Issue 16.5: October/November 2013

Ocean 411

Story by Alan D. McNarie
Photo by Dana Edmunds

When Los Angeles native Vicki Sterne moved to Kaua‘i, she quickly learned what many island residents already knew: Kaua‘i’s ocean is dangerous. There have already been eleven drownings and many more near-fatalities this year alone due to deceptive currents and high surf. Often the victims are visitors unfamiliar with Kaua‘i’s reputation. Sterne wanted to help, but apart from cautioning guests at the Outrigger Kiahuna Plantation in Po‘ipu, where she worked as a concierge, she wasn’t sure how.

Then a retired IT expert gave her an idea: Why not develop a smartphone app to give beachgoers critical, possibly lifesaving information? He volunteered to help her but later decided to “stay retired.” For months she searched for a replacement. She’d essentially given up when a walk at Kealia beach renewed her determination.

“I was involved in a rescue,” she recalls. “A couple went into the water where the lifeguard tower was, thinking it safe, but that’s really the most dangerous part of the beach. There can be up to three rip currents, and they got caught in one.” The couple, who barely escaped dying, had had an iPhone with them.

Sterne continued the search and finally found a young Russian expat techie named Alex Komarov, who looked beyond the profit motive and “understood that my main focus,” says Sterne, “was helping our visitors and keeping them safe.” Sterne quit her concierge job to build the app. She consulted with water safety activist Monty Downs, who is an ER doctor at Wilcox Memorial Hospital and president of the Kaua‘i Lifeguard Association. She sought the mana‘o (knowledge) of Kaua‘i’s chief lifeguard, Kalani Vierra, and the guards under him.

The result is The Kaua‘i Beach Guide, a $.99 iPhone app that supplies most of the information that a printed guidebook would —culture, history, facilities, activities, parking—while also offering time-stamped updates of ocean condition reports, highsurf advisories and tidal activity as well as information on which beaches are staffed with lifeguards and where to look out for rip currents and other hazards. Sterne is fundraising online to finance an Android version and hopes to develop similar apps for the other main islands.