A sign at Okinawa’s Bolo Point warns that the area can be “extremely hazardous.”

A sign at Okinawa’s Bolo Point warns that the area can be “extremely hazardous.” (S&S)

CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — With 17 off-duty drownings in just more than four years in the U.S. military community here, leaders decided it was time to dive in and do something.

Since beginning a strengthened water-safety campaign in early 2004, the military community has gone 488 consecutive days as of Monday without a water-related fatality, according to Shawn Curtis, an occupational safety and health specialist at Camp Foster.

It’s the longest stint without water-related deaths here in 10 years. The 17 previous drownings, from January 2000 to April 15, 2004, made Okinawa the No. 1 water fatality spot for all U.S. military communities worldwide, Curtis said.

To inform people of the dangers of Okinawa’s waters, Curtis said, a media blitz was rolled out. A 14-minute water- safety video is shown to all island newcomers, and 11 water-safety commercials currently air on American Forces Network, he said.

AFN also displays current sea conditions and plays safety spots on the radio.

Also helpful, Curtis said, is that scuba lockers on the island supply dive forecasts, the Kadena Weather Flight monitors sea conditions and Marine Corps Community Services helps teach water-safety classes.

What makes Okinawa’s waters dangerous are coral formations, rip currents and heightened sea states due to high winds and incoming typhoons, Curtis said. He said 80 percent of the island’s drownings happened during increased sea condition levels or typhoon conditions.

Curtis said warning signs in English and Japanese have been placed at the seven most unstable spots: Bolo Point, Maeda Point, Onna Point, Hiji Falls, Hedo Point, Ikei Island Bridge, and on Ikei Island near the Big Time Resort.

“What we’re trying to do is inform people that it’s a hazardous area,” said Curtis. “Maybe make them pause and think, ‘Is this really an area I want to be in?’”

Curtis said everyone should know the sea condition before heading into the water. Separate conditions are forecast for the east and west sides of the island.

While some may think they’re experienced enough to handle rough seas, Curtis said, Okinawa’s waters may be a notch above anywhere else they’ve been.

Curtis advises telling someone where you’re going and when you should be back, and never entering the water alone.

Another tip: “If you go to a good surf spot and nobody is there, there’s a reason,” Curtis said. “If the locals aren’t out, don’t get in the water.”

Steve Warnock, a surfer on Okinawa for 26 years, said if divers see surfers in the water, they should steer clear.

“If I see people going in to dive, I tell them, ‘Look at all the surfers here getting ready … it’s going to get rough,’” Warnock said.

Warnock said the currents around Okinawa are “crazy,” with conditions that can drastically change within an hour. He also recommends checking the sea condition, as well as tide charts, before heading into the water.

“This isn’t about pride … it’s life and death,” Warnock said.

While the “military community is more informed about water conditions than ever before,” Curtis said of the safety campaign, he sees a never-ending battle.

“This is something that is not going to go away,” he said. “In a water-rich environment, this has a long-term focus.”

The 7 most unstable sites on Okinawa

Bolo PointMaeda PointOnna PointHiji FallsHedo PointIkei Island BridgeIkei Island near the Big Time ResortSea condition levels

The following are the various sea condition levels people should take into consideration before entering the waters surrounding Okinawa:

CSea Condition-Caution: Conditions that could damage property or cause minor injury. Issued after 18-knot (about 21 mph) winds, including gusts, have been observed for six hours, or otherwise-adverse sea conditions have been reported. Exercise caution if entering the water. Only personnel who can accurately assess local conditions should enter the water

WSea Condition-Warning: Conditions that may be life-threatening. Issued after 25-knot (about 29 mph) winds, including gusts, have been observed for at least three hours, or otherwise-dangerous sea conditions have been observed. Exercise extreme caution if entering the water. Only personnel who can accurately assess local conditions, have extensive experience in the water activity, have a need to enter the water, or if their water activity warrants the action, should enter the water.

RSea Condition-Red: Conditions are deemed to be life-threatening and will cause damage to property. Issued after 34-knot (about 39 mph) winds, including gusts, have been observed and are to persist for at least three hours, or during Tropical Cyclone Condition of Readiness Caution, islandwide. No entry into the water is permitted. Appropriate MCCS facilities close and/or will not issue rentals, refill tanks or continue water-related classes or activities.

Sector(s) affected

WWest: East China Sea shoreline, Hedo Point (the island’s northern tip) west down to Cape Kiyan (southern tip), north, northwest, west and southwest shores.

EEast: Pacific Ocean shoreline, Hedo Point east down to Cape Kiyan, northeast, east, south and southeast shores.

To find out the latest sea condition, go to the Kadena Weather Web site or monitor AFN television or radio. You can also contact the Torii Station scuba locker at DSN 644-4263, Tsunami Gear on Camp Foster at DSN 645-4206 or the Kadena Marina at 634-6344.

Source: Marine Corps Bases Japan Safety Office

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