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Q+A: Surfing Rescue Pioneer Brian Keaulana
A life spent on the ocean has taught this Hawaiian waterman the ways of the (giant) wave.
Text by Ryan Bradley   Photograph courtesy of Brian Kealuana

Photo: Brian Keaulana

Surfing rescue expert Brian Keaulana took stand-up paddling to new extremes at the Big Board Surfing Classic last February.

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Winter storms bring some of the biggest waves in the world to Oahu's North Shore, and few are as familiar with giant surf as Brian Keaulana.

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An innovator in water safety risk management, Keaulana is routinely tapped to teach the best big-wave riders in the world how to react to a wipeout in gargantuan (40-foot-plus or 12-meter-plus) waves. His uncanny ability to rescue surfers from seemingly impossible situations makes Keaulana an incredible asset at big-wave competitions around the globe.

In one particularly notable rescue, in 1993, on Oahu's northwest shore, Keaulana saved a tourist trapped in the "Moi Hole"—a sea cave nestled among a particularly violent convergence of volcanic rock, heavy swells, and churning tides. The fact that Keaulana was able to get in (and out) in one piece was heroic; that he did so using a Jet Ski was revolutionary.

Soon after, Keaulana was promoted to lifeguard captain of the Makaha coastline, a position first held by his father, Buffalo, also a legendary waterman.

Then, Hollywood came calling: Keaulana has worked on Waterworld, In God's Hands, and Blue Crush and today is one of the most sought-after surfing stuntmen in the industry (he's currently working on the second season of Beyond the Break). And somehow the 45-year-old still finds time to compete, taking first in the stand-up paddling and tandem surfing competitions in his father's Big Board Surfing Classic last February.

Adventure spoke with Keaulana about using Jet Skis to save lives, the risk management while riding giants, and who you don't want to be with in the water.

How long have you been a lifeguard?
Keaulana: It's hard to say, exactly. My father has always been a big influence. He's one of the pioneer surfers and was born and raised right on the beach at Makaha on the west end of Oahu. He was the only person appointed by the governor to be the lifeguard on Oahu's West Shore. I grew up seeing my father rescue so many people, it was a lifestyle.

How did using Jet Skis for big-wave rescues come about?

In 1993, I was surfing Waimea Bay in the Eddie Aikau [Big Wave Invitational] and I wiped out pretty bad. When I was tumbling underwater, I was thinking, God here I am, in the same position of the people I see when they drown. When I came up, the next wave was even bigger. There with me in the impact zone was a friend on a Jet Ski saying, "Brian, you alright?" I relaxed and focused on that—that, wow, there's somebody right here.

Was that a ligh-bulb-over-the-head kind of moment?
I was just amazed that a piece of technology could get into a zone that dangerous. I went out and bought a Yamaha Waverunner and started practicing making rescues. It was hard to pick the surfers up, so I modified a bodyboard with waterholes and adapted it to more like a sled so that you could grab on to it when it went by. We started practicing with our own guys and brought it to a contest. From then on it was kind of history.

You've taken classes in military risk management.
They were talking about bombs and explosions and my friends were saying, "Brian, what are we doing in this class?" I was converting everything the instructor said into impact zone, or currents … putting everything they were saying into the context of being in the water. When you think about it, the ocean can be a war zone.

How do you surf a giant wave with minimal risk?
For any break, you need to know it like you know your own house. You need to know the topography of the reef, the caves, the crevices, what marine life frequents, which way the currents flow depending on swell direction, wind direction, tide, how high, low, so that you know exactly what creates certain types of dangers. What's really important to us is where the rubbish line is. This is the area where all the currents dump driftwood and debris. If we're going after someone who's knocked out it's the first place we'd check.

Is there anyone who rides big waves who shouldn't?
There are surfers who're out there for money and recognition. Then there're the adrenaline junkies. It depends what drives a person, because then you find out what their behavior is. You want to know if you're dealing with an individual or a team player. When you surf really large waves, it's not if but when something goes down, you want to know who's going to back you up.

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