Issue 9.6: December/January 2007

The Goto Guy

story by Derek Farrar
photos by Dana Edmunds

In the flat water inside the breakwall at Waikiki’s Kuhio Beach, two teams of amped-up lifeguards square off in fluorescent surf shirts and skull-hugging water polo headgear.

A whistle blows and they launch into a paddling frenzy, scrambling back and forth madly on blue foam surfboards to fire shots at small floating goals. A throwback to Waikiki beachboy days of yore, the spirited match of surf polo is part of an annual ocean festival celebrating the great Hawaiian swimmer and surfer Duke Kahanamoku.

On shore, tournament director Ralph Goto is on the move, giving instructions to the competitors, checking on the T-shirt sales, sharing a joke with a visiting colleague. In his mirrored glasses, Easy Rider mustache and perpetual wry grin, Goto is, as usual, managing the logistics of the moment with his signature light touch and good humor, well honed in his twenty-five years as head of O‘ahu’s lifeguard service.

During Goto’s tenure at the City and County of Honolulu’s Ocean Safety & Lifeguard Services Division, the department has grown tremendously—from around fifty full- and part-time lifeguards and an annual budget of $700,000 in 1981 to more than 200 employees and an $8 million budget today. His team has also pioneered lifesaving technology now emulated around the world, most notably the development of jet ski surf rescues in the early 1990s.

But what the lifeguards who work under Goto tend to give him the most credit for is the deft way he navigates the city bureaucracy on their behalf. Longtime Pipeline lifeguard Mark Cunningham, who recently retired to pursue his alter ego as a bodysurfing legend, says that Goto “has always earned the respect of the guys on the beach, because he’s always there fighting the battles with all the bean counters to get better equipment and training.”

In his mellow, graduate-of-the-’60s tone, Goto admits that as a county administrator “you’re in a pretty thick bureaucracy a lot of the time, but you learn how to play it.” He counts among his strengths the ability to “work within the system without upsetting too many people.”

“We all make good and bad choices, and it seems like Ralph just makes a lot of good choices,” says Paul Merino, the lifeguard captain in charge of O‘ahu’s south shore. “He knows how to implement new ideas but still keep a local Hawaiian aesthetic to it, and he has a lot of compassion for people.”

Such praise doesn’t come easy from lifeguards—especially given the fact that Goto came to the job without any ocean lifesaving experience of his own. He was born in Sapporo in 1946, by chance becoming the first American baby born in Japan after World War II when his father, an Army translator, was posted there in the early days of the occupation.

Ralph grew up in occupied Japan, then in Hawai‘i for a while during middle school, then shuttling between various military sites, including a couple of years in Baltimore. He graduated from high school back in Japan and came to the University of Hawai‘i as a basketball player in 1964, graduating six years later with a philosophy degree.

Having lifeguarded at pools during high school and college, he went to work after college coordinating swimming, PE and first aid programs at the YMCA and other nonprofits. Then in 1981 an ad for the top job in the city’s lifeguard service cropped up in the newspaper, and he’s been there ever since.

When Goto came on board, the service was under the Parks and Recreation Department (it’s now under Emergency Services) and was a fairly loose band of beach die-hards forged by legendary watermen like Eddie Aikau, who had patrolled the entire North Shore by himself, and Buffalo Keaulana, who presided at Makaha.

“It was still pretty old-school,” Goto recalls. “There wasn’t much structure or budget. The guys on the beach had great skills, but they were a pretty different breed. A lot of them were really accomplished watermen in their own right.”

For Ralph, the challenge was how to lead such an elite group without having ever been one of them, so to speak. Or, as he puts it, “Suddenly you’re Buffalo’s boss—how do you deal with something like that?”

From the start, he says, he approached his job as a supporting role. “It’s the people on the beach who are doing the work,” he says. “Our job in administration is to find out what they need and get it to them.”



Terry Ahue, a former lifeguard who now runs water safety patrols at surf contests and movie shoots around the globe, says that “from the beginning, Ralph was a real inspiration—keeping us in check all the time and trying to make sure that we were always doing something productive.”

Ahue was among a handful of lifeguards who pioneered the use of jet skis as rescue craft in O‘ahu’s big-surf zones, an innovation that has revolutionized modern surf lifesaving. Goto recalls the moment when famed lifeguard Brian Keaulana first demonstrated the skis’ potential to him, up close and personal.

“Brian took me out at Makaha on a pretty solid day and dropped me off right in the impact zone,” Ralph says. “He let me get whacked by a few waves, then came zipping in, smiling, and said, ‘Hop on.’ He got me to the beach in literally seconds.”

It was nothing short of a revelation compared with the “half-hour of drama and trauma” that Goto says went with the arduous old rescue techniques of paddling a giant surfboard to a victim or swimming to them with fins and a float.

“That day with Brian was my personal epiphany that, OK, this will work,” he says. “Then it was a matter of convincing the powers that be that these were more than just glorified dirt bikes on the water.” Today, the skis are used by ocean rescuers across the globe, with Goto’s staff traveling far and wide to provide training.

Ralph sits in dress shorts and a silk aloha shirt behind the desk of his cramped office in lifeguard headquarters at the foot of Diamond Head. “Basically, all I do is staple papers,” he jokes as he fields questions between phone calls.

On a wood-paneled wall, plaques from drowning and trauma conferences hang among a hodgepodge of pictures: Duke Kahanamoku and his brothers on the beach, a Hokusai wave, a scuba diver playing matador to a shark.

Stacked up around Ralph’s desk are blues and ’60s-rock CDs that speak of his passion for music. On Friday nights he can often be found at a coffee shop called Muddy Waters playing guitar with a howling bluesman named Boogie (who is, by day, a special-education teacher).

His other “hobbies, pastimes and passions” include sailing and, recently, turning wood bowls—a hobby he says he’s been “hacking away at” in anticipation of his coming retirement, “because it’s good for the soul.” At sixty, with his two children now grown, Ralph is starting to contemplate the golden years of a civil servant alongside his wife of thirty-two years, Roberta, who is a nurse manager with the state Department of Health.

Getting back to business, he launches into a discussion about some of the special challenges of lifesaving in Hawai‘i. “We have more people going into the water and doing more things than just about any place in the world,” he says. “We get something like seven and a half million visitors a year now, and where is the one place every one of them has to go? The beach. The challenge for us is how to educate visitors about potential dangers without scaring them away.”

The key to reducing drownings, he says, is “not to wait until someone’s in trouble in the water and you have to go save them. The way to do it is prevention, prevention, prevention.”

One recent prevention initiative is an ocean-safety video that Goto’s department produced in partnership with Hawaiian Airlines, which is shown on all of Hawaiian’s flights into Hawai‘i. Another project in the works is a website that would show daily hazard levels at selected beaches, based on complex formulas of coastal geography and real-time swell readings from weather buoys.

“People generally are not stupid,” Ralph says. “You just have to give them the information they need and allow them to make their own decisions about what they’re going to do. It doesn’t work to just tell them, ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that.’”

Back at the surf polo match, Ralph is chatting with one of the visiting lifeguards, Jay Butki, an impossibly big, impossibly chiseled rescue-boat driver from Los Angeles who jokes that he’s the “real-life David Hasselhoff.”

Asked to describe Ralph’s standing in the profession, Butki sums it up without hesitation: “He’s a gem—an absolute diamond—in terms of administrators I’ve worked with. Ralph is polished, he’s proficient and he’s professional. And he always pulls it off with a little aloha.” HH