Perils of Sandy Beach
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By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Dan Nakaso
Chris Johnson learned to drive a stick shift so he could get to Sandy Beach as a Kailua teenager, kissed his girlfriend for the first time there, proposed to her in August under a full moon at Sandys and, last Saturday, died there while bodyboarding.
Johnson's mother, Sandra, worried about the youngest of her three boys perhaps more than other moms. As a nursing manager at Kuakini Medical Center, she knows all too well about the broken necks and twisted backs that Sandys claims.
"That was his love and I knew he wouldn't stop going there," she said yesterday, just before she and her family made arrangements for her son's funeral Saturday night at Community of Christ Church. "I asked him to be extra careful and not take any undue chances. He just said, 'Don't worry, mom.'"
John Clark, who wrote the acclaimed "Beaches of Hawai'i" books series and recently retired as deputy chief of the Honolulu Fire Department, said the fact that Johnson was an experienced waterman, championship bodyboarder and knew his limits in the ocean only underscores how treacherous Sandys can be when O'ahu's South Shore is pounding.
"Whether you're board surfing or bodysurfing there, you really have to know what you're doing," he said. "You really have to be good."
Yesterday, the National Weather Service forecast 4- to 6-foot waves along the South Shore that should last through Monday. So lifeguards at Sandys yesterday planted red flags in the sand and warned beginners to stay out of the water.
Clark worked for two years as a lifeguard at Sandys in the 1970s and saw "a lot of really bad cuts, a lot of dislocations, a lot of limb breaks, like arms and legs. Sandys is so shallow and it's got a steep powerful wave that breaks on very shallow water. At low tide, a lot of times it looks like you're coming down on dry sand."
Seven people drowned at Sandys from 1993 through 2005, according to Dan Galanis, epidemiologist of the state Department of Health's injury prevention and control program. Only one drowning — in 1996 — involved a surfer, Galanis said.
Christian Morris of Kahala and John Felice of Waialua, both surfing instructors and photographers with the Hans Hedemann Surf School, stared into the surf yesterday and considered the dangers of Sandys.
Morris has suffered too many reef and rock scrapes to count. "That happens every time you go out," Morris said. "And I've twisted my back, too. But I don't really think about dying. If it's your passion, you're always going to be in the water."
But Phil Wilson, a taxidermist tourist from Wasilla, Alaska, learned his lesson 10 years ago at Sandys.
He bodyboarded near Waikiki, went looking for more challenging waves and heard about Sandys for the first time.
"The lifeguards said, 'Don't go in.' Like an idiot, I did," Wilson said. "I got pounded in the sand and bloodied both my knees. After that I got out of the water and never went back in."
Johnson, 31, was well aware of his limits, said his family and fiancee, Andrea Esquibel, 25.
While he was happy to jump into 8-foot waves, Johnson would stay out with Esquibel on 12-foot days on the North Shore.
"He would say, 'It's too big. Can't handle,'" Esquibel said.
Johnson grew up in Kailua, a clever kid who liked to play soccer and baseball. But by the time he got to Kalaheo High School, surfing, bodyboarding and the beach had become the focus of his life.
All of the Johnsons — Bud, Sandra, and older brothers Mark and Jeff — loved the beach. But none of them burned for it like Chris.
"He would never get out of the water," Mark said.
After he graduated from Kalaheo in 1993, Bud and Sandra argued with their youngest child about going to college in Colorado — away from the beach lifestyle he loved.
"We wanted to get him into an atmosphere that would hopefully attract him to other things," Bud said. "He didn't want to go to college but our contract was that he agreed to go for two years and after that if he wanted to quit, he'd quit. So after two years, he quit. And he became a snowboard bum."
For the next five years, Johnson worked various jobs like short order cook or installing coaxial cable — while taking surfing vacations to places like Mexico and entering bodyboarding contests at artificial wave parks, which he won.
When he came back home to Kailua, Johnson enrolled at Windward Community College and got various jobs, like delivering pizzas for the 'Aikahi Pizza Hut.
There, Johnson met Esquibel, a cook, and his life started to slowly change.
They eventually moved in together, bought a house in Kane'ohe and three years ago Johnson began to pursue a career in real estate with unusual passion.
Then in August, after dinner, he took Esquibel to Sandy Beach where he had previously buried a plastic red box in the sand. He dug out the box, pulled out a candy blow-pop ring and got down on one knee.
Then he produced a real engagement ring — one that Esquibel and he had seen at Tiffany & Co.
On Saturday, Esquibel was sitting at a Sandys lifeguard stand when someone ran up and told the lifeguards that a bodyboarder was in trouble and had gotten separated from his leash.
Johnson's brother, Mark, said he understood that the accident happened at the Sandys break called Half Point.
But a Honolulu Police Department incident log said Johnson hit his head at Pipe Littles, "a super shallow wave where you take off right in front of this rocky point," Clark said. "If you get caught in the barrel and you don't make it past the rocks, when you wipe out, you're going right onto the rocks."
When she saw Johnson's legs and boardshorts from the back of the ambulance, Esquibel dropped to the ground.
Sandra Johnson said the irony is that her son had found other, more important things beyond life at the beach.
He had originally disagreed with his mother about becoming an organ donor. Only after his death on Saturday did she learn that Johnson, on his own, had quietly changed the donor status on his driver's license on his birthday in June.
"The beach was still important but so were other things all of a sudden," Sandra Johnson said, reaching over and touching Esquibel. "The beach wasn't everything anymore."Advertiser staff writers Peter Boylan and Mike Gordon contributed to this report.
Reach Dan Nakaso at email@example.com.