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Archie Kalepa inducted into Hawaii Waterman Hall of Fame

By Staff | Sep 6, 2012


LAHAINA – There is a new wave of Hawaiian patriots dedicating their lives to the cause of promoting their cherished culture in and beyond the 21st century.

They are language mentors, kumu hula, musicians and authors paying forward the spirit of the Polynesian generations that have set the precedent and formed the foundation of the breath of life of these islands. They are modern day peaceful warriors.

Among these soldiers of aloha are the renowned watermen and waterwomen that have carved unique and ongoing chapters into the history of Hawaii led by the greatest of all, Duke Kahanamoku.

It is in the spirit of the Duke that the Outrigger Duke Kahanamoku Foundation (ODKF) founded The Hawaii Waterman Hall of Fame to create a lasting tribute to the islands’ water sports legacy and honor the achievements of the standout athletes.

It is in this spirit that fifth-generation Lahaina resident Archie Kalepa was recently honored with his induction into The Hawaii Waterman Hall of Fame at a ceremony at the Outrigger Canoe Club.

Kalepa, the first and only person from Maui to be so honored, was inducted in this ceremony alongside Brian Keaulana, Ricky Grigg and Michael Tongg, joining such legendary figures as Duke Kahanamoku, Eddie Aikau, Buffalo Keaulana, Fred Hemmings, Wally Froiseth, Rell Sunn and Nainoa Thompson in the Hall of Fame.

Kalepa, now 49, gained fame as one of the first tow-in surfers to brave the 70-foot waves at “Jaws” at Peahi, the first to solo stand up paddle across the Molokai Channel and the first to paddle down the Colorado River.

But perhaps his most notable and important achievement has been the development, along with fellow inductee and renowned Oahu lifeguard Brian Keaulana, of innovative new safety equipment and rescue techniques using jet skis and water sleds.

Kalepa was born on Maui and grew up in Mililani on Oahu surfing the North Shore as a child and young teenager. He spent his summers in Lahaina living the idyllic formative years along and in the ocean fishing and surfing the pristine waves of that era, returning as a boarder at Lahainaluna High School.

There, his spirit was further steeled in the culture and tradition of the community as he became a standout of the Luna football program.

He graduated from Lahainaluna in 1982 and two years later signed on as a part-time lifeguard with Maui County. By 1985, he was working full-time and, 14 years later, became chief of water safety for Maui.

“I had spent a lot of time at Waimea Bay bodysurfing and competing on some swim teams out there,” said Kalepa today.

“I watched and admired Eddie Aikau out there and decided I wanted to be like him. I wanted to be in that North Shore scene.”

As his lifeguard career developed, he soon felt a deeper need to serve the public in his chosen field.

“Tourism is the number one industry in Hawaii, and here on Maui, I’d say that 90 to 95 percent of the visitors get into the water in one way or another. I focused on trying to get the lifeguard service more in the public eye alongside firefighters, police and other emergency responders. We wanted to educate the public and government officials on how we could offer better lifeguard services,” he explained.

“Along with guys like Brian Keaulana, Terry Ahue, Dennis Gouveia and Melvin Pu’u, we developed new rescue techniques using jet skis. We got a lot of resistance at first but stuck with it, traveled the world and became ambassadors of this with lifeguards and people like Navy SEALS.

“In 1992, as Hurricane Iniki hit the islands, I went out on a jet ski and rescued 40 people out at Mala Wharf that were stuck out on their boats there. Still, we got a hard time from the public with the jet skis, but the lifeguards on Maui kept to it and have become some of the top water safety operations in the world today,” he continued.

“Maui needs to embrace this fact – people come here to enjoy the beauty but are unaware of the beast that lives in the water. We need to provide more lifeguard services… minimize gray areas and maximize the importance of water safety.

“There were 150,000 public safety contacts last year, and Maui should be proud of the fact that we are the first lifeguard service to be put on 911 to respond to people in trouble. The lifeguard service has outgrown the designation as part of the Parks and Recreation Department and should be grouped with public safety units.”

Kalepa was awarded the Eddie Aikau Quiksilver Waterman of the Year award in 1994 for his contributions that included voyages from Tahiti to Hawaii aboard the Hokule’a with fellow Lahaina waterman Abraham “Snake” Ah Hee.

“I feel so blessed to have sailed with Snake on those voyages,” said Kalepa. “He is Lahaina’s waterman mentor and passes this knowledge on to future generations of keiki. We are blessed to have people like him in Lahaina.

“It is Duke’s legacy for all to enjoy and play in the ocean; he lived to pass this on to all of us – to enjoy the ocean,” Kalepa concluded.