The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why this treacherous Hawaiian beach, Obama’s favorite, keeps breaking people’s necks

Bodysurfing at Sandy Beach on Oahu. (Photo by David Chatsuthiphan)

WAIMEA, Hawaii — To mainlanders, Sandy Beach is famous because it’s where President Obama loves to bodysurf. Last year, the Honolulu City Council briefly considered naming it after the president. Perhaps it’s just as well they didn’t, because in Hawaii, it’s famous for broken necks.

“If you get caught in the wrong spot on a wave, it’ll suck you up and over and slam you into the water,” writes David Chatsuthiphan in Unreal Hawaii of the Oahu surf spot. “It’s called going ‘over the falls’ and it sucks.”

Sandy Beach’s latest victim wasn’t some novice from Chicago or Washington, however. It was Yurik Resetnikov, one of Hawaii’s toughest firefighters — a 6-foot-4-inch bear of a man based at Kailua-Kona Station 7 and a hero recently decorated for valor beyond the call of duty for, among other things, a dangerous water recovery of a missing boy who drowned in an underwater cave. When a wave he was riding on Oct. 12 broke in really shallow water, he fell backward and hit his neck.

Resetnikov had bodysurfed Sandy Beach “a million times,” his wife, Lindsay, said in a phone interview as she sat and waited at Queen’s Hospital in Honolulu, hoping and praying that her husband will walk again.

“You know how the wave breaks in a circle,” she said. “He was traveling in the barrel, the bottom of the wave, and it sucked him back over, in and over the falls.”

The next thing anybody noticed, she said, was Resetnikov, this big man, face down in the water. His friends pulled him out, she said. And when they checked his pulse, there was none. They did CPR for 10 minutes before an ambulance arrived and got him to the hospital, she said. Doctors discovered he had broken his neck, she said, between cervical nerves C6 and C7, causing paralysis in his hands, trunk and legs.

The Resetnikovs have two children, ages 10 and 12. Yurik, based in Kona on the Big Island, was just visiting Honolulu, coaching a competitive outrigger canoe team. He ventured out onto Sandy Beach, on the southeast tip of Oahu, after the race when tragedy struck.

“We were supposed to celebrate his 40th birthday,” said his wife. Instead, “we’ve kind of relocated” to Queen’s Hospital, she said. Friends are raising money to help finance the long and challenging road ahead for a firefighter whose live changed dramatically, in an instant.

“I made a mistake,” Yurik told his wife once he was able to speak. “‘Sorry. I made a mistake.”

Even for an experienced surfer, it’s easy to make mistakes at Sandy Beach, notorious for its shallow shore break. These beaches are deceptive, sometimes lethally so, as Keith Cabral, a veteran lifeguard on the Kohala coast of the Big Island, explained as he gazed out at a seemingly tranquil Mauna Kea Beach — a glistening, sun-drenched crescent cove.

“On a day like this, it’s so inviting because the waves are not huge,” he said. “Everybody feels confident in their swimming ability because they can stand.” What they don’t realize while jumping into a wave, he said, is how shallow the water is where waves break — a few feet or less.

“It’s not the wave that kills you,” Cabral said. “It’s that sudden stop when you hit the sand. It’s not like surfing, where you’ve got to paddle out and work for the wave. Here, you just stand up and jump forward. That’s what everybody does.”

The unlucky few face dire consequences when their heads hit hard-packed sand: everything from shoulder and elbow injuries to life-threatening spinal breaks, like Resetnikov’s. And while every shark bite in Hawaiian waters draws a wave of publicity, spinal injuries, which far outnumber them, don’t.

There were 208 spinal-cord injuries due to “ocean activities” in Hawaii between 2009 and 2013, according to Hawaii’s trauma registry. During that period, according to Hawaii’s Department of Natural Resources, there were 34 recorded shark attacks, the vast majority of which resulted in minor lacerations or no injuries at all. Meanwhile, while there is no epidemic by any means, there were more spinal-cord injuries from ocean activities than from falls or car crashes.

For spinal injuries, there is no doubt that some beaches are much worse than others. Makena Beach on Maui, for example, accounted for 22 in the years studied; Hapuna, near Mauna Kea on the Big Island, accounted for 18; and Sandy, Obama’s favorite on Oahu, for 16.

“I have had multiple cases of people who have suffered permanent disabilities through spinal injuries” at Hapuna Beach, said Kilipaki Kanae, a paramedic with the North Kohala Fire and Rescue. Adults, not children, he said, get the worst of it because children are more flexible and tend to be hurt less easily. 

To avoid danger, Kanae said, people should beware of posted warning signs. And they should “talk to the lifeguards at any beach they are unfamiliar with, and understand their abilities in the water. If you know you are not capable of handling rough surf, hang out on the sand, enjoy the beach, don’t go in the water.”  

Despite the notoriety of Sandy Beach, it remains popular.

“Oahu’s Sandy Beach is known the world over as a top bodyboarding and bodysurfing spot,” wrote Diane Leone in the Hawaii Star-Bulletin in 2002. “And for its high proportion of ambulance calls.”

“This beach requires a great deal of expertise, and even the experts get hurt,” Jim Howe Jr., Honolulu’s chief of lifeguard operations, said in the article. “To use the analogy of ski slopes … it’s a double black diamond run.”

The force of the waves, said lifeguard Robert Dorr, “is the equivalent of getting hit by a car.”

“Packed wet sand can be very unforgiving,” said a 2013 study of beach injuries in Hawaii authored by A. T. Nathanson, a doctor at Brown University’s medical school. “Because bodyboarders and bodysurfers ride headfirst in a prone position, often in near-shore plunging waves, they are at particularly high risk for injuries to the cervical spine.”

But these injuries can happen anywhere, including beaches near Washington. In a 2013 article published in Scientific American, doctors at Beebe Medical Center in Lewes, Del., reported keeping a count for a three-year period and coming up with 1,100 spinal injuries. 

“Although most were more minor, such as 400 dislocated shoulders, there were also three fatalities,” said the article. “And 55 of the total were cervical fractures, some of which may have resulted in paralysis.” (They don’t track people after they’ve left the emergency room.)

Searching for a reason why the numbers were increasing, Cowan and others focused on beach sand replenishment, which is constant along the Atlantic coast from Delaware to the Carolinas. Adding new sand didn’t merely widen the beaches, they found — it made them higher, “resulting in steep slopes that can cause large waves to break close to shore.” 

In other words, replenishment was doing to Delaware’s beaches what nature long ago did to Hawaii’s Sandy Beach.

And surfing-related spinal injuries can happen to anyone. On a Facebook page, Todd Duitsman, of Seattle, is still documenting his recovery from a spinal injury he suffered on a Maui beach last year. On the page, his friend Bary Gould, who witnessed the event, told a frighteningly familiar story.

As Todd and I floated, talked and waited for the next wave to ride in we passed up a couple of good sized waves knowing the next one might be bigger. We were right, the next wave that swelled up was bigger than any wave I had seen at Big Beach on that day or the two days we had been there prior. Todd said, “Let’s go bro!” Todd swam hard to get into the sweet spot of the wave and he was right in front of it. The wave swelled to a huge height and Todd was right on top of it. The next thing I saw was Todd floating face down in the ocean. My initial thought was that he was joking around. Nevertheless, I swam/walked towards him. I grabbed him underneath his armpits and pulled him out of the water fully expecting him to crack up with that famous Todd laugh. I asked him if he was kidding and he replied with some words that I will never forget as long as I live, “No bro, I can’t move.” Todd had gone head first from the highest height of the wave to the bottom of the ocean floor. As I continued to drag Todd toward the shore I saw a look on his face I had never seen before. Todd is fearless, Todd is confident, Todd is strong, Todd is positive, Todd is happy, Todd is in control. In that look I saw the opposite of Todd.

As for Yurik Resetnikov, he too knows his life will change. His wife, Lindsay, said they are preparing to relocate to Denver’s Craig Hospital. He’s a popular, well-known guy on the Kohala Coast on the Big Island, and his friends have already raised $85,000 to help with the inevitably monumental expenses.

“He’s had significant damage to his spinal cord,” she said. “… He’s pretty good. He’s got full cognitive functioning. They’ve just taken him off the vent. He’s breathing humidified oxygen. But he only has movement in his arm and some movement in his fingers. They’d like to see a little bit more in his lower extremities.”

And, yes, doctors are guarded when discussing Resetnikov’s prognosis.

“But they’re wrong all the time,” his wife said. 

Kate Sensenig, a student at Hawaii Preparatory Academy, is a freelance writer.