While sand, surf, and sunshine might sound like a vacation to most, for Kamu Davis, and any other North Shore lifeguard, it can often be the backdrop for a harrowing scene. Peak physical condition to tackle legendary feats and the ability to find peace amongst the chaos are just a few of the requirements an ocean lifeguard must possess. It’s an explosive conditioning for the body and the mind, and Kamu constantly puts it to the test, pushing himself to grueling limits, physically, until his mind acquiesces to the stillness within.
But Kamu is no stranger to the trying ocean depths. He is perhaps as connected to the ocean as a person can get. He grew up on an island, where a deep respect for the ocean and Mother Nature can be traced back through his ancestry. He’s been surfing since he was a child. His grandfather, who was also a lifeguard, would take him out tandem on a longboard and stand him up for the waves, an activity Kamu now enjoys with his kids. He’s spent 16 years as a lifeguard, 13 on the North Shore, where surfers flock for the epic waves and beachgoers for the breathtaking coastlines.
We were fortunate enough to work with Kamu for our first big S.E.A. JEANS campaign in 2017, and we jumped at the chance to work with him again for our Spring/Summer 2023 campaign on the North Shore.
Kamu epitomizes the Outerknown; his everyday involves going beyond the furthest reaches. While he works his ass off to ensure he’s ready for any adventure, his demeanor suggests he was just born that way. We carved out some time to chat with him after the shoot to dive a little deeper into his roots and hear what island life is like for him these days.
Growing up in Hawaii, have you always been connected to the ocean?
Yes, that’s for sure. I feel like that’s true for everyone that grows up near the ocean, any beach town, but more so for us on an island because you’re surrounded by the ocean.
It’s just one of those things, growing up here… You can play football, you can own a business, you can become a lawyer, you can do all these things, but the one thing that will remain the same, that everyone will have in common, is that connection to the ocean.
What inspired you to become a North Shore Lifeguard?
When I was a kid, my uncles that I looked up to were always in top shape, something about them, good people, always in the ocean, always smiling. They were always happy and basically bad asses at what they did. And some of them were lifeguards. My grandfather was actually one of them. Everything he knew about the water, he showed me, and everything my mom knew she taught me. So the inspiration just came from my family. When I got into it, some friends were trying out, and I just kind of did it for the conditioning and the agility test. Being a lifeguard is one thing, but being a lifeguard on the North Shore kind of comes with claiming rights. After four years of working every station on O’ahu, I had a friend Guy Perry - he was one of the guys I looked up to. Perry went on to become a longshoreman and as he was leaving, the captain asked him if there was anyone he knew of that he’d like to see out here on the North Shore - And Guy said yeah, “there’s this kid I know of, you might want take a look at him, I think he’d be a good fit.” And back then there was a board of trustees, someone had to vouch for you to be out here. And having that little “in” with Guy, I got called in the next day from the captain. He said, “Guy Perry gave me your name… those are some pretty big shoes to fill but come on out.” I knew my place, I didn’t think I could fill those shoes. I was just flattered and appreciative of the opportunity. That was 2009 and I’ve been out there ever since, except the past five months.
Spending time on the North Shore, all the guys I saw, good surfers, good looking, good attitude, always happy and stoked on life and always friendly and welcoming, just this warmth. And that warmth is pretty much one of the biggest definitions of Aloha - that warmth that you share with people and embrace.
So you’re no longer on the North Shore, what are you currently doing?
As of five months ago, I made a transition to the communications center, overlooking all the emergency calls for the island of Oahu for all the lifeguards. I took myself out of the position on the North Shore, which I can always go back to, and I probably will. The main reason is my kids’ mom, and I are going through child custody right now. And working on the beach, I worked five 8-hour days, sometimes 10 or 12-hour days, depending on the conditions. You know, it’s nature, and it’s always changing; it’s always unpredictable, especially on the North Shore. I had this job offer as a promotion twice, and I turned it down because I never wanted to be a lifeguard that works in an office, but here I am five months running. This is my first winter that I’m not on the beach. I just wanted to give this change a chance and the scheduling frees up a lot more time to be with my kids.
You’ve patrolled some dangerous coastlines with waves of major consequence, what’s that like?
Everyone you talk to is a life saved. People always ask you, "how many lives have you saved? or "did you guys save anyone today?" Just me telling you, educating you on this area is saving your life. The only rescues that I really remember are the lives that are lost or the bodies that never came back. You had hands on, you saw it happen or you might have talked to them a few times. And then you get this call in that same area, and think “oh, man, I hope it’s not that lady I just talked to.” Sure enough, it’s that lady. Sure enough, she’s way outside. Nature just took her out, swept her off her feet, sucked her out ,and now you’re like, “ok, I can get there," but it’s all timing. So I went for this lady, I saw sets rolling in and I’m ready, I’m counting down in my head - I’ve got 20 seconds and I’m trying to get there. I wasn’t able to get to her in time. I got within 10 feet of her and I had to tell her, “you need to hold your breath for as long as you can.” And if she heard me or not, I wasn’t sure. She was screaming and panicking of course, she was struggling. We finally got to her and got her on the back of the sled on the ski and gunned it back to the beach. The sad part was her three kids and her husband were there waiting. Her son was the one that flagged us down to let us know she was out there. I spoke to this lady and her family on the shore four different times that day. The first two times were to educate. The second two times were to tell them they were too close to the water and that the ocean is unpredictable. She just brushed it off. “Yeah, don’t worry about me. Oh, I know.” We get that stuff a lot out there. It’s the same old song and dance, except sometimes the song plays, and you’re not ready to dance. And that’s what happens, and it happens fast.
Mother Nature does not discriminate. She doesn’t care what you do, how long you’re here, what you have in your bank account. She always wins.
You’ve also got experience diving with some big fish, can you tell us about that?
So, yeah, um… shark diving… one of my best friends, Kaiwi Berry, he’s also my son’s godfather, runs a cageless shark diving tour out of Haleiwa, it’s called Island View Hawaii. I’ve worked with Kaiwi since day one, since he started the company. But since Covid, I haven’t been back much. You know, having two kids now and my day-to-day life, I just haven’t really had the chance to get back on the boat. But there are times, when I’m like, “hey, what are you guys up to today, I want to jump on.” It’s really a good way of clearing the mind. For us, growing up in Hawaii, you have ‘Aumakua—it’s this animal that represents your family. So, every family has a different ‘Aumakua, right. It’s like a spirit animal. In Hawaiian culture it’s like your ancestors come back reincarnated. And a shark is one. So our approach to sharks and the way we look at sharks, we look at them differently. It’s a level of respect that goes both ways. It’s a different appreciation. Any kind of fear is hard to channel...However you act, is the way the sharks are going to react. Swimming with the big fish is pretty fun, you know, it’s just kind of part of our culture.
I feel like for us, doing what we do and our love for the ocean, and our appreciation for the ocean, and our respect for the ocean comes differently.
What does life look like after lifeguarding, more modeling maybe?
In college, I worked for this guy, who set up scaffolding like in trade shows. I was part of a team that would travel in the states and set up scaffolds. At one of these jobs, there was an argument about one of the models missing his flight and he wasn’t able to make the show. They needed someone, so they asked me to stand against the wall to see what I looked like on film and they shot me - like a little mugshot and then they used me for this runway thing. So every time I would set up scaffolds, sometimes, not all the time, but I’d do some modeling. It was kind of interesting to me because I never really saw myself as a model. I feel like today it’s a little different, but back then people wanted to be models. I was just the dirty carpenter setting up scaffolds, but I get it now being older...I love the behind the scenes stuff, too. I’ve learned every trade of a production set, and I really love being in that environment. I've been fortunate enough to do those things outside of lifeguarding. And if I get the rare occasion where John Moore or Myke Herman calls me to do a talent gig, I’m stoked either way. I’m happy to come through for those guys whenever I can!
What words would you use to describe your style?
Unorthodox. Simple. I’m into different stuff style-wise. I’ve been to a lot of places, everywhere that I’ve found myself around different people, different languages, different foods, different countries, I just kind of took it all in and as you get older, you know what you like and you definitely know what you don't like. And with style, I’m into some weird stuff. It’s just different. Just to break it down, there’s not one look that defines you. It’s a mood, it’s a genre, and I hate to use the word vibe, but yeah… it is a vibe.
Do you have a role model?
My role model growing up was my grandfather, my mom’s dad. He was like my best friend. And now being a parent, there are a lot of things I see in myself that I saw in my mom and in my grandfather. He passed away when I was 15. The way that surfing was shown to me is the same way I show it to my kids, which was tandem surfing. My grandfather would take me on his longboard. He’d catch waves and he would stand me up, but he was surfing how he would surf if I wasn’t with him. Just showing me the same way that he would normally surf. And it’s how I do it with my daughter. I pinch myself every day because my daughter loves to surf. My son would rather dig holes and build a ramp on the beach for his monster trucks, which is fine. I’m a little more cautious with my daughter, I want her to have a good experience because if she has a bad one, that’s it. So I’m mindful of that stuff but not really thinking about it, it just comes naturally. But it’s the same way that surfing was shown to me.
Are there any causes that are particularly close to your heart?
I've been part of this non-profit foundation that takes kids with autism surfing. It’s called Surfers Healing. Before having kids, I would travel with them a few times a year. It started off with Israel Paskowitz, taking children with autism surfing; it really brought me to a lot of places I never thought I would go. So we do tours through different areas, and kids come from all over to have 15-20 minutes with us on three to five waves. And that's huge for us because we get to share the stoke and share experiences with these kids. I’ve taken it upon myself to really read and learn about autism and the differences on the spectrum. Every year, more kids hear about Surfers Healing and try to sign up wherever they can, not necessarily just in their hometowns. We’re having an impact on them but they’re having a huge impact on us as well. It’s mind-blowing and awesome to connect with these families and give back. And the kids remember you. Parents have said, “my kid looks forward to seeing you more than Santa Claus.” So to have yourself be in the same space as St. Nick is crazy.
How do you lower your impact on the environment in your daily life?
I’m always trying to minimize single use items. I’m a huge glass and bamboo straw kind of guy, so it’s little things. I wouldn’t even think of recycling as an answer because it’s just what we do. Leave it better than you got it. And today, things are not just recycled, but re-used, things are made out of plastic bottles.
Yes, like Kelly Slater’s APEX TRUNKS!
Exactly, I gotta touch base with John and see if I can get me a pair.
See more of Kamu Davis in our new Spring/Summer ‘23 campaign, and shop his Outerknown favorites HERE.