How To Handle Nature’s Bad Side

Although Laurie Towner looks to be leaking an alarming volume, most reef rashes appear much more serious than they are. Photo: Frieden

Let’s face it: Nature has a mean streak. Sometimes you show up to the beach to find head-high, glassy waves while other times you’re met with an invasion of Portuguese Man O’ War or a bed of sea urchins. To learn how to deal with these unpleasantries, we tapped the shoulder of Hawaii’s Kirk Ziegler, a North Shore lifeguard who’s knows his way around dealing with beachside trauma all too well.

Sea Urchins: It happens and it hurts, but stepping on a sea urchin, isn't going to kill you so the best thing you can do is to relax. There are a lot of different theories out there on what you should do to dull the ache, but the best thing you can do is to soak the effected area in warm water for a while. When you're done soaking your foot, try and pull all of the big spines out you can out with a disinfected pair of tweezers or a needle. This part can be really frustrating because the spines will break up really easy so you have to take your time. When you're pulling out a spine, you have to try and pull it straight up and out or it's guaranteed gonna break. The remaining spines will eventually break up and dissolve in your skin. The big risk here is infection. If the area still feels really sore after more than a week, go see a doctor.

Reef Rash: Being a lifeguard, I see lots of people who get banged up on the reef and their injuries pretty much run the spectrum from small scratches to massive head wounds. Reef cuts appear to look like they're bleeding more than they really are because the water dilutes your blood and spreads it around. So people see the cut and all the blood and get worried, when in reality most reef cuts look worse than they really are and are nothing to come unglued over. Unless you've got a really deep, open wound, you're not going to need stitches or go the hospital. Just clean up the wound with warm, soapy water, and if you like throw on some iodine. From then on, just keep it dry. The big risk is infection, not the actual scrape.

Sharks: Most of the sharks you'll see in the water are reef sharks and are more scared of you than you are of them. That being said, common sense is your best friend when it comes to not being a shark attack victim. The number one piece of advice I can give is to stay out of places where there's a lot of runoff into the ocean. If it's been raining for a while and there's a nearby stream that's emptying into your local lineup and the water is brown and murky, just don't surf. Sounds simple enough, right? But people still do it all the time. If you do get bit, find help immediately and call 911. Apply pressure to the wound to slow down the bleeding. Lots of pressure. If that's not working, find the main artery above the wound and tie on a tourniquet. But like I said before, you can avoid all of this by staying away from the type of conditions that sharks frequent.

Jelly Fish: We're pretty good about being able to predict when Box jelly fish and Portuguese Man O’ War are coming ashore, so make sure you check the beach for signs or with your local lifeguard before you paddle out. If you do get stung by a Man O’ War, rinse the sting off with warm, fresh water and remove any of the tentacles that remain. When you get home, soak the sting in warm water. Treating these stings is pretty straightforward. Also, don't piss on it. I know a lot of people were into doing that for a while, but it doesn't do anything for the sting. Just warm water. If you get clipped by a box jellyfish, that can be pretty painful, but you're going to want to follow the same protocol as with a Man O’ War sting, except we'll use some vinegar to help neutralize it a little.

Humans: The number-one cause of injury I see is inflicted from other people. I swear it's around 80 percent. Before I became a lifeguard on the North Shore, I was stationed in Waikiki and you wouldn't believe how dangerous surfing out there can be. People get run over all the time. Statistically, I think you're more likely to get hurt surfing out there than anywhere else on the island. Most of the injuries I saw were 100 percent avoidable. When you have high-density crowds like that, people tend to get hurt. So for all the scary things you think nature is gonna throw at you, it's people that are the most dangerous. Exercise some common since when you're in high-density lineups like that and have your guard up and you should be okay.