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<b>Tahiti Calls:</b> Kelly Slater heads out for a session at Teahupo'o. <br><i>Photo by Dana Edmunds</i>
Vol. 13, no. 1
February/March 2010


Life's a Beach -- and Then You Die 

Story by Charles Memminger


I recently saw a list of the most dangerous beaches in Hawai‘i, and I can attest to its accuracy because I’ve been hurt at just about every one of them. Trying to recall exactly how I was injured at which beach is like trying to recall how King Henry VIII’s various wives met their fates: “Divorced, beheaded, died …” Except with me it’s like: “Sandy Beach—dislocated shoulder; Makapu‘u—wrenched neck; Nanakuli—sea urchin assault.”


It’s not that I’m uncoordinated. It’s just that the ocean is the biggest thing on the planet and you can be hurt on it, in it and beside it. It is filled with millions of diverse creatures, all of them armed and ready to stick, bite, grab, sting and, when possible, swallow you. The beach is where the land meets the sea and the unwary meet the paramedics. Many visitors to Hawai‘i tend to view our beaches as sort of water parks, controlled environments not subject to the whims of tide, waves and animal life. That’s why there are, like, 453,000 lifeguards spread out across Hawai‘i to dissuade people from this point of view. Beaches are the only places that have their own army of lifesavers. You don’t see lifeguards in towers overlooking street intersections or mall parking lots, for instance. 


I learned firsthand of the many excellent ways you can hurt yourself at the beach. As a surfing newbie, I walked on reefs barefoot until I met my first sea urchin. Sea urchins are like living, submarine pincushions. You step on one and the spikes shoot into your feet like hot knitting needles. If you try to remove the delicate shards, they break off at skin level. One beach myth claims that if you urinate on a sea urchin wound, the spikes will dissolve. I never tried that because when you’re hanging out at the beach at 16 years old, peeing on yourself isn’t the best way to impress the ladies.


Jellyfish aren’t as bad sea urchins, but there are a lot more of them. I’ve swum into so many jellyfish I should get a certificate from Knott’s Berry Farm. The box jellyfish delight in wrapping their slimy, heavily armed tentacles around your face or arms. In the ocean world, a jellyfish attack is a twofer: It hurts and it’s gross.


I’ve had my worst injuries at Sandy Beach, which I think is the most dangerous beach in the world. It’s a vicious shorebreak that literally can be a neck-breaker. I only dislocated my shoulder at Sandy’s, so that was lucky. I paddled out with a little inflated canvas surfing mat attached to one hand. A big set came in, and I realized I was tied to this stupid air mat and feverishly tried to get free of it. The wave took the mat over the falls and me attached to it and slammed us both into a part of the beach where the water had to be all of thirty-two inches deep. I got my arm back in the socket OK, but for the next week I was picking sand out of places on my body where I didn’t even know I had places.


We spent a lot of time in the Waimea Bay shorebreak, too. But we weren’t body surfing as much as swimming for our lives.


Statistically, the most dangerous beach in Hawai‘i is Waikiki. More tourists get rescued there than anywhere else. It’s not that Waikiki is inherently perilous; it’s just that seven million tourists go there each year. If seven million people just walk down a sidewalk, at least a thousand of them are going to twist their ankle or something.


Now that I’m older, fatter and wiser, I don’t get hurt so much at Island beaches. Mainly because I tend to view them from my car as I drive by on my way to a local watering hole, preferably one with a lifeguard.