Hawaiian Water Patrol
A local business makes an international splash
It is fitting that the story of the Hawaiian Water Patrol Inc. (HWP) reads like a Hollywood script. In the ’70s, Terry Ahue was a City and County of Honolulu lifeguard sitting beside legendary waterman Eddie Aikau at Waimea Bay, saving lives and surfing what many consider the biggest waves in the world on his lunch breaks.
Brian Keaulana, son of another legend, Buffalo Keaulana, was already surfing the huge surf at Waimea by his early teens, making frequent trips from his hometown of Makaha to the North Shore, where he befriended Ahue. Keaulana also became a City and County lifeguard, sitting alongside his father at Makaha. By the ’80s, the two friends and a handful of other lifeguards and big-wave surfers were spending their weekends as lifeguards and water patrol safety for surf contests around the Island, in big and small surf, using their own personal big-wave boards, a rescue tube and swim fins as equipment. Since then, armed with rescue sleds attached to the back of their personal watercraft, years of experience in some of the most dynamic surf and ocean conditions imaginable and a list of subcontractors that includes some of the world’s elite watermen, the two friends turned their passion into a company that is now considered a “must have” at any surf contest and any commercial or movie production shooting in or around Pacific waters.
It all started with a life-changing brush with death. On Feb. 21st 1987, Brian Keaulana was surfing in the first big-wave invitational meet to commemorate the death of surfer Eddie Aikau. After a wipeout on a 20-foot wave during the contest, Keaulana found himself separated from his board, in the middle of the impact zone just to the left of the rocks, facing beating after beating by relentless waves. Keaulana recalls, “I would get held under by one or two waves and as I came up and grabbed a quick breath there would be another one crashing down on me. I didn’t expect anyone to come get me, because it would have been suicide.
“I came up from getting held under and there was my friend on one of those standup jet-skis asking, ‘Brian, you OK?’ There was no way he could bring me in on that type of craft, but as he zoomed off to the safety of the channel and the next wave held me down, I knew what I was gonna do as soon as I got to the beach.”
After the contest Keaulana went straight to Seven-Eleven and bought every watercraft magazine on the rack. “The next day I went to town and bought a Yamaha Wave Runner and called Terry and said, ‘We need to figure out how to use these things to make rescues.’ The rest is history,” he says.
With the help of a group of big-wave surfers and lifeguards, such as Melvin Puu and Dennis Gouveia, the research and development of equipment and rescue techniques utilizing the personal watercraft went into full swing. Within a year, the team had developed a rigging, resembling a large bodyboard, that attaches to the back of the craft and can accommodate multiple patients and a crew person.
Once the word got out about what Ahue and Keaulana were up to and how they were providing safety using the personal watercraft, their services were requested at all events requiring water-safety personnel. The two friends decided to create a formal business to facilitate the increasing demand for their services, appropriately naming it the Hawaiian Water Patrol Inc.
The mission of the HWP is to provide safety for people and property through resources, knowledgeable professionals, high-tech equipment and an extensive risk-management structure. The menu of the HWP’s services includes rescue-craft training, water patrol at surfing and beach events, and safety for the cast and crew of productions. The company also offers ocean-risk technician and risk-management courses and seminars.
The HWP has also become a one-stop shop for actors and stunt men for production companies shooting in Hawaii. Stunt and safety coordinators know that using the HWP means having full-fledged stunt men with Stunt and Screen Actors Guild cards. They can roll a car, do a fight scene, jump out a window and memorize lines as needed. Despite the company’s reputation, Keaulana and Ahue are renowned among Hawaii water enthusiasts not only for their talent and aloha spirit, but also for their humility. “Money is not what we measure our success by. We have a job. It doesn’t matter if it’s safety for a stuntman or doing the stunts ourselves. If, at the end of the day, all cast, crew and our personnel go home safe and in the same shape as they arrived on set that morning, we are successful,” says Keaulana.
“We pride ourselves on building relationships that have grown into friendships built on trust and professionalism with producers and others who contract our services. Through that trust and the strong reputation we pride ourselves in, our work base grows. As this happens, we are able to give more jobs and opportunities for exposure to the local people in Hawaii, and that is what makes us successful in my eyes.”
To maintain trust and professionalism, and because every job is different, the HWP makes it a point to never publicize its earnings and maintains strict confidentiality between itself and its clients. However, there are standard union rates for the Screen Actors Guild, a union to which all HWP employees and subcontractors must belong. The 2004 Extension Agreement for the Screen Actors Guild/American Federation of Television and Radio Artists Television (SAG/AFTRA) covers the standard salary for its members working from June 30, 2004, to June 30, 2005. According to the agreement, the standard salary, under certain conditions, for any freelance stunt performer is $2,588 weekly and the standard salary for a stunt coordinator is $3,126 weekly.
By 1990, the HWP was receiving dozens of requests for water-safety services for contests and commercial productions. In 1991, it received a call to serve as safety for Patrick Swayze and his stunt doubles in the film Point Break. In 1995, a window of opportunity blew open when Keaulana and Ahue served as safety personnel and stuntmen on the Big Island on the mega-budget film Waterworld, with Kevin Costner. Waterworld allowed the two to show bigwigs in the film industry that these local boys could be useful in future motion pictures as the water-safety and stunt teams.
However, any film-related businesses’ cash flow is far from stable. After Sept. 11, Keaulana and Ahue’s consulting work, traveling around the globe to train other agencies in water safety, became a means of survival. “A business like ours is up and down,” says Keaulana. “One day you are wondering if jobs will ever come back and the next day you got two series filming virtually simultaneously on the same island, you never know what is going to happen and that’s why maintaining your integrity is so important.”
SETTING THE STANDARD
The City and County of Honolulu was an early adopter of the HWP rescue craft program, making it part of daily operations by 1991. Honolulu Deputy Fire Chief John Clark says the jetski/rescue sled is one of the greatest developments in ocean rescue operations. He says, “… the jetski/rescue sled combination has revolutionized high surf rescues in the Hawaiian Islands and around the world.” Keaulana and Ahue found themselves flying to California, Japan, Thailand, France and Australia to train other public-safety agencies in the use of personal watercraft as a rescue tool.
Between their growing obligations to the many surf contests and events that relied on the HWP for safety during the winter high-surf season, teaching training classes, overseeing safety on the sets of commercials, television shows and major films – Keaulana and Ahue needed help. They knew who to turn to: “All the guys that work for us are our friends that we grew up with, people that we know are knowledgeable watermen,” says Keaulana. “This is not the kind of job you hire someone with a resume for. We need to know what they can do because we rely on each other. You can teach someone lifeguarding and lifesaving techniques, but it takes a lifetime of experience to gain ocean and wave knowledge.”
Keaulana and Ahue have attained the rank of stunt and safety coordinators on many of the projects they have been hired for. They are both working in that capacity on two television shows currently in production here, North Shore and Hawaii. Keaulana believes that simply coordinating and implementing safety isn’t enough; everyone involved needs to understand why things are being done in a certain way to increase the safety factor.
He says, “Call it the beauty and the beast syndrome. Anyone can comprehend the beauty of the ocean, but it takes a certain kind of person to understand the beast. The beauty draws you in and that beauty is certainly an effect producers are drawn to, but, if you’re not prepared, the beast will kill you.” Keaulana, Ahue and a select group of watermen have totally redefined the way public-safety agencies around the world save lives in an aquatic environment and have offered the Hawaii film industry one more enticing reason to bring productions of all sizes to the Islands, creating jobs in the process. Whether it’s running with the Rock in the Rundown, playing themselves and keeping it safe on a full season of Baywatch, jumping jet skis in 50 First Dates, getting squashed in phones booths in Godzilla or jumping off ships in Pearl Harbor – with the Hawaiian Water Patrol on the job, there will be safety on the set.