Brightly colored flotation devices, mounted to plastic pipes topped with orange flags, now adorn five North Kona beaches, thanks to the Alex and Duke De Rego Foundation.
Foundation volunteers on Monday installed the rescue equipment, known as rescue tubes, at Kahaluu Beach Park, Laaloa Beach Park, Honl’s Beach, Pine Trees and the Old Kona Airport Park. Already, similar tubes have been used to save six Hawaii Island swimmers — five at Pololu Valley, where an entire family was pulled about 150 feet offshore by a rip current and one at the Keauhou area known as the End of the World — organization founder Shirley De Rego said.
“Oh my gosh,” De Rego said. “When I heard the family in Pololu got saved, I cried. They could have experienced the same thing I did when I lost my son. But they didn’t.”
The foundation didn’t place the tubes at Pololu, but they did pick up where Mike Varney, who did install those tubes, left off, getting permits and county approval to begin installing more of the rescue items along the West Hawaii coastline.
After losing two sons in tragic accidents — Alex was 12 when he disappeared from a remote camping and fishing spot in South Kona, likely having fallen into the water in the middle of the night, while Duke, 14, died of a head injury a few years later after falling off a golf cart — De Rego said she wanted to turn those bad things into something good. She picked ocean safety and began teaching awareness techniques to young children and offering free CPR and first aid classes to high schoolers.
Her foundation partnered with Hawaii County for the Junior Lifeguard program, where she met Varney. He told her about the rescue tubes, which he learned about three years ago, after he and a friend saved a swimmer at Kua Bay. He bought and installed a few of the tubes on his own. The tubes received a significant amount of publicity following the June rescue in Pololu.
“That’s really helped speed up our effectiveness in getting the permits from the county,” Varney said. “Now we have official permission to put them up here.”
A county representative met with Varney and De Rego recently to identify the best spots at each park for the tubes. At Kahaluu, one was placed near each lifeguard stand. At the northern location, Varney, De Rego and a lifeguard discussed exactly where it would be safest from the high winter surf that can pound the shoreline.
The foundation purchased the tubes, which cost about $100. A recent fundraiser in Puako was successful, De Rego said, and the group is planning a tea event in Waimea Nov. 16. At that event, De Rego will be a featured speaker.
More beaches will get the rescue tubes later this fall. De Rego said the tubes will be installed at Mahukona, Keokea and Spencer beach parks. The foundation will also place a tutorial on its website, alexanddukederegofoundation.com, on how to use the equipment. If someone sees a swimmer in need of help, he can toss the flotation device to the swimmer and hold on to a long strap to help pull the swimmer in to shore.
While De Rego was getting ready to put up the two Kahaluu tubes, she was also learning about more places that could use the devices. One lifeguard told her about a strong Kahaluu current that pulls swimmers to the north. The lifeguard pointed out a house up the beach where locating a rescue tube could help swimmers in that particular current.
“The locals here know, they run on the road (to rescue people caught in that current),” De Rego said. “You don’t try to swim.”
That kind of knowledge, applied to each beach, will help save swimmers, she added.