What is a Waterman?
When it comes to defining the term “waterman”, the internet yields varied results ranging from a river boat worker in Britain, to some one who takes part in multiple water actives, to even specifying Chesapeake Bay commercial fishermen. The recent ESPN 30 for 30 documentary about the late Eddie Aikau used the term multiple times to describe this rescue swimmer legend and his lifestyle that revolved around the coastal waters. I thought back and remembered hearing the term used to describe another childhood hero, Laird Hamilton, the epic big wave surfer.
Eddie Aikau was born and raised on the island of Oahu by a traditional Hawaiian family, and along with his sibling grew up playing in the surf breaks of Waikiki and North Shore. He was one of the first native Hawaiians ever to win the prestigious Duke Invitational Surf Tournament; he also served as the first ever lifeguard at Waimea bay, where he made countless rescues. In the islands of Hawaii you would be hard pressed to find a more legendary lifeguard and resonant social figure.
Eddie gave his life trying to save his crewmates as they sought to restore pride to the Hawaiian people by navigating to Polynesia in traditional ocean going canoes using no modern technology. Despite a raging storm, Eddie volunteered to paddle the 12 miles back to land to get help and disappeared into the storm, never to be seen again. Everyone in the crew survived, save for Eddie, they told his tale of bravery and self-sacrifice. The phrase “Eddie would go” was spawned and it echos forward in time. In memorial when the waves break at their biggest in Waimea Bay the Eddie is held and attended by the best surfers in the world who gather to celebrate his legend.
It has been said there is no greater calling then the one to risk your life to save another’s; it is often a thankless job, and requires total commitment to preparation and readiness.
When I consider the term waterman, I think of a person who can jog out to the beach, pick up any water tool, and operate it safely to rescue someone; occasionally this includes using the tools for sport. A surfboard, a rescue board, a kayak, fins, a sailboat or an outrigger canoe are all tools to a true waterman. Walk down to the shore of a bay and pick a spot. Calculate the distance, wind speed and direction, current tide, trade lines, sandbars, and wild life zones to figure out which tool will get you there the most efficiently. In the movie Chasing Mavericks the young boy and his sensei routinely paddle progressively longer distances, culminating in a paddle from Santa Cruz to Monterey; that’s 28 miles….
Could you make that paddle? Well, with proper progression and conditioning, you could have the local muscular endurance to make the distance, but do you have the balance to ride the sea? The comfort to absorb the random waves that flood you out? The calm to brush off the slimy gooey stuff out there, and the constant burn of Jelly stings? How about having the composure to handle a shark encounter? Down here we have Great White’s folks, BIG ONES. Which tool would you choose for that journey? Start looking out from beaches and points and look for things to play with or swim too. Click the link, there is some good intel on the English Channel Swimming Association that sets the gold standard rules for traverses like this.
This badass swam ( http://www.santacruzsentinel.com/ci_15886149 ) it, the whole 25 mile journey getting pelted by jelly fish and hacking through kelp. It took him over 13 hours to make the swim, and was without a wet suit until he hit Moss Landing. Read about the final mile of his swim; it’s truly amazing what some people can accomplish.
Growing up every summer in the Town of Barnstable, and working through college as an ocean guard, I idolized the buff bronzed surfer lifesaver dudes on the west coast, in Hawaii, and of course the big leagues… Oz. My love of Tom Clancy introduced me to the world of Naval strategic warfare, and elite special operations units like the mythical Rainbow 6. I became fascinated with the special warfare operator training in 25-degree water, developing subsurface assault and combative skills I saw in documentaries and read about in books. I would sit in the shore break and mimic the BUD/S candidates I saw on TV allowing waves to crash on my face and body. I would make myself drown proof, I decided, and started throwing myself into progressively more and more adverse swimming scenarios. This meant routinely finding myself a long way from home with no option but adapt and over come, often times facing real danger. Later in life this ability to be comfortable in adverse situations would prove to be my strongest asset in my progression through water lifesaving training. It would also allow me to stay calm in situations where I bit off way more than I could chew.
You begin to ask yourself, why do people drown? Yes, overestimating one’s ability is the initial factor, but why do some people drown while others escape the same scenario unscathed? How can someone rescue another person if the situation is so dangerous? I would say in my experience the difference between survivor and rescuer is how you approach the situation. Adverse water conditions don’t magically ease upon the arrival of aid, and in some cases it can escalate the situations if the rescuer is unprepared for the survivors’ response. The water is the same temperature, and the tide pulls with equal malice, but the responder must be in complete control of themselves and adaptive to the aquatic environment.
Water is a unique rescue response modality in that it has a strange psychological grip on some people. I can’t imagine suffering from aqua phobia, nevertheless facing that fear face down in the sea. A panicked survivor wants three things above all else; to be anywhere but here, to get higher up, and to be saved. Its like clock work, they will jump on your shoulders thinking they can stand on an invisible submarine. Oldest trick in the book to counter that is to go where they don’t want to be, down.
In today’s era of Internet celebrity and professional athletics, it seems the art of being a Waterman is slowly fading from the public’s consciousness. It is encouraging to see documentaries like ESPN’s 30 for 30 on Eddie Aikau being made to tell these coastal life savers stories, but it is in my humble opinion that there are many other great stories yearning to be told. All across the country, certain individuals have stood out from the crowd and proven excellent in multiple facets of aquatic domains. I for one would love to hear the stories of brave men and women protecting the shores in a way other then Baywatch. If any of you readers have some coastal lifestyle stories you would like to share, we would love to hear them @ firstname.lastname@example.org.