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Hawaiian Lifeguard Profiled

Aired July 27, 2013 - 14:30   ET


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They are innovators, game changers, people pushing themselves, moving us all forward. They are the next scientists, musicians, poets, the next makers, dreamers, teachers, and geniuses. They are THE NEXT LIST.

ARCHIE KALEPA, OCEAN SAFETY OPERATIONS, MAUI COUNTY: The ocean will humble you. The ocean will put you in your spot. When you think you're in control of Mother Nature, and you think you're in control of the ocean, you're not.

SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Welcome to "THE NEXT LIST." I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Every year people flock to the nation's beaches for the sun, the sand, and the surf. What they don't see is the danger.

JUDE MCREE, RESCUED SWIMMER: I started screaming, "help, help!" And the next thing I know, this wonderful man has a little flotation device and was dragging us through the waves.

GUPTA: Archie Kalepa is chief of ocean safety for the island of Maui with 64 lifeguards under his command. He is responsible for the safety of more than 2 million visitors a year along with 120 miles of coastline.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I've seen him in action. He will rush in without a question and try to help anybody in peril.

GUPTA: Kalepa pioneered the use of jet skis in ocean rescue nearly 25 years ago. And today he's innovating new rescue equipment to improve ocean safety. Kalepa is also an elite athlete with the skill to surf the giant waves of Maui.

KALEPA: The excitement, the thrill, dabbling in danger, it's when I'm probably my most happiest.

GUPTA: But what sets Archie Kalepa apart is his deep cultural connection to the water and his passion for public safety.

KALEPA: You know, we don't do this job for the money. We do this job because we love the work. My name is Archie Kalepa. I'm in charge of the ocean safety operations for Maui County.

It only takes five minutes for a person to go brain dead or to drown. For us a lot of times the surf is way offshore, and so it's all about the response time, you know, how quickly can we respond from point a to point b, or from the safe zone to the impact zone where the waves are breaking and back out of that.

The ski just allowed us to enhance that. Instead of being able to operate as far as we can see, we're able to operate for miles and beyond. And when you have somebody that's unconscious and you have to give them CPR, put them on oxygen, having the ability to have that ski to get them on board and get them to shore to better, quicker medical care is a key component to what we do day in and day out.

When you go to rescue somebody on a jet ski, you signal to them with your left hand, you grab their hand and give it a little bit of throttle and pull them onto the sled out of harm's way.

TODD BRADLEY, CO-FOUNDER AND CEO, C-4 WATERMAN: I think what sets Archie apart in the lifeguard world is he has decades of innovating rescue techniques, innovating how it's done and being utilized in conditions that are never the same.

KALEPA: The inflatable rescue board is an awesome, awesome thing. Techniques that we use to put an unconscious person on the surfboard, we grab their wrists, put it on the board, flip it over one time and then you flip it a second time so the board would be back right side up, straddle your body over him. He's conscious but exhausted. You just tell him, help me paddle as much as you can.

The ability to create products that are inflatable today, that are strong, light, we can roll it up, we can inflate it, the technology is there. There is a lot of people that played key roles in the development of the rescue ski. We were the ones with the idea, but we needed to help get the officials to realize that, hey, you know what, this is a tool, not a toy.

I remember the first couple times going on patrol and all the surfers were, you know, flipping me off. And then hurricane Aniki came, and the surf was 50 feet right there. And on that particular day I was supposed to do our very first jet-ski training class, and I remember telling the lifeguard, I don't know if I'm ever going to come back. I don't know if I'm going to live through this.

People just were crying out for help on their boat, and you just tell them, jump in the water, grab them, put them on the sled, and, you know, in hurricane Aniki we ended up saving 12 people and a dog. It was one of those life and death days. And here we are, you know, some 25 years later, and along the way the jet-ski has saved, you know, thousands of lives.

BRADLEY: Archie, he definitely puts others ahead of himself when it comes to time, game time where he has to save somebody.

MCREE: It was in April of 1994, and my husband and I had gone to Maui for our anniversary. Rich went in the water right away and he came up and said, come play in the water with me. It's beautiful.

RICHARD MCREE, RESCUED SWIMMER: And all of a sudden we couldn't touch the bottom. The shore was disappearing as fast as you can imagine.

MCREE: I started screaming, "Help, help!" And the next thing I know, somebody, this man, this wonderful man, has a little flotation device and was dragging us through the waves.

RICHARD MCREE: We thought we were going to die. It was just absolutely a miracle he showed up just in time.

MCREE: We get out onto the shoreline and we introduced ourselves. He said, my name is Archie. Archie, what can we do for you? He said nothing, just doing my job. I'm a lifeguard.

KALEPA: I'm proud to be a lifeguard because I represent Hawaii. I represent the people of Hawaii. You know, we don't do this job for the money, we do this job because we love the work. We love being able to help people, we love being able to be a positive role model in the community. You know, it's just such a rewarding job to be able to help people and change people's lives.

GUPTA: Up next, they are known as the men who ride mountains.


KALEPA: For every individual it's the ultimate ride. It doesn't matter if it's big, small. What matters is what you have in here, to have the heart to not challenge but to be in harmony with the waves. And I think that's a driving passion to do what I do in the ocean. It's more of a passion, the excitement, the thrill, dabbling in danger. I really, really enjoy being in that kind of environment, and it's when I'm probably my most happiest.

BRADLEY: December 13, 2004, I believe, out here at Jaws. It was one of the biggest wave seasons we've had. And I got a call from Archie the night before saying it's supposed to be, you know, 60 feet out here. Can you come over, drive another ski and just run back up as a safety, because I want to try to catch the biggest wave of my life.

KALEPA: Your blood starts flowing, your palms start sweating, you can't sleep. I compare it to going to battle, really, because sometimes when it's that big, you don't know if you're going to come home.

BRADLEY: So we got up that morning, and we could just see these massive waves, between 60 and 80 foot bases just breaking. And Archie lit up like a kid at Christmas.

KALEPA: You're double checking, your triple checking your equipment, you're making sure everything is OK. You're making sure you're OK physically, mentally, spiritually.

BRADLEY: He's always pushing the limits of everything he does, finding new challenges and going after it.

KALEPA: I have a really good tow partner by the name of Buzzie Kurboxin. He's one of the pioneers that started the whole towing thing. And just having a partner like that, my confidence level went up.

BRADLEY: He said, Buzzie, I just want the biggest one. We're in the lineup where I always try to find him the biggest ones that come in, because that's what he wants.

KALEPA: We got up there and it was really, really giant. The ground was rumbling.

BRADLEY: And I just thought to myself, oh, my god, here we go. It's game on. This one particularly wave that Archie took off on was the biggest wave of the day. When he turned and looked, the whole wave is looming all around him. He has three choices, either to try and kick out, which he's going to die, he goes straight he's going to die, or just turn and go into what we call the tube.

KALEPA: It's probably maybe about a 60-foot wave, and I remember just halfway down the face, I just turned into it, pulled in, got the barrel of a lifetime.

BRADLEY: And as I was tracking, looking into the tube, it started to get all cragly and misty and everything, and I thought, oh, please stay on, please stay on.

KALEPA: It was like going through a cloud because I couldn't see anything. And I remember thinking, please don't hit me in the head, please don't hit me in the head. I came spitting out and everybody was screaming.

BRADLEY: He came out and the crowd, even the cliffs were just roaring with people just like, oh, my god, that was amazing.

KALEPA: I remember I kicked out and Buzzie came and picked me up and I started crying and said, get me out of here, get me out of here. We went way out and I started crying and said, Buzz, that was the ultimate ride. I'm done. That was the ultimate ride.

BRADLEY: Why does someone climb Mt. Everest? That's kind of what he did. Why? Because it's there. They just have this desire to not beat it, but I think it's to experience it.

KALEPA: It's just been really, really awesome to be able to play in that kind of environment where life and death is on the line. There is nothing that can compare really.

BRADLEY: He's got some big -- I can tell you that.

KALEPA: You know, the ocean is a very powerful playground. When you think you're in control of Mother Nature, when you think you're in control of the ocean, you're not. One day we were out at Jaws, it was a big day and I told my partner BuzzieB buzz, I only want to go left. He said, I can't see because of the glare of the sun. I said, OK, if I'm on the right side of you, I'm going left. If I'm on the left side of you, I'm going right.

We went for this wave, and I started saying "No, no, no, no, no." He thought I was saying "Go, go, go, go, go." So I redirected and went right behind the wave. I straightened it out and everything went into slow motion. It was really amazing. I saw the wave, the water come between my feet, and then getting tumbled in the whitewash. Hydraulics of the water just exploded right by my leg and my leg went like this. I came up and my leg was like this, and I was like, oh, I broke my leg. Three more 40-footers on the head and finally Buzzie came and got me. The rescue guys came and rescued me and plucked me out of the water.

The ocean never lies. The ocean will humble you. The ocean will put you in your spot. It keeps you honest. It makes you realize, you know what, my britches aren't that big after all, and my cajones aren't that big. It's a constant reminder of keeping things in perspective.

Hawaiians in the ocean, there's a definite connection. The salt water is in their blood. They are so in tune with the ocean, it's in their DNA. It's embedded in them.


KALEPA: My parents tell me, your name is Akai, which is my Hawaiian name, which means to travel by the sea. Hawaiian's and the oceans, there is a definite connection. The salt water is in their blood. They're so in tune with the ocean, it's in their DNA. It's embedded in them.

Being inducted into the waterman hall of fame is just huge. When I was first contacted about being inducted into the hall of fame, I never told anybody because I couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe that I was held in this honor.

A waterman in the eyes of the people of Hawaii is like a superhero. It's somebody that is very strong in the water, very talented in the water. He can do it all. He can swim, surf, dive, fish. People respect him and people say, hey, I know that guy. He's a waterman.

We say the words fearless, courageous, brave, crazy. But what we really mean to say is connected, in tune, down to earth, and without filters. The things that my grandfather and my father taught me about understanding the coastline, understanding all the different reefs, how the moon played a part in the tides and when was the best time to fish, all those things just really helped me have a better understanding of this environment that I so dearly love.

MATTHEW MURASKO, ARCHIE'S FRIEND: The one word that comes to mind immediately with Archie is he is humble. He doesn't do anything for show. This is who he is.

ALICIA KALEPA, ARCHIE'S WIFE: He's always been very in touch with his culture and his elements, and that's what I loved about him. He was, like, real and not fake. He was real.

KALEPA: My grandfather served in the military for 40 years. My dad served in the military for 27 years. He did three tours in Nam and he taught me to work hard, never give up, and give 100 percent in everything you do.

I've been fortunate enough to work with branches of the military such as the Special Forces and trained them in the utilization of the jet- ski and pass on some of the knowledge that we've learned and developed. It was an honor to work with them, all men and women who have served in the military that have laid down their lives for us.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The one thing that sets Archie apart is that he's sharing this knowledge. To fulfill who he is as a person in his gut as a Hawaii man, as a waterman he needs to spread the light of knowledge that he knows and that he's developed around the world with whoever is willing to listen.

KALEPA: We were surfing Jaws one day. It was late in the evening. I was kind of telling him, one more wave, one more wave! I had a three- wave hold-down at Jaws. I had a three-wave hold-down and accepted death. It was the most peaceful experience I ever had. I remember it being pitch black and I was on the bottom, and I kept -- I remember I counted my strokes. I did like 27 strokes and I stopped, and I went, man, I'm going to die. This is it, I'm going to die. And something said, Archie, you got to try one more time.

And I remember I took 14 more strokes and it was still pitch black. I stopped again and I said, OK. All right, god, I'm ready. I'm ready. All of a sudden, I just saw light at the surface, and I remember coming up, and I was completely exhausted. I was just -- I couldn't even hang onto the sled.

And that's why I made this tattoo. The turtle -- the Hawaiians have what's called the Amakua, which is a protector. I put this turtle on there, which is a form of Amakua, and then I made the wave with the sun. So every time I will surf, it's a reminder to me to use your head. Think about what you're doing.


KALEPA: I was fortunate enough to be invited to participate in a journey down the Colorado with some of the Indian tribes. You're away from society, you're away from electricity. You're living in an environment that's a million years old. So you get put in this frame of mind where you really start to understand your environment.

I brought an inflatable paddle board. I brought it purely as a conversation piece. I inflated the board and got on it, and I was falling all over the place. It was very challenging for like the first four days. And I never got off it. I was determined, and 17 days and 187 miles later, you know, I did the whole thing. The journey was really all about water rights and native rights to the use of water. What we really found out was it's not only a native issue but it's a world issue.

RICHARD MCREE: He's very much of the earth and cares about people. We asked him about his religion, and he said my religion is Ina, which is the earth in Hawaiian.

KALEPA: Lifeguards have a lot of wisdom, intimate knowledge of the shoreline, what's down there, what's under the water, the different tides, the different currents, the different wind lines. People, what they see is they see the beauty, but they don't see the beast that's hidden in the beauty. The rip current that's going out here, the normal eye can't see.

RICHARD MCREE: He gave us many more years, and that's just a constant inspiration.

KALEPA: Somebody asked me a question the other day -- how many lives did you save? And I told them, you know what, maybe a couple hundred, but I know that me being a part of the jet-ski and sharing that with the world equates to millions. Every time our jet-ski makes a rescue, even if it was on the other side of this world, I know I had something to do with that.

ALICIA KALEPA: Archie is my hero. He's the man of my dreams, and he's exactly the kind of man that I wanted to be with. He cares and worries about all walks of life.

KALEPA: As a family man, I hope that at some point along the line, you know, I'm going to be able to pass on what was passed on to me by my parents, my grandparents. People say kids change your life. You don't know it until you have them and you realize how precious they are. I mean, every morning when I grab my kids, I look into their eyes and I say, please, dear lord, don't let anything happen to my kids, because I think that's my biggest fear.

ALICIA KALEPA: Archie is a great dad. He's like a lion, always trying to introduce to Kylie and Keah all these exciting things to do. And I always find out later on after they've done it, and I'm like, what? What did you do?

MURASKO: He's a very fun-loving guy. You get a call the night before, hey, Matthew, surf is going to be up. We've got the canoe, we've got the foil board. Meet me at the harbor at 5:30 and don't be late. We were out there for four and a half hours. We were laughing for four and a half hours.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He is the kind-hearted, humble, classic Hawaiian person.

BRADLEY: He has more aloha and more loyalty to the human than any man I've ever known.

KALEPA: So wherever I go, I have to make sure that I represent the people of Hawaii, share the aloha-spirit, and always look after somebody in the ocean. Sharing the spirit of aloha is always giving somebody a helping hand, always giving somebody a kiss, show them how to be good people. That's what the aloha-spirit is, showing people love. You know, it's just -- it's what people from Hawaii do, it's how we live our life.

GUPTA: Archie Kalepa is determined to live life to the fullest with passion, intensity, and heart. Whether he is saving a life or facing down a mountainous wave, Kalepa gives it everything he's got. But we put Archie Kalepa on "THE NEXT LIST" because he is sharing his intimate knowledge of the ocean, eager to help others stay safe and enjoy the wonders of the deep.

I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Thanks for watching. Hope to see you back here next week.