Impermanence

Yet another reminder that all the things we want to be constant slip away, and we are in a constantly changing reality. Even this smallish tropical storm drastically changed the beach.
On the beach you are more acutely aware of the vulnerability of our existence and the need to constantly adapt to new realities. It’s true everywhere, but on the beach it’s heightened. A tropical storm comes through and sand is rearranged, dunes and signs are gone, walkovers are destroyed, and a chunk of pier is sitting on the sand. And that was just a tropical storm!
We find ourselves angry and resistant at times to this. Outraged that our lives are interrupted. Feeling helpless that with all our buildings, machines, and giant egos that we can’t do anything about it. Other times, we are different. We roll with it, understanding that we can control some things and not others. Some even find a certain beauty in letting go. Pema Chodron is quoted saying, “Impermanence is a principle of harmony. When we don’t struggle against it, we are in harmony with reality”.
That concept of living in the reality of today is important. Its exemplified by many of the older surfers, fishers, beachcombers, and others who are tied closely to the water and sand. Even thinking about my Grandma, who was a beach person, like her mother before her. She lived so simply, and I think that helped her adapt to an ever-changing reality even as she aged. When she died, a good friend of mine and I cleaned out her apartment in a couple of hours. Her footprints were so light, but she was so powerful and present.
Galveston is entering a new phase. I know when we, at the end of the season, assess the beach and tourism activity for the year there will be data to support this. But my guards already feel the difference in beach use. We just hit 285,000 preventative actions for the entire year. These are interventions where we move people away from danger. Last year was our busiest year so far and we only hit about 210,000. By the end of the year we’ll measure this as a year with a 30% increase in the amount of work the Beach Patrol did to keep people safe. More people moved, more rescues, more emergencies at all hours responded to than ever before.
But when we had a staff meeting of our full-time crew and as I looked at the faces of those leaders within our ranks, I saw fatigue, but I didn’t see exhaustion or defeat. They’ve been working so hard but still have plenty left to give. I saw resolve and acceptance of change and new realities. There is satisfaction in being challenged and handling it. And there’s a certain peace and focus that comes with accepting that our world is always changing. The beach is a great teacher.

Awareness of impermanence and appreciation of our human potential will give us a sense of urgency that we must use every precious moment. – Dalai Lama

Teenager Days

When I was 11 or so, I started at a new school and met Kevin, Jack, and Steve, who had foam boards, bikes, and were already surfing. The four of us lived in the same area and started riding to the beach whenever there were waves. We got wetsuits with beaver tails and were hooked. We’d ride the “mountain trail” at Fort Crocket (now the San Luis Hotel) in the coldest conditions, lock our bikes up at 53rd, surf till we couldn’t feel our feet, and barely make it back to our houses and hot showers.
We widened our net of surfers, and friends, but somewhere in there it became more about the ocean and the sport of surfing than about hanging out with friends. I found surfing alone had its own rewards you couldn’t find in groups. Teen problems, a messy parental divorce, family money issues, and everything else melted away when you were surfing glassy waves alone at sunset. More and more I found myself in the water with or without friends before school, at lunch, or between school and work. When I was finally old enough, I joined the Beach Patrol and started training in Lifesaving Sport in addition to surfing.
Many years later, after living in different places and doing a bunch of globetrotting, I started working as a full-time professional lifeguard/EMT/Peace Officer and administrator. The beach became something else. More complicated. The weight we all bear of all those millions of visitors can be heavy. Drownings are horrible, disruptive, and life altering to everyone connected to them. They happen to people who had a lot of living left to do. We lose really good guards sometimes afterwards and, worse than that, they can negatively impact good people’s psychological balance. But there are also other challenges like staff shortages or conflicts, anxiety that lack of understanding by decision makers of what we need can impair our ability to protect people, fear of our own people’s physical safety, etc.
And lately, all of us are facing additional serious stressors related to natural disasters, disease, racial/cultural/economic injustices, and absurd politics. And lets not leave out just moving around our life and dealing with people who are way more stressed and ready to pop than normal.
The struggle is to remain centered. To focus on the simple things that keep us operating closer to our best version of ourselves. Sleep, good diet, and a little exercise each day are the thing. Simple but hard to do when life is crazy.
And of course, pick that thing that brings you back to you, and don’t get too busy for that.
Even after surfing for 45 years and guarding for 37, every morning when I swim or paddle out into the Gulf, I feel that same magic I did when my friends and I waded out into the water with those beat up boards all those decades ago. And I come back to shore closer to that person I strive to be.

Labor Day Weekend

Early afternoon last Sunday we got a 911 call of a boat running loose in English Bayou. Sergeant Austin Kirwin and Senior Lifeguard Daniel Gutierrez responded.
On 61st they could see an unoccupied boat dragging a ski rope that was causing it to run in circles, as it gradually made its way east towards the houses, boat docks, and people swimming. There were about 4 other boats sitting and watching from a respectful distance.
They launched on the west side and ran under the bridge. Gutierrez drove while Kirwin rode on the back. They knew they had to act quickly. They tried twice approaching with Kirwin standing on one side of the ski but had to back off. Finally, on the third attempt, Gutierrez matched the angles perfectly. Kirwin leapt from the ski over the side of the boat and landed at the console. He quickly grabbed the throttle and powered down the boat.
A boat approached carrying the owner. He said that the driver hadn’t been wearing the key attachment and it sounded like at least one person had been catapulted out of the boat. Fortunately, there were no injuries.
This was one of many incidents we worked over the Labor Day Weekend. Fortunately, we were prepared for the amount of people that descended on the island. We even were somehow able to get all the signage knocked down by the recent hurricane back up by the end of the day Friday. Our staff all showed up, even those that already were off at school. I don’t know what we would have done without them.
The parks were full, the seawall had no parking and bumper to bumper traffic, and the west end was totally clogged up. For much of Sunday our patrol vehicle couldn’t get through the beach access points to the beach and couldn’t make it through much of the 3005 highway because the road was almost impassable.
By the time the weekend ended we’d moved well over ten thousand people from dangerous areas, made 12 rescues, reunited 15 lost children with their parents, and responded to multiple “missing swimmer” calls during both days and nights, two of which ended up being fatalities.
I’m continually humbled by the willingness of so many people and groups to come together in a crisis to protect and save others. Watching the police, fire, and EMS run call after call all weekend was inspiring. Working with volunteers from the County Citizens Emergency Response Team (CERT) and the Beach Patrol Wave Watcher group to protect swimmers, all of whom are away from their homes and families to help out, blows me away. Watching my staff, Coastal Zone Management, GPD managed Park Security Detail, our Accounting and Admin departments, and the Park Staff go to such lengths to make sure we’re all ready for and work hard during the weekend is amazing. And the Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network, who responded so compassionately to support the families of the drowning victims and my staff leaves me in complete awe.

Labor Day Weekend Tips

Coming off a storm is interesting to say the least. We lost many, many signs along the beachfront and have been working to get them all back up as fast as we can. Our accounting department, staff, and local vendors have been incredibly helpful. And our guards who volunteer for the hard work of jetting huge posts into the sand below a couple feet of water deserve more credit than we could possibly give them. There are not a lot of good things about a storm, but seeing how people pull together in a crisis always restores my faith in humanity.

The storm left its mark here in other ways besides tearing out our signs and rescue boxes. It took out sand dunes along the west end and tore up dune walkovers. It swept all the loose sand that’s been plaguing us away and removed every piece of trash and debris from the beach. And it rearranged the sand itself both above and below the water.

Storms have a tendency to flatten out the sand bar and trough system. Until it shifts back into its normal state, we will have weird surf and deep troughs and holes near shore. There are some channels left from strong rip currents that are causing problems as well. With the big Labor Day weekend upon us, be extra careful and follow all the safety recommendations.

When you go out this weekend to enjoy any type of water, remember to take a moment to be aware of your surroundings and potential risks. You also want to remember the basics, such as not swimming alone, staying hydrated, protecting yourself from the sun, observing signs and flags, feet first first time, alcohol and water don’t mix, and non-swimmers and children should wear lifejackets. At the beach, you should also avoid swimming in areas where rip currents are likely, like near piers and jetties, whether or not our bilingual signage is back in place. You also want to avoid the water in the Ship Channel and San Luis Pass, where very strong tidal currents have taken numerous lives.

Choose to swim in areas protected by lifeguards. In beaches guarded by United States Lifesaving Association lifeguards, like Galveston, your chances of drowning are 1 in 18 million. In fact, we are certified as an “Advanced Level” lifeguard agency, which means we have a much higher level of service than most beach patrols around the country.

But above all, YOU are responsible for the safety of both yourself and your family. Lifeguards provide an extra layer of protection in case your safety net lapses temporarily. We will be out in force, along with our partners in public safety. Additionally, the County’s Citizens Emergency Response Team (CERT) will be at the Pass, Beach Patrol Wave Watchers up and down the beach, and the Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network will be on standby.

Enjoy the Labor Day weekend. Grab your mask and meet us on the beach!

Emergency Plan

We really dodged a bullet this week. Unfortunately that’s not the case to many, many of our neighboring communities.
Even though we didn’t take a direct hit, this is a clear message that occasionally our number comes up. The tough thing is that if you didn’t evacuate and nothing happened, it reinforces the idea that its not worth leaving when a storm threatens. And if you did evacuate and come home to no damage at all, there’s a tendency to think it wasn’t worth the inconvenience, effort, and expense. But all you have to do is look to the east and you see what can happen with these storms.
Right now, there are more psychological factors at work than storms. We’re all stretched and frayed from Covid, socio/political/economic factors, and nearing the end of a busy, crazy summer. When planning for this storm, there was, understandably, quite a bit of resistance to acknowledgment that this could be a serious thing and we needed to take quick, decisive actions to make sure we were ready as we could be. It’s not that anyone didn’t want to do the needed work, it was more that many of us felt we just didn’t have the bandwidth to take on yet another stressful situation. But fortunately, we have a pretty well thought out hurricane response plan that has specific actions for each department. So, for example, Stewart Beach has specific things that need to happen when a forecasted category 3 hurricane is 72, 48, or 24 hours out.
Plans like this are really similar to why people have a coach for sports. If you’re a swimmer and you’re halfway through your workout, you start hurting. There’s a temptation to let up or cut it short. That’s when the coach starts yelling and tells you to pick it up, or gives you some validation and encouragement. A good emergency response plan is like a coach.
A good emergency response plan is a template. It allows for the ability to react to each different crisis while still holding you to the general course of what needs to get done. And like a good coach, it reminds you of all the little things you have to do to achieve your goal, so you don’t forget important things. Our coach/emergency plan made sure all lifeguard towers, trash cans, and portlets were off the beach by the time the heavy winds hit. All the other groups that manage our town, businesses, parks, roads, and emergency response groups did the same thing. All of this was choreographed so that everything would be ready by the time the storm hit, so we could all focus on protecting life and property without other distractions.
We should all create our own emergency plan to coach us through these things. It’s easy in the heat of a disaster to get tunnel vision and forget little important necessaries. That plan and a “go bag” and you’re ready for coastal living!

Storm Season

Wading up to the wooden steps through the muddy water that smelled faintly of sewage, I laid my rescue board on the top of the porch and pounded on the front door. A woman came out and tried to hand me a mid-sized flat screened TV, followed by three kids all carrying pretty random objects and wearing small backpacks. They looked forlornly at the roiling clouds and the Water World landscape. Over the howling wind, we had what would be a pretty funny conversation in retrospect about how I didn’t’ have a truck, boat, or helicopter, as we negotiated what could and could not be carried on a rescue board as we waded the 6 blocks to dry land.

There’s a huge division between who is prepared and who isn’t when our normal society is disrupted. I’m not saying that we should all be preppers or be ready for a zombie apocalypse, but all of us should be ready for the little bumps that come along if possible. Our society is built on a tenuous house of cards. Our food has to be transported from far away daily, our water piped in, and many of us are a paycheck or two away from defaulting on car or house payments. Those of us who choose to live on the Gulf Coast live in a wonderful place but are especially vulnerable. It really only takes about a 5 foot tide to start closing off roads and to back up drainage. A couple more feet mixed with a little rain and many of us are locked into our houses or worse.

When storms come and the surf gets bigger than about 3-4 feet, we’re looking at strong rip currents both near structures and all along the beaches, huge tidal shifts that affect the ends of the island, and dangerous troughs and holes real close to shore. When that’s mixed with high tides, waves can destroy dunes and bulkheads and close off roads. That’s not really a surprise, but what always amazes me is how quickly this stuff affects the land to the point that it keeps people from being able to move around. And once roads start getting sketchy, evacuation becomes very difficult.

As we enter the peak period of storm season, we should all be really aware of how quickly things get out of hand, particularly for the next month. It’s always better to be over-prepared and to leave early when these storms happen. If you have the resources, plan on 3 or 4 trips a year that you take with short notice. Have your plan in place, emergency bags packed with the things you can’t do without, and everything as ready as it can be. That 4-hour trip to safety can be a lot longer and riskier if you wait till the last minute. We have great resources between the National Weather Services and our local, state, and national governmental groups. Follow their advice and prepare now, before the crisis hits.

Staffing Difficulties

Staffing has been a real issue for us on the Beach Patrol for about three years now. At full strength, we run 135 Seasonal Lifeguards, in addition to the 15 full and part time employees we have. Our seasonal numbers have been more along the lines of 100-110.

When we’re short handed we still do our best to cover the beach. Guards pull longer hours, and/or we cancel morning training sessions, and some guards pick up additional shifts. Full time staff are also tasked with working lifeguard towers and we run fewer vehicles. Of course, there is a price for all of this.

I’ve come to think of the Beach Patrol as a living entity. When taxed, it compensates up to a point. When you’re hot, sweating helps maintain healthy temperature for a while. When really cold, your body will naturally shunt all the blood away from the extremities to the important parts (head and core) in order to protect your brain and vital functions. Your body does something similar for extreme injuries or illnesses when it goes into shock. So, the living entity of Beach Patrol has a built-in resiliency for emergencies like staffing shortages or lack of resources. These tricks work for a while but going into these modes of operation is not sustainable.  Eventually you pay the price for these measures in the form of staff burnout, lack of employee satisfaction, reduced staff retention, less reliability in attendance, loss of focus, etc.

This year has been a rough one on a variety of fronts. When Covid hit the hotels suffered tremendously. Since we operate exclusively off of hotel tax money, we took a proportional hit. We’ve already been struggling with meeting our number of guards in a part of the country where we don’t have huge amounts of swimmers to draw from, but we were looking at cutting the number of guards even more. Additionally, we lost our J1 Visa Cultural Exchange Visa foreign lifeguards because the program was suspended. We’ve been using these workers to close the employee deficit gap for a few years now with great success. And the crowds this summer are bigger than ever.

We were saved this year by two factors and have been consistently covering all of our 32 towers on the weekends. Our board wisely allowed us to use some reserve monies to allow us to hire enough guards. Additionally and unexpectedly, a number of older guards, who would have been working part time or not at all, were not able to work other jobs or internships which were cancelled because of Covid. That was a big help. Because many are not going off to school they’re still out on the beach taking care of beachgoers.

As we go through budgeting options for next year it looks like another challenging year is in store. I do, however, feel confident that our board, administrative staff, and we on the front lines will do whatever we can to ensure people are safe when they visit Galveston’s beaches.

IMAGE: DANIEL KRAMER

Sooner or Later

Sitting in the middle of storm season brings all kinds of things to mind. Have you ever seen the pictures of the amazing structures that existed before the 1900 storm? Huge wooden beach pavilions that stretch into the water. Galveston was such a draw and such an important place at the time we neared the industrial revolution. This was really before recreational swimming was even in the public consciousness. I love to sit and imagine what was going on in the pictures. What were they talking about? How did people speak differently than we do now? How did people see the world, each other, race, gender, religion, and politics? When one of those people in the pictures walked along the sand, did it feel the same to them? Did they see the marine environment differently before recreational swimming became commonplace?

After each hurricane, these structures were re-built, or new ones were added. Thousands flocked to the beachfront and used the buildings. Then they’d be demolished again by the power of the sea. It sounds like there would be considerable debate whether or not to rebuild and, some weren’t rebuilt for some time. But eventually, the economic draw was too much, and they’d put something else there.

This extends to the present. Why do we choose to live in a beach house or rebuild a structure in front of the seawall when you know there is a time limit? If we look back at those incredible beachfront structures from the 1800’s or early 20th century knowing they would only exist for a few years or decades, why spend the energy and resources? Is this wasteful and self-indulgent, or is there something else at work here?

It seems we, as a species, have a tough time thinking past our immediate experience and the short term. We seem to have a baked-in inability to give serious consideration to the long-term effects of our actions. When the population was small, and the world was big, this may have been a survival trait that allowed us to take risks that eventually allowed the human population to flourish.

It also seems that we are capable of incredible optimism. Why did people cross the Bering Strait? Why do we collectively choose to live on this vulnerable barrier island? Why choose to put such considerable resources into a place where there is such a risk of impermanence?

I believe the answer is simple. Because your life is not what you accumulate. It’s the sum of your lived experiences. If you have a deep, meaningful connection to a place that facilitates connection to something bigger than yourself, all the rest pales in comparison. Galveston, for all its many shortcomings, provides this to those who are open to it. The privilege of living close to the ocean is worth the risk and impermanence.

And, at the end of the day, everything we build only amounts to a sandcastle. Sooner or later, the tide takes it all away, leaving just the memory of building it with someone you love.

A Dynamic Environment

If you’ve been on the beach anytime in the past couple of weeks, you’ve probably noticed that we’ve had day after day of wind running parallel down the beach. And then, on top of that, we had extreme conditions over the weekend. This does some pretty interesting things to the bottom, which affect the safety of people that swim or wade in the water for quite a while.

The bottom within the surf zone has a memory. When current runs it picks up sand and moves it, causing a trench or trough, which is also known in “Galvestonese” as a “hole”. These are found consistently near structures like groins or piers and between the sand bars along the beachfront. These troughs can last hours to days, even after the conditions change significantly.

An example would be when wind blows parallel with the shoreline, causing a “littoral” or “longshore” current. This cuts deeper spots that run parallel to shore, forming our sandbar and trough system. This system is always there, but after a few days of strong current the difference between the sandbars and troughs is more pronounced. Deep troughs can be scoured out pretty close to shore. So, in extreme cases you can find water 5-6 feet deep only 15 yards from shore. Imagine the dangers for small children on these days. To make matters worse, when this is coupled with high surf, water from the waves can be pushed up to the shoreline and will have to find a way back out. If it breaks through a sandbar on the way out, more water follows, and it causes a trench perpendicular to shore that is a conduit for even more water to head back offshore. This causes a type of rip current called a “fixed rip”, which can last several hours.

Another example is that the groins and piers cause the water flowing parallel to head out away from the shore. This causes rip currents (not rip tides!) which are always there, called “permanent rips”. The deep spots near the rocks caused by all that water flowing out are responsible for water flowing out, maintaining the troughs, and causing danger, even on calm days. Water is lazy. It always seeks the path of least resistance.

A final danger imprinted in the “memory” of the bottom is “inshore holes” formed when larger/stronger waves break close enough to shore that they spill over, cut through the water, and smash into the bottom. These holes can be fairly deep. My daughter and I body surf a lot in the evenings lately and we were laughing because I was up to my neck and she, while standing right next to me, was about waist deep.

As conditions calm, we’ll start seeing more normal bottom conditions after the sand jiggles back into place. For now, be extra careful.

The beach is a dynamic environment. This is why the guards are required to physically get in twice a day to check their area. That way they’re better able to spot trouble before it actually happens.

Photograph by Mabry Campbell

Lifeguard Bower Rescue

It was a rough, windy, morning. Clouds scudded across the sky pushed by a strong wind from the west. The water was brownish because of currents pushing up from the mouth of the clay colored Brazos river. The 8-year-old boy floated along on his boogie board. As he neared the 61st street rock groin, a feeder current gently started pushing him farther out. As he neared the rock groin, he panicked and lost the board. He struggled for a moment before the current pushed him close to the rocks near the end of the groin where the fishing pier starts. He hung on tenuously as waves bludgeoned him.

Every morning before he reports to his tower, Lifeguard Bill Bowers walks down to the beach near his house and takes a swim. Bill has a long history as a competitive swimmer and coach. He joined the Galveston Beach Patrol network originally as a volunteer “Wave Watcher”, before deciding to try out to be a beach guard in addition. At 62, Bill was still a great athlete and trained regularly. He had no problem passing our swim trials and sailed through the lifeguard academy. Now in his third year of service, he’s become something of an icon. The younger guards ask him for advice and his supervisors love him. He’s a terrific guard. He’s proactive, personable, and goes the extra mile to make sure all the beach patrons in his area are taken care of. His work ethic and presence have raised the quality of what we do. He’s also very modest and shares any credit he gets with the team. He’ll hate it when he see’s I’ve written this column about him.

Bill was in the middle of his morning swim, towing a rescue tube behind him. He spotted the young boy, made contact, pulled him off the rock, wrapped him in the rescue tube, and navigated through the barnacle encrusted poles of the fishing pier. Popping out the other side, he swam past the rip current and brought the boy to shore safely. A bystander witnessed the event and was kind enough to write a letter about it, which I shared with the staff and asked him for a pic for social media. Bill’s response was as follows:

“Thanks Chief, but it wasn’t a heroic act. I had been swimming down the beach about a mile and I lifted my head to take aim at shooting under the bridge when I spotted the child. I simply snatched him up, kicked away from the rocks, shot through. We headed in and a truck was there almost immediately. I credit you with telling me to wear my buoy when working out!

As far as pictures what if they posted pics of all guards who have had a rescue. That would be really impressive number wise.

Bill”

 Heroism isn’t just about bravery. Its also about the discipline and drudgery of maintaining skills that may help someone, somewhere, someday. In this case an 8-year-old got to go home because of Bills heroism.