story by Derek Farrar
photos by Dana Edmunds
In the flat water inside the breakwall at Waikiki’s Kuhio Beach, two teams of amped-up lifeguards square off in fluorescent surf shirts and skull-hugging water polo headgear.
A whistle blows and they launch into a paddling frenzy, scrambling back and forth madly on blue foam surfboards to fire shots at small floating goals. A throwback to Waikiki beachboy days of yore, the spirited match of surf polo is part of an annual ocean festival celebrating the great Hawaiian swimmer and surfer Duke Kahanamoku.
On shore, tournament director Ralph Goto is on the move, giving instructions to the competitors, checking on the T-shirt sales, sharing a joke with a visiting colleague. In his mirrored glasses, Easy Rider mustache and perpetual wry grin, Goto is, as usual, managing the logistics of the moment with his signature light touch and good humor, well honed in his twenty-five years as head of O‘ahu’s lifeguard service.
During Goto’s tenure at the City and County of Honolulu’s Ocean Safety & Lifeguard Services Division, the department has grown tremendously—from around fifty full- and part-time lifeguards and an annual budget of $700,000 in 1981 to more than 200 employees and an $8 million budget today. His team has also pioneered lifesaving technology now emulated around the world, most notably the development of jet ski surf rescues in the early 1990s.
But what the lifeguards who work under Goto tend to give him the most credit for is the deft way he navigates the city bureaucracy on their behalf. Longtime Pipeline lifeguard Mark Cunningham, who recently retired to pursue his alter ego as a bodysurfing legend, says that Goto “has always earned the respect of the guys on the beach, because he’s always there fighting the battles with all the bean counters to get better equipment and training.”
In his mellow, graduate-of-the-’60s tone, Goto admits that as a county administrator “you’re in a pretty thick bureaucracy a lot of the time, but you learn how to play it.” He counts among his strengths the ability to “work within the system without upsetting too many people.”
“We all make good and bad choices, and it seems like Ralph just makes a lot of good choices,” says Paul Merino, the lifeguard captain in charge of O‘ahu’s south shore. “He knows how to implement new ideas but still keep a local Hawaiian aesthetic to it, and he has a lot of compassion for people.”
Such praise doesn’t come easy from lifeguards—especially given the fact that Goto came to the job without any ocean lifesaving experience of his own. He was born in Sapporo in 1946, by chance becoming the first American baby born in Japan after World War II when his father, an Army translator, was posted there in the early days of the occupation.
Ralph grew up in occupied Japan, then in Hawai‘i for a while during middle school, then shuttling between various military sites, including a couple of years in Baltimore. He graduated from high school back in Japan and came to the University of Hawai‘i as a basketball player in 1964, graduating six years later with a philosophy degree.
Having lifeguarded at pools during high school and college, he went to work after college coordinating swimming, PE and first aid programs at the YMCA and other nonprofits. Then in 1981 an ad for the top job in the city’s lifeguard service cropped up in the newspaper, and he’s been there ever since.
When Goto came on board, the service was under the Parks and Recreation Department (it’s now under Emergency Services) and was a fairly loose band of beach die-hards forged by legendary watermen like Eddie Aikau, who had patrolled the entire North Shore by himself, and Buffalo Keaulana, who presided at Makaha.
“It was still pretty old-school,” Goto recalls. “There wasn’t much structure or budget. The guys on the beach had great skills, but they were a pretty different breed. A lot of them were really accomplished watermen in their own right.”
For Ralph, the challenge was how to lead such an elite group without having ever been one of them, so to speak. Or, as he puts it, “Suddenly you’re Buffalo’s boss—how do you deal with something like that?”
From the start, he says, he approached his job as a supporting role. “It’s the people on the beach who are doing the work,” he says. “Our job in administration is to find out what they need and get it to them.”