

Oh, no. It’s all for love. [CHUCKLE] Just real quick; the royalties are very minimal from the sales of all of my books. And the royalties that I do get, I just channel them back into the research, and all of the field trips that I do for the current projects that I’m working on. So there’s no money in it. But I really enjoy doing it. I think that I’m capturing pieces of Hawaiian history that other people haven’t. And the feedback that I get from people that read my stuff tells me that I think I’m touching some bases out there. Maybe not making a homerun with everybody, but I’m touching some bases, and people seem to appreciate what I do.

 

Sometimes on a mainland trip, I go to one of these, say, LA subdivisions, you know, malls. And you don’t—

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

You don’t see any distinguishing characteristics, or landmarks.

 

Yes.

 

It’s just paved.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

I think it would be really hard to live in a place like that.

 

That you can’t relate to somehow; yes.

 

What’s the history? I don’t know. [CHUCKLE]

 

Right. So that’s something that I’ve tried to do for Hawaii. So if you live in Lanikai, you know where the name came from, what it means, you know the history of the area. If you live on the North Shore, why Sunset Point is Sunset Point, and you know why Rock Piles is Rock Piles, and all the rest of it.

 

I notice that you’ve been the president of the Hawaiian Historical Society—

 

Yes.

 

—for years.

 

Yes; for six years. [CHUCKLE]

 

Why? What do you enjoy about that?

 

The Hawaiian Historical Society … does what I do. They preserve Hawaiian history. And that’s something that I’ve been doing all of these years, is telling history, telling Hawaiian history through the beaches. So to me, it’s a perfect fit. The Hawaiian Historical Society has a library, they have an archive. They’re one of the key resource research centers here in the Hawaiian Islands. And I’m a part of that. I’m a part of the journal that we’ve put out. In fact, I’m one of the editors of the Journal of Hawaiian History. So it all plays in, it all ties in, and it all works out really well for me.

 

Even if it’s land history?

 

Yes; even if it’s land history. [CHUCKLE]

 

So the next time someone asks you where the name Snipes came from, or why Queen’s Surf is called Queen’s Surf, pass on the moolelo. Then, tell them that you heard if from the guy slipping down the face of a double overhead on the alaia surfboard. For Long Story Short, and PBS Hawaii, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.

 

For audio and written transcripts of this program, and all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit pbshawaii.org.

 

Is there a favorite surf site name that you’ve come across? I know they’re probably all like your children, but is there a favorite one?

 

Actually, I enjoy all of them. I like all of the names and all of the stories. But I’ll tell you this real quick. The spot that I get asked the most often about, over any spot in the Hawaiian Islands, is a spot out in Makua that’s called Pray For Sex. And Pray For Sex actually comes from another surf slogan from the 60s, which was Pray For Surf. Somebody just change one word in the slogan there, and they actually wrote it on a rock out there. So you can go out there right now, and see Pray For Sex; it’s still written on that rock.

 

And what is another name for that surf spot? Is there—

 

Oh.

 

Is there another name for it?

 

It’s actually more of a little bodysurfing spot out there. The rock that it’s written on has a Hawaiian name; it’s called Pohaku Kulalai. And there’s actually a little marker out there that explains that. But people still know that ‘til this day. And every time I talk to people about surf spots, they always ask me about that one.

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Ralph Goto

 

Original air date: Tues., July 10, 2012

 

Leslie Wilcox talks with Ralph Goto, administrator of the City and County of Honolulu’s Ocean Safety and Lifeguard Services Division. Over the past 30 years, he has helped to bring professionalism and respect to an occupation once viewed as being only for beach boys and surfers. Ralph is recognized in the International Swimming Hall of Fame for his contributions to the field of water safety.

 

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Transcript

 

Lifeguards then, I think, were viewed as beach boys, surfers. That’s a real job, and you get paid to do this. So we addressed that, and we looked at what do we need to do to raise the level of training, what do we need to do to raise the level of funding, and try to stay within reality, and eventually worked our way—what’s this, thirty years now, to an operation I think that’s pretty well respected. And I think, given the resources that we get, I think we do a pretty good job.

 

For more than thirty years, one man has been at the helm of Oahu’s Division of Ocean Safety, and in that time, he’s helped bring professional standing and respect to the men and women who guard our beaches. Join us, as we meet Ralph Goto, here, on Long Story Short.

 

Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.

 

Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. In this edition of Long Story Short, we’ll get to know Ralph Goto, the administrator of the Ocean Safety and Lifeguard Services Division of the City and County of Honolulu. In his career at the City, he’s taken strategic steps to bring lifesaving into the modern era. In May of 2012, he was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame for his contributions to the field of water safety. And that’s not the first time Ralph Goto has received recognition.

 

You’ve won the prestigious Paragon Award from the International Swimming Hall of Fame, but you didn’t need to do anything other than be born in order to have a claim to fame.

 

[CHUCKLE] Thanks, Leslie.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

Yeah, my claim to fame, what I tell people is that in 1946, I was born in Japan, in Sapporo. My dad was sent over there right after the war with the Intelligence Forces and the occupation troops, and so my claim to fame is that I was the first American baby born in Occupied Japan. And I’ve lived with that ever since.

 

[CHUCKLE] So your parents were from Hawaii?

 

They were originally from Hawaii; yeah.

 

And your father was sent as an interpreter, translator?

 

Military intelligence. He was an interpreter during the war, because he was bilingual. He didn’t speak about it very much. You know how those second generation Nisei were. But he did a lot of military intelligence, and that’s why he went to Japan right after the war.

 

Where did you grow up?

 

First ten years of my life, in Japan.

 

So you speak fluent Japanese?

 

I used to. And I speak survival Japanese, which I can catch the train and I can order some food.

 

Go to the bathroom.

 

Right; go the bathroom. But the Japanese influence is very strong. We have some of those values that were passed on by our folks, and we try to live through those.

 

Ten years in Japan, then where?

 

Ten years in Japan, then one year at Palolo Elementary School. Wonderful place. Sixth grade, and then went back to Japan for my junior high school years. And then, my dad was transferred to Baltimore, Maryland in the early 60s, and we went to Baltimore. We were the first Asians that they had seen in this neighborhood. And in the early 60s, Baltimore County was still segregated, so they had the White school, and then they had the Black school.

 

And where did you fit in?

 

Well, [CHUCKLE] there was a little debate, and I believe the officials decided that my brother and I could go to the White school. So we went to the White school, and my mother was told that, It’s because you guys are so clean and you’re nice, and so we’re gonna let you try there. We did fine. Brother and I played sports, and I think that’s why we were accepted. We did great.

 

Did you think about what your life would be like if you didn’t play sports and have that affinity with the other players?

 

I tried to relate that to my sons when they that age, and tried to tell them about my experiences in going to different places. And the sports really helped us, assimilate and get along with folks, and I think that was a really important part of our lives.

 

Because if you didn’t have that, you don’t know what you would have done?

 

Right. It’s just like, okay, who are you guys and, where did you come from, and what do you guys do? So I think just being able to shoot a basket or hit a ball, you establish some common ground.

 

Did you experience racism?

 

A little bit, but not really that much. I think we were more of kind of a novelty. Like, Oh, you guys are from Hawaii, do you still dance the hula, do live in a house or a shack. So, there was definitely racism, because it was segregated, but I don’t think that we experienced it seriously.

 

So at that time, your parents were the ones with the real experience in Hawaii. You had a year at Palolo School.

 

Right. [CHUCKLE]

 

But you did come back, and that was your first real in-depth experience in Hawaii.

 

Right. And it was not until after I graduated from high school. ‘Cause we went back to Japan, I graduated there, and then came to Hawaii in ’64. And I’ve been here since.

 

Did you come back with your parents after graduation?

 

I came back to go to the University of Hawaii in 1964.

 

And what was your major?

 

Well, I played basketball for the freshman team, and decided that I was going to be an English major, then decided I was gonna be a philosophy major. So the first bachelor’s degree was in philosophy.

 

The first bachelor’s? And what was the second?

 

The second was in PE, in secondary education.

 

Did you know how you were going to use that?

 

Philosophy was, why is there air? You know, that’s Bill Cosby’s line. And then, PE telling you that there’s air to blow up basketballs. So, that was the extent of my experience at the University.

 

Well, what happened when the UH turned you loose with your BA? Or BAs.

 

Where did we go? I worked at the YMCA for eight years in Kailua and ran the aquatics program there. And they’re the ones that sent me back to school to get my PE credentials. That kind of prepared me for the real world, and I applied for the job in the City in 1981, and have been there since.

 

So there wasn’t a driving urge to keep Oahu’s beaches safe that drove you?

 

No.

 

No?

 

No.

 

Okay.

 

I think that developed along the way.

 

Were you looking for a civil service job?

 

Yeah. You know, you want to get a job with the City.

 

And you aimed high, ‘cause that was a head of a department; right?

 

That was the head of a division.

 

Division; right.

 

Yeah.

 

And you already had experience in management in—

 

Through the Y.

 

—saving.

 

And we taught lifesaving, and we taught the instructors for the Red Cross, and things like that. So, it was a fit, and I used to go to the beach a lot. I used to go to Makapuu a lot, and I knew the guards there, and there was familiarity with them.

 

A lot has changed in life guarding in three decades. What was once perceived as an easy job for surf bums has become more professional and disciplined, with some recruits even taking college degrees to the beach. Ralph Goto has done quite a bit to elevate professional standards and the image of a lifeguard.

 

What’s the profile? I don’t know if there is a typical lifeguard. I mean, you’ve had some people who are award-winning watermen there, and there are people we don’t know. What’s the typical lifeguard like?

 

The old guy or the new guy? [CHUCKLE]

 

Okay; is there a difference?

 

I think so. I mean, some of the veterans. Brian Keaulana, retired, Buffalo Keaulana, his father, was a lifeguard, Mark Cunningham, who’s a retired lifeguard. Those guys, in addition to being legends in the ocean, were also excellent lifeguards. They did it on their skill, they did it on their knowledge of the environment, and fortunately, they passed a lot of that on to the newer people. The new guys, I’d say, they’re quicker, they stronger, they’re faster. We have young people that come into recruit training with college degrees. We have people that are trained as paramedics. We have all kinds of people that come through our recruit training. I don’t know what it is that really attracts them. I get a hundred emails a day; I want to be a lifeguard in Hawaii; what do I have to do to be a lifeguard on the North Shore. They all have to do the same thing; they have to have the certifications and they have to take the swim test, and then they have to go through our training. But I think we’re getting now a more qualified, more motivated young person that comes into the Department. And there’s constant turnover, there’s people retiring, it’s the graying of the workforce, as in any kind of organization.

 

Have most lifeguards stayed in for the career? I would imagine people would get out earlier than that.

 

We’ve lost some to the Fire Department. We’ve had really good lifeguards go to the Fire Department because it’s a better schedule, it’s better pay, it’s better benefits. And you really can’t blame these guys for going. But we’ve also had people that have said, Hey, I don’t want to be a fireman, I don’t want to be a policeman, I want to be a lifeguard. And they can retire after twenty-five years, so they stay.

 

But you know, it is stressful.

 

Yes.

 

And there’s not a lot of upward mobility; right?

 

Right.

 

And there’s the threat of skin cancer.

 

There’s threat of skin cancer.

 

And injury during rescues.

 

Yeah.

 

And aggravation from people who won’t listen.

 

We have had employees that have resigned to go get real jobs. My wife wants me to get a real job. Most of them come back. We’ve had people go down and work as stevedores on the docks for that great schedule and the great pay. We’ve had people go into other Public Safety agencies and come back and say, Hey, I’m a lifeguard, this is what I do and this is what I love to do. It’s interesting, Leslie, because the pay isn’t that great. We do it because we love to do it.

 

How much does an experienced lifeguard make in the City and County of Honolulu?

 

An experienced lifeguard.

 

And this is 2012, as we speak.

 

It’s based definitely on years of service. About four or five thousand a month. You know, the majority of the working lifeguards, not the supervisors, are probably about forty-eight thousand a year. It’s not that great. I think one of the common elements of why people are attracted to it, well, they love the outdoors or they love the ocean. They surf, they swim, they dive. But there’s also this common thread, I think, of helping people. You get some satisfaction out of helping people. And saving a life is probably the heaviest thing you can do, I mean, in terms of, how you feel about things in the grand scheme of things. I mean, saving a life is a pretty significant event.

 

But when Ralph Goto first started as an administrator back in 1981, things were different. The Division didn’t get the respect or the resources of other City emergency services. It became Ralph Goto’s mission to bring recognized standards to the City’s life guarding operation.

 

You could have taken another approach and gone to the beaches and said, Hey, you guys, you gotta shape up, I need you to do this, this, this, and that. But you said you opted for just investing in training.

 

Listening to what was going on, seeing what was needed, talking to the guards, and then beginning to implement some of those.

 

You did some really smart strategy, because it’s all people. It’s people on one side, and it’s resources on the other, and you figured out a way to bring one to the other.

 

It took a while, Leslie. Believe me, it took a while.

 

Did you have any experience? Essentially, this is politics. I mean, you’re working your way through a dense bureaucracy with lots of competing needs. And you’re working on perceptions, too, that are grounded in old stuff.

 

Yes. No management courses that taught you how to run a lifeguard service. We went around and looked at different places. I was told, If you want to learn about life guarding, you have to go to Australia, and you have to go to Los Angeles, and see the two best lifeguard operations in the world. We did that, and looked, and we said, Yeah, this is great, and we learned from places that we went to. We learned from what they did, we learned how they did certain things. But Hawaii is unique. The culture is unique, the environment’s unique, and understanding that, you have to pick and choose which things are gonna work. And we did that.

 

Were there some big disputes over, shall we do this or that, this approach, that approach?

 

Life guarding in some areas of the country is pretty military. It’s paramilitary, if you will. And it’s not to say that we don’t do that here. We have a chain of command, we have captains, we have lieutenants, we have senior lifeguards. But some places run it pretty formally. And I just didn’t think that that was gonna work here.

 

So you gave discretion and latitude?

 

There is discretion, yes, there is latitude. Because who knows more about a beach than the person that works there all week? He’s may not be an engineer, he may not be an architect, he may not be an oceanographer, but you know, in a real sense, they’re all of that, and they’re the guys who know what’s going on at the beach.

 

What have you done to professionalize life guarding? I mean, these are fulltime jobs, a lot of people, like you said, think it’s a lark. It’s certainly not. What have you done to raise the standing?

 

I think probably the most important thing that we’ve done—and I’m just Ralph Goto, it’s been everyone in the Department, is to understand the job that our lifeguards do. They’re not just out there sitting on a tower waiting for something to happen. Educated, lot of guys have degrees, college degrees. A lot of them are certified at the EMT level, so their medical training is comparable to a person that’s riding in the ambulance. It’s raising that level of professionalism and getting the employees to understand the importance of it. It’s projecting image. Wearing a uniform, being at work on time, those simple things that I think have really helped develop our division to where it is now.

 

What kinds of training have you given, or has the Division given the lifeguards to make them more effective?

 

It’s pretty extensive training, I think when people actually realize what’s going on. We’re running a recruit class right now, and those kids will be in recruit training for a month. They just finished their emergency medical training, and then they’ll be exposed to our environments. They’ll take them around the island and put them in the Moy Hole, and put them at Sandy’s, and put them on the North Shore. So that training is at least a month, unpaid, and after that, they do on-the-job training if they make it through there. The other thing we do, I have to throw this in. The physical performance standards are pretty stringent. You have to do a thousand run, thousand swim, a board paddle and a run-swim-run every year. I think we’re the only agency that does that. And if you don’t pass the swim test, you don’t work on the beach. I mean, we give you time to train and be able to do that, but I don’t know of any other agency, at least here, that makes their employees do that.

 

Tell me some of the dances you had to do to get to where you arrived.

 

The dances. I don’t know how to jitterbug.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

The first City Council meeting I went to, in my exuberance and being naïve, I was asked, Well, do you need anything else? And I said, Sure, we needed some more money, we need some more equipment. And I was told that, No, you don’t go to the City Council and say you need that. You tow the party line and you say we’re doing well with what we have. That’s one of the dances you have do, the political dance, if you will. The other dance is working within the system, you know, and it takes a while to learn that, as you know.

 

And the characters change.

 

Sure; every four years.

 

Yes, with every election.

 

Every four years; right. And you just learn. I think you learn from experience, you learn from your mistakes, which there were a lot of those. And you just learn how to deal with people. That’s what I think it’s about, it’s the importance of relating to people.

 

And you’re known for your light touch with people.

 

Well … depends who you speak with. [CHUCKLE]

 

Okay; who would say otherwise?

 

Well, let’s see. Probably my two sons.

 

Oh. [CHUCKLE]

 

Thanks, boys. But that’s what I’ve tried to do, is listen. There’s always two sides of the story, and then somewhere in between there’s what’s really going on. And I’ve tried to believe in that and use that outlook on things as problems have come up.

 

There are a lot of parents who would say that a calm, measured approach to training goes out the window when you apply it to your own children. For Ralph Goto, running a City division populated with rugged individuals might not have taxed him as much as the challenge of raising two boys.

 

You said that your kids might not agree that you have a light touch. Why is that?

 

[CHUCKLE] My two sons who live on the mainland … the older one, Clark, went to Punahou, went to the University of San Francisco, has a degree in computer science, and works on the mainland for a medical software company. The younger son, Scott, went to Kalaheo High School, and went to Portland, Oregon to live the dream. He plays in a punk band, and he makes sushi in a sushi restaurant, and he’s living the dream. I coached both of them when they were younger in basketball, and ended up running the PAL league in Kailua for a while. And I don’t know if uh, that was a great idea.

 

To coach your kids?

 

To coach my kids and then, have those expectations of them. And as a father and a coach, you tend to push them. And they don’t play ball now. [CHUCKLE]

 

Have you talked about it with them?

 

I’ve talked to Clark about it, and he said, Yeah, he said, you’re a pretty hard act to follow, Dad. And that kinda shed some light on what goes on. But they’re both great, they’re doing very well.

 

What do you think your sons took away from you, that helps them most in their lives?

 

[CHUCKLE] Interesting. I don’t know. I think you’d have to interview them. Like, my older son told me a few years back that comment about you’re a hard act to follow. I mean, that had some impact on me, because I think any child or any offspring wants to do so much, with their life, and I’m sure that you look at your parents, how much your parents have accomplished in life, and you’re gonna either do that, or strive to attain that level. And I don’t know about Scotty, my young punk rocker, but I know that Clark’s more serious about it. And I know he’s thought about it, but hopefully, and what we tried to do while they were growing up, or what I tried to do is, at some point in life, your children are gonna be gone, they’re not gonna live in your house anymore. They’re gonna be on their own, and they’re gonna have to make some decisions on their own. And hopefully, they’re gonna be able to make good decisions. And I think that’s all you can really expect.

 

Have you ever seen your grown sons doing something that they reacted badly against when they were kids, but now they do that too, because, that’s what you taught them.

 

[CHUCKLE] Yeah, I think so. Young Scott called the other day about his taxes. And it’s like, Okay, Dad, I went to get my taxes done, and I owe money. And I’m like, Well, Son, you gotta file these things. He goes, Yeah, I know, that. And I think that they both are beginning to realize there’s certain things that you have to do in life. And you know, hopefully, some of that carries on from their father and, you know, their parents.

 

And right there beside him at every step of the journey has been Ralph Goto’s wife, Roberta, a registered nurse with a long career at the State Hospital in Kaneohe. She has provided him with a safe haven away from the stress of work. He says that what attracted him was how different she was from this guarded, quiet, third generation Japanese American.

 

Roberta’s just the opposite. Blond hair, blue eyes, very outgoing, very opinionated, very open, and because she’s a psychiatric mental health worker, keeps me straight. And I think that had a lot to do with the attraction.

 

Because she’s a mental health worker, she keeps you straight?

 

Yeah; right. [CHUCKLE]

 

What’s that mean? [CHUCKLE]

 

Keeps me grounded. How’s that?

 

Yeah. ‘Cause she’s very stable? Is that what you’re saying?

 

She’s very creative. What we say, and what people say is, because we’re so opposite, that’s why we were attracted to each other.

 

As life goes along, you start to think about retirement, and what do I do after this. Have you thought about that?

 

Oh, yes.

 

What’s next?

 

Oh, yes. Thinking about retirement, it’s interesting, because when you start your career, that’s the last thing you’re thinking about. But after thirty years, then you seriously begin to think about, okay, how much money am I gonna have, what am I gonna be able to do, and how much is left on the mortgage. And believe me, both Roberta and I have talked about it because we’re close, and it’s, okay, what are you gonna do. You’re not gonna sit at home and just look at each other. You’re gonna have a plan. Someone just told me, a former retired City official who has come back to work for the City told me a couple weeks ago, You better have a plan. If you’re gonna retire, you better have a plan. So some people travel some people volunteer at the church. And I would like to do more of that creative stuff that is an outlet for me now, and I’d like to do it a little more. So that turning wood, cutting wood, stapling it together appeals to me.

 

Yeah; a lot of people have too much time on their hands, and it doesn’t work for them.

 

Yeah.

 

So you have to have a passion that you pursue that is, you know, productive and feels good to you.

 

Right. And working with wood, I’ve always liked to do that. I kinda had a hand in building the two houses that we’ve lived in, and it’s an outlet, it’s a creative outlet.

 

And then, do you sell those bowls?

 

Not yet.

 

But that’s the plan?

 

You know, you give ‘em to Mom, and you give ‘em to friends for Christmas, and things like that.

 

But would you be pau working for money?

 

No, ‘cause I think we’re gonna need to have on top of the retirement income to do the things you want to do. I think that that’s important to plan out, what is it that you want to do.

 

It’s a good exercise, isn’t it?

 

Yeah; it’s great.

 

Who are you now, as opposed to when you made other big decisions.

 

You know, and it really has kinda changed my—not changed, but matured my outlook on my work. It’s like, Well, you can’t do this because, you gotta think about this now. And now, if it feels like the right thing to do, we’re gonna do it. And it’s nice to be able to do that.

 

While the man who has devoted his life to bettering the working conditions and professionalism of Oahu’s lifeguards is nearing the end of his career, he won’t go quietly. In 2012, Ralph Goto continues to fight for better pay and benefits for the men and women on the beach, those first responders when we run into trouble in the waters of paradise. For Long Story Short and PBS Hawaii, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.

 

For audio and written transcripts of this program, and all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit pbshawaii.org.

 

And you were working with some of the legends of Hawaii, Buffalo Keaulana, et cetera. How did you manage?

 

I went around and met everyone. And you’re right; Buffalo Keaulana, what are you gonna say to Buffalo about life guarding or about the ocean, or anything. And I learned a lot from him, and tried to figure out what it was that the operation needed, and what we could to do to help bolster that up. Met a lot of really good people in my career, ocean guys that, you know, I consider friends, as well as colleagues and subordinates.