By Elissa Weldon, CNN
There’s nowhere quite like the beach in summer. But between the sun, scenery and a relaxed vacation mindset, many beachgoers don't think much about their safety in the ocean.
Ask anyone who has ever had a close call in the water -- been caught in a rip current or struggled against powerful tides to make it to shore. Often, there's only one person standing between them and death: a lifeguard.
Meet Archie Kalepa, chief of ocean safety for the Hawaiian island of Maui. Kalepa has a team of 64 lifeguards under his command and is responsible for the safety of about 2 million beach visitors every year.
"It only takes 5 minutes for a person to go brain-dead, or to drown," Kalepa says. "For us, a lot of times the surf is way offshore. And so it's all about the response time. How quickly can we respond from Point A to Point B?"
His commitment to public safety has deep roots. Kalepa pioneered the use of Jet Skis for water rescues nearly 25 years ago. After Hurricane Iniki struck Hawaii in 1992, he became a local hero by using a Jet Ski to save 12 people from drowning. Those rescues proved to be a turning point in Kalepa’s drive to adopt the Jet Ski for widespread water-safety use.
“We were the ones with the idea,” says Kalepa, “but we needed everybody’s support to get the officials to realize that this (watercraft) is a tool, not a toy.”
Today, Kalepa is still working on improving his lifesaving techniques while developing innovative rescue equipment. He has devised an inflatable rescue board that the head of the United States Lifeguard Association calls a “real, significant innovation” with “enormous promise.” Kalepa is working with partners to commercialize the product.
Kalepa also is an elite athlete who relishes the chance to surf some of the biggest waves in the world. He's drawn to “the excitement, the thrill, dabbling in danger," he says. "I really, really enjoy being in that kind of environment.”
Kalepa uses his knowledge of the ocean to help others -- even rescuing big-wave surfers in dangerous conditions.
“I’ve seen him in action. He will rush in without question and try to help anyone in peril,” says tow partner Buzzy Kerbox.
As a fifth-generation Hawaiian, Kalepa is probably proudest of his Hawaiian heritage and his honorary title of Waterman.
He was recently inducted into the Duke Kahanamoku Hawaiian Waterman’s Hall of Fame, a prestigious honor reserved only for those with vast knowledge of the ocean and experience in all aspects of water. Watermen can swim, surf, dive, paddle, fish and canoe with skill, strength, agility and instinct.
“Archie to me exemplifies exactly what a Hawaiian Waterman is, which is connected,” says Kaino Horcajo, an expert in Hawaiian culture. “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.”
For Kalepa, being a Waterman and a Hawaiian means sharing his knowledge of the ocean with others. He trains some of the world’s most elite military units in water safety and Jet Ski rescues.
“Out of pure respect for what they do to keep America safe, it was an honor to train these people and work with them,” Kalepa says.
As a public-safety expert, a big-wave surfer and a Hawaiian Waterman, Archie Kalepa is driven to help others and spread what he calls the spirit of "aloha," the Hawaiian greeting.
“Sharing the spirit of aloha is always giving somebody a helping hand, always giving somebody a kiss. Always when somebody needs help, you help them, show them how to be good people," he says. "That's what the aloha spirit is, showing people love. It's what people from Hawaii do. It's how we live our life."