Surfer stresses safety first when enjoying waters off Okinawa

Photo by Cpl. Terry Wong
Photo by Cpl. Terry Wong

Surfer stresses safety first when enjoying waters off Okinawa

by Yoshie Makiyama
Marine Corps Installations Pacific

CAMP FOSTER, OKINAWA, Japan -- An Okinawan surfer recently shared his insights about water safety and the importance of staying safe at the beautiful Okinawa beaches with Communication Strategy and Operations, Marine Corps Installations Pacific.

Toshio Gakiya, a surfing veteran with 40 years of experience, talked to the Marines to share his knowledge and lessons learned, hoping to send a message out to service members and their families who are new to the island or to any water activities.


Photo by Yoshie Makiyama

“You have to have good sense to see the condition,” replied Gakiya when asked what Water Safety meant to him. “The first thing that comes to my mind is the condition of the ocean. Then, you need to check your own condition. Don’t push yourself too hard. When you’re not in a good condition, you need to have the courage to stop yourself. As for beginners, it’s important to go surfing at a point where some other surfers are around. Never surf alone!”

Gakiya pointed out that the problem with surfing in Okinawa, on top of its unique seabed made up of reefs and coral and the sudden change in rip current that come with it, was frequent typhoons. People tend to go surfing to catch a bigger wave during a typhoon. However, he warned typhoons have enormously powerful swells and are dangerous to surf. He projects a typhoon course a few days in advance but depending on the strength of a typhoon, he said sometimes it is not safe to surf two days before the typhoon hits.

“One day, when I entered the water to surf as usual, the leash attached to my surfboard was cut off and my board drifted away from the waves. I swam hard trying to get back to my board but couldn’t do it. At that time, I thought I was already done. Fortunately, I had my friends with me and they reached my board and helped me,” he recalled his own near-miss that happened a day before a typhoon when he was around 50. “I was too confident in myself.”

He used this experience as an warning, that people who go to the beaches and the ocean to do any water activities need to go with several people, not just two, because it could be a life threatening activity and they need to help each other.

He has had other near-misses in the past 40 years. One was in his 30s at Maeda point, when he entered the water during low tide. He ended up hitting his head on the reef and bled badly. Another time was when he was around 40. He hit his body against the Tetrapod and broke his ribs. Both times, he was saved because he was with his friends.

According to Gakiya, due to the reefs in Okinawa, you can surf only when the tides are high, which lasts only four hours. Unlike American beaches, where you can surf anytime, in Okinawa, surfing is limited to two hours before and two hours after high tide. When the tide is low, the reef appears on the surface and you may hurt yourself seriously.

Gakiya is now in the master’s surfing category and sometimes he joins the master’s competition. He began surfing when he was 20 years old after hearing that some people started surfing in Okinawa as well. He is also a leader of a surf group called “Gakkies” named after him. They exchange information about waves.

Gakiya noticed that he sees more foreign surfers nowadays. They are with a partner, but a lot of time they both look to be either beginners or inexperienced. Every time he encounters such surfers, he informs them of the sea conditions and sometimes recommends not surfing.

When referencing a recent water accident in Ikei island, off the coast of Katsuren Peninsula, Gakiya said it was nearly impossible (to enter the sea) because of the conditions of that day. According to Gakiya, the waves that day were as high as five meters, which is almost the same height as a pedestrian bridge. It was a height even highly skilled surfers would not dare to enter.

“High waves are not for beginners. We won’t take them to the high wave places.” Gakiya guesses that the location of the incident was so remote that they must have followed information on surf points on the internet. “People can’t see how dangerous it is only by looking at the waves on the apps. The beginners or inexperienced cannot see how dangerous it is even at the site and they just enter the water thinking it is a good wave.”

Gakiya stressed that anyone who participates in any recreational water activities in Okinawa, especially surfing, should not go where no one is around. You should ask local surfers at the site for the condition of the waves when at a place for the first time. Although some people do not listen, he pointed out that if there is no one around and you cannot decide by yourself, then you should not enter the water.

“Remember Okinawa only has reef spots for surfing. It is different from places where a lot of service members and their families are from,” Gakiya continued. “Just ask us ‘How’s the waves?’ and we can understand what you want. Local surfers will reply to you. By doing this, we can prevent accidents from happening again.”

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