Laola Lake-Aea, Surfer, Paddler, Swimmer and Water Safety Advocate
Updated: Nov 2, 2020
I first crossed paths with Laola while visiting the Hyatt Spa for a facial - we quickly fell into a conversation and I admired this woman's energy and spark. It was clear where her passion lay, Ocean Safety for the Keiki, and a desire to invest in her community. Last month we crossed paths again, much to my delight, but this time it was out in the surf line up during a discussion about presence in the water. What she was sharing went beyond the typical safety approach. It was about having an awareness of the environment around you, both of nature and of people, and being thoughtful in the way you choose to engage. Read on to learn more about this philosophy and the history behind it.
You have played many roles in your life, can you frame up your life into “seasons” and bring us to where you are now?
Some of my fondest early childhood memories revolve around my dad pushing me on a giant redwood surfboard on a breaking Waikiki wave. At first, I was terrified. He ignored my screaming, pushed me forward and at the end of the glide I knew I wanted to do that again and again. From that point on, the ocean would literally become my playground. Before we became such a litigious society it was common for school children as well as summer fun programs to take youth groups to the ocean for learning to swim and for field trips. When I was in middle school our family lost our home to a devastating fire. Because my mother worked for the Royal Hawaiian Hotel at the time, we were invited to live in their ocean front cottages (where the Sheraton Waikiki stands today).
Expanding My Water Activities:
As I got older I would learn to canoe paddle, become a 2nd Captain with the Waikiki Beachboys and would teach tourists to paddle outriggers and surf. Being in the ocean became as comfortable for me as being on land. I would eventually also learn to canoe sail, windsurf, stand up surf, tandem surf, and open ocean swim. Throughout the years of all these adventure sports, I encountered many life threatening experiences. My family and friends would always enjoy hearing my stories and what “the moral of the story” was. I realized that I had so many stories to share that could help others avoid many potential dangers.
A Focus on Teaching Safety:
Canoe clubs, civic clubs, women’s groups and youth groups started calling on me to please share the “do’s and don’ts” of the various activities. My interest and passion for water safety programs began to grow and mature. I got involved in the 80’s with the Kauai Water Safety Task force which became KORC
and today I am Vice President of the Kauai Lifeguard Association. There is an alarming statistic that involves drownings of young people 18 years and under. Over 80% of them are under adult supervision. Whenever I see a young child or an adult who is either afraid of the ocean because they can’t swim or are not even aware of certain dangers and what to do in an emergency, it compels me to get involved in trying to reverse these terrible statistics.
When making decisions, what guides you?
I try to do a combination of the following things: *I always pray about the bigger decisions in life. I ask God to grant me a massive amount of WISDOM as well as a “peace that passes understanding”. It’s easier to walk in a certain direction when you have that kind of peace. I try my best to read the “signs” and directions. Sometimes these signs are so obvious to others and yet sometimes I don’t see them (or don’t want to!) This is why I try to enlist a very small group of trusted confidants for their honest opinions. I also do the old fashioned method of taking a sheet of paper and making list of pros and cons. Finally I use a method my mom taught me. She says to ask yourself the question “Might I regret NOT_________________?” fill in the blank with anything you are trying to make a decision about, like: “Asking that person for a date? Quitting this job? Taking that job? Moving? Selling?”
When do you feel most alive?
I feel most alive when I’m riding on a wave whether I’m on a board, or a canoe or even body surfing. There’s nothing like the feeling of the water rushing past your face, or being immersed in it as you glide through it and feel the force of the ocean enveloping you from head to toe. When experiencing this sensation, to me, it’s as if time stands still. I feel ageless and weightless. These experiences fill me with gratitude for being born and raised in these islands.
Who or What were key influencers in your journey?
As odd as this sounds, I feel as if I’m the end product (and still a work in progress) of everyone I’ve ever encountered in life. I can’t pick just one, two or even three people. It’s been a combination of all the people, places and experiences that have influenced me in one way or another.
What have I learned about myself throughout this journey?
I’ve learned a lot of lessons in humility. Some of my favorite quotes have to do with pride and humility: “whoever exalts himself will be humbled and whoever humbles himself will be exalted”. Pride goes before a fall, and humility before honor. I’ve learned to keep an open mind because every person that you meet
probably knows something that you don’t. You might learn something from them. True humility is staying teachable regardless of how much (you think) you already know. Learning has become exciting and fun for me. I feel like a sponge for exploring new educational options. My friends are often embarrassed that I’m so willing to strike up conversations with strangers. At the beginning of March I noticed a woman swimming laps at Waiohai and admired how she glided so gracefully through the water. When she got out of the ocean I asked her about her swimming technique and continued to ‘pick her brain’ about swimming as my swim pals stood by mortified. It turned out this woman was a Russian Olympian and was only too happy to meet a local gal and trade island information for swim lessons!
What outlets help you stay balanced?
My 90 year old mom who has dementia lives with me full time. To stay balanced I try to get up earlier than everyone in the house and take a little quiet time for myself. I’ll read a little scripture, listen to or read a daily motivational message and enjoy a great cup of organic tea or coffee. I also try to get a little ocean activity in almost daily. Even if it’s just a 1/2 an hour gentle stretch out swim. Once I get these little morning rituals in, I feel I am ready to face anything the day brings.
What new thing am I learning?
I’m excited with Shannon Hiramoto’s new venture in her space at the Warehouse and have taken two different classes already. I did my first block print of a wave (surprise!) I’m so pleased how it turned out. Once the pandemic hit, I decided I’d try my hand at a home garden. Prior to March, the only plants that survived in my care were ones that thrived on neglect. I knew if I was going to grow vegetables I’d have to have a better “relationship” with the little seedlings. It was a great lesson with respect to all living things thriving if they're shown a little love. So I really cared for them and treated them as if they were my children. When my husband who had been stuck on Oahu for months returned home he couldn’t believe my thriving lettuce, kale, taro, onions and turmeric garden. I could hardly believe it myself. I have returned to hula via ZOOM with an old Kumu on Oahu as it helps to expand my Hawaiian language vocabulary and history. I love learning other languages as it helps to understand the cultures. I’ve started watching more Japanese television with subtitles and try to pick up the nuances of that language.
What are you working now?
There's a Hawaiian word that means to be alert, aware, vigilant, watchful, wide awake. The word is maka'ala. I try to apply this concept into every area of my life. For instance, when I go to the ocean I don’t just rush to the water. I try to be aware of the environment and what is happening around me. In western
terms it would be the idea of "stop, look and listen” or “taking in the big picture.” I assess everything from the other people in the area, on the sand and out in the water. I notice if there is anything unusual happening. There are always things that we need to maka'ala. As parents, we must maka'ala, our children. Some of us may even be in a phase of life where we need to maka'ala our elders.
Looking beyond our own ohana, we realize that we have to maka'ala in our communities as well. What are the issues we are facing? Where is my voice needed? What causes am I actively engaged in and how am I contributing to the world around me? This is the season in my life that I want to be involved in sharing as much knowledge as possible that will help our residents and visitors have safe, enjoyable ocean experiences. These lessons can be adapted easily to any body of water, including rivers, streams, lakes and pools.
Woven into our latest water safety program is a return to the native language of our island culture along with many of the concepts that we learned growing up. It's important for residents and visitors to know what what their kuleana is. We teach children to care for their ukana and clean up their opala. We encourage them to malama the area that we work and play in because it’s the pono thing to do. This emphasis on weaving the language and culture into our water safety programs is important to me personally because it’s a way to honor the host culture of the Hawaiian Islands and especially my parents and grandparents. Those 2 generations were disenfranchised from many of their native rights, including their native tongue. My mother’s generation was forbidden to speak Hawaiian in school.
The best advice I could give anyone is old fashioned “waste not, want not”. The worst thing you can waste is your time. It’s the one thing you CANNOT make more of. And because “tomorrow is promised to no one”, you really have no idea how much time you actually have left. Even someone as young as 5 years old, can’t know for sure if he will be here next week. I try to treat everyone I’m with as if it was the last time I’d be seeing them, because there’s a chance that it just might be. I don’t want to have any regrets that our last verbal exchange was anything other than kind.