Man of Makaha

Lifeguard, paddler, surfer — waterman Mel Pu‘u helped revolutionize ocean safety
Story by Grady Timmons. Photos by Dana Edmunds & Brian Bielmann.

It’s a sun-drenched morning on O‘ahu’s Leeward coast, with light winds and occasional sets of two-to-four-foot surf, when legendary lifeguard and waterman Mel Pu‘u arrives at Mākaha beach. Now 57 and recently retired, Pu‘u is an imposing figure: tall and thick-set, with black, wraparound sunglasses framing his shaved head. Carrying a beach chair, he finds a spot in the shade and takes a seat facing the ocean.

Pu‘u calls this celebrated big-wave surfing beach his “home break,” where he grew up and honed his skills in the ocean. An animated storyteller, he laughs easily and often as he talks, but true to his calling he never takes his eyes off the ocean. “See that young girl out there,” he says, pointing at an incoming wave. “She just got caught on the inside and lost her board. She may be in trouble.” The lifeguard on duty sees it, too. He quickly descends from his tower, fires up his jet ski and rides out into the surf.

The girl is okay and the drama quickly subsides, but the lesson is clear: Even on a tranquil day, the ocean can be unpredictable. Pu‘u knows this as well as anyone; during his thirty-five years as a City and County of Honolulu lifeguard, most of it at Mākaha, he has pulled thousands of swimmers and surfers from trouble—and often risked his life doing it.

An expert swimmer, diver, paddler and big-wave charger, Pu‘u has towed into monster swells off O‘ahu’s Ka‘ena point and at Jaws on Maui, and he was the first person to ride a twenty-five-foot wave in a one-man canoe—a feat he performed at Mākaha in 2000, which garnered national attention. For twenty years, he competed professionally as a longboard surfer, and he was also a member of a Hawai‘i outrigger canoe crew that brought home gold from the 2003 World Sprint Championships in Bora Bora, defeating the Tahitians in an event they had never lost. As a tandem surfer he has few peers, having won numerous contests from Hawai‘i to the beaches of southern France.

Such prowess has made Pu‘u one of the most respected Hawaiian watermen of his generation. But his greatest achievement lies in what he and a hui (group) of several other Hawai‘i lifeguards accomplished in pioneering the use of jet skis for rescues, which has revolutionized ocean safety. Before the skis came into the picture, Pu‘u recalls, lifeguards had to perform rescues equipped with only a paddleboard, fins and a float.

“Here at Mākaha, in twenty-to-thirty-foot surf, if you saw somebody wipe out on the point and lose their board, you knew you had to go help them,” he says. “So you paddled out through the channel and tried to grab them before they got sucked down the coast.” If it was too late for that, he jumped in his truck and drove to the other end of the beach, to a surf spot called Klausmeyers, where he paddled through the rip current to try to meet the surfer outside the break. “If you failed,” he says, “you’re headed straight down the point, and the current can take you all the way to Kaua‘i. Those were really hairy days—it’s so much safer now.”

Melvin Pu‘u was born in Mākaha in 1961, and growing up his family was always at the beach. The youngest of eight children, he recalls being at Mākua beach as a youngster when his eldest brother, David, threw him off “Pray for Sex” rock and yelled “Swim!” “That’s how we were taught,” he says. “They’d give you some basic instruction and throw you in.”

He began surfing when he was six. The Pu‘u family lived across from Lahilahi beach in Mākaha, and that’s where Pu‘u and his neighborhood buddies would lug his brother’s thirteen-foot board to paddle out. “We needed two guys to carry the board because it was so heavy,” he remembers. “A third guy carried a bucket of mangoes. That was our lunch.” Pu‘u quickly graduated to a series of tougher surf breaks up the coast, eventually making it to Mākaha at the ripe old age of eight. At ten he got his first surfboard of his own, a used Lightning Bolt that his father bought for $25 at the old Wai‘anae Trading Post.

Pu‘u was among a group of big-wave lifesavers who pioneered the use of jet skis for rescues in the early 1990s, which has revolutionized ocean safety. Before the skis, Pu‘u recalls, lifeguards performed rescues equipped with only a paddleboard, fins and a float. “It’s so much safer now,” he says.

Pu‘u’s parents died young; his mother passed when he was just five, his father when he was 15. Afterward, he was taken in by the family of his best friend since grade school, Brian Keaulana, the son of iconic waterman Buffalo Keaulana. As the first City and County lifeguard at Mākaha, Buffalo steered youth in the community away from trouble and toward a surfboard or canoe, teaching neighborhood kids how to surf, paddle, dive and fish. “The first thing he taught you was respect,” Pu‘u says. “If you don’t respect your kūpuna (elders), you get lickings. Same thing with the ocean. If you don’t respect it, it’s going to whack you upside the head.”

Mel and Brian went to school together, came home and did homework together, and then cleaned their yard together so they could go surf. In their late teens, they led the Mākaha Canoe Club to several state division titles. Not surprisingly, they both chose the same career. “From the time we were kids, we already knew we wanted to be lifeguards,” Pu‘u says. “Buffalo was our inspiration.”

They landed their first jobs at the Wai‘anae High School pool, initially as summer hires and then after class during the regular school year. Following graduation, they taught swimming to area school kids—sometimes as many as five hundred a day. Eventually Pu‘u took a construction job and was making good money when one day he got a call from Brian. “Mel, I just passed the swim test,” he said. “I’m gonna be a city lifeguard at the beach!” Pu‘u followed a few months later, joining the ocean rescue force in November 1982.

Pu‘u’s first assignment was in Waikīkī, at the lifeguard tower in front of the Duke Kahanamoku statue. He worked there only two days a week, however, so to get more hours he would call in daily to see if there were any other openings available. “I literally worked every single tower on this island,” he says. “I used to catch the bus to and from work, and I’d leave home in the dark and come home in the dark. But that was the love. It was something that was in me. It’s what I wanted to do.”

An expert swimmer, diver, paddler and big-wave charger, Pu‘u competed for twenty years as a professional longboard surfer. And as a tandem surfer he has few peers.

In Hawai‘i, lifeguards work year-round in some of the toughest conditions anywhere—last year they performed more than three thousand rescues on O‘ahu alone. The job requires tremendous strength and athletic ability, a love for and knowledge of the ocean, and years of experience. As Pu‘u says, “You can’t just step onto the beach and become Buffalo.”

Everywhere he was sent, he apprenticed under the senior lifeguards. For example at Makapu‘u, the popular but dangerous bodysurfing beach on O‘ahu’s southeastern tip, he learned to do the “circuit,” riding the current across the bay with a victim in distress before gradually working free of its grip and using the incoming waves to get back to the beach.

In the late ’80s Pu‘u, Keaulana and fellow Hawaiian lifeguards Dennis Gouveia and Terry Ahue were working side gigs at big-wave surfing events on the North Shore when they began getting assistance from a friend named Squiddy Sanchez, who had a stand-up jet ski. The lifeguards immediately saw the potential of his watercraft, but when they field-tested the stand-up model it proved too unstable for rescues, so they didn’t pursue it.

Pu‘u paddled on a Hawai‘i outrigger canoe crew that won gold at the 2003 World Sprint Championships in Bora Bora, defeating the Tahitians in an event they had never before lost. He gained national attention in 2000 for riding a twenty-five-foot wave in a one-man canoe at Mākaha.

Then in 1991, Keaulana wiped out while competing in the Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational at Waimea Bay. As he was being tossed about underwater, Keaulana remembers feeling completely alone and thinking, “My god, here I am in the same position I usually see people in when they drown.” When he finally popped to the surface, Sanchez suddenly appeared on his jet ski to check on him and was able to roar away before the next giant wave bore down on them.

Keaulana had seen enough. Later that day he told the other lifeguards there was a new sit-down jet ski—the Yamaha Wave-Runner—that he wanted to try out. “We talked about it, and Brian and Terry decided to rent one,” Pu‘u says. “They took it out on the North Shore and were running away from waves. They reported back, ‘Hey, we think this thing can work.’”

But first they had to get their own ski. Keaulana took out a loan and talked the distributor into selling him a newer model of WaveRunner at cost. The crew then set to work fitting the ski with a boogie board-like sled at the back for rescuees to grab onto. It took a while to find the right materials and refine the design, but eventually it all came together.

Obtaining approval to use the ski for rescues was next. As its registered owner, Keaulana had actually been receiving fines from the state for illegal nearshore use of the craft. So he went to court to fight it—and won. “We had people come in and testify,” Pu‘u says. “One guy came in who had split his head open surfing here at Mākaha. We were there practicing with the jet ski that day, so we zoomed in and grabbed him. He came to court with the skeg mark and staples showing in his shaved head.”

Around that time, Pu‘u’s supervisor, Ralph Goto, head of the city’s Water Safety Division, called to say his superiors wanted to know what the heck his lifeguards were up to. So the hui brought Goto out to Mākaha and gave him a demonstration.“It was a solid north swell, a ten-foot day,” Pu‘u says. “Dennis had purchased a used ski, so we said, ‘You take Ralph out, drop him in the impact zone, and Brian and I will be on the side and come rescue him.’ So Dennis drops him off. First set comes in, pounds him. Ralph is a good swimmer, but he comes up and he’s waving. I said, ‘Okay, Brian, let’s go get him.’ ‘No, not yet.’ Second wave comes and pounds him again. Now Ralph is really waving. I go,‘Brian, let’s go get him.’ ‘No, wait.’ ‘Brian, he’s our boss!’ ‘Just wait, Mel.’”

Finally, after the third wave, with only the top of Goto’s head showing at the surface, “We zoom in, pick Ralph up and bring him in to the beach. He says, ‘Well, you’ve convinced me. Now go and convince the City Council.’” They did, and in January 1992 jet skis were approved for lifeguard rescue efforts on the North and Leeward shores. From there, the trend spread. The hui traveled extensively to promote their use, conducting demonstrations and trainings across the state and around the world, with Pu‘u writing the curriculum. Today, the techniques they developed are the international lifesaving standard.

Throughout his career Pu‘u has worked periodically for the movie industry. In 2010, during the filming of the Bethany Hamilton story Soul Surfer, he severed the peroneal nerve in his lower left leg, an injury that took him five years to rehabilitate. Relegated to administrative duties, he used the time to strengthen the lifeguards’ employee union, fighting for higher pay and winning in arbitration. In 2016, city lifeguards got a 16 percent raise—the largest single-year increase ever awarded in Hawai‘i.

By then Pu‘u was back out on the water. One morning while patrolling the Leeward coast, he tore up his left biceps performing back-to-back rescues in high surf. Facing another long recovery, he decided to retire at the end of 2017. In retirement he has remained close to the ocean. As his father did when he was young, he enjoys spending days at the beach with his wife Momi and their eight children—four young boys and four older girls.

He’s also a certified boat captain who takes visitors out along the Leeward coast. “I educate them about the ocean and show them the marine life we have here,” he says. “I try to do it respectfully.” Beyond that, Pu‘u spends several months a year preparing for his own surf event, Bradah Mel’s Waterman Championship, held at Mākaha every December since 2005 to raise money for charity.

At 57, however, he is still a relatively young man, and his desire to ride the big ones is still strong. “I have some things I’m taking care of with my shoulder that limits what I can do,” he says as he sits scanning the ocean at Mākaha. “But as soon as I’m done with that, I plan to go full-bore. I want to see if I can get back to where I once was.” HH