Lifesaver

A lone figure wound his way down the shoreline through the dark night. He picked his way carefully along the uneven surface using a lantern to see. The night was cold and windy as a mix of sleet and rain caused him to readjust his woolen coat. There was no ambient light, and he passed no houses or other buildings. He had been walking for several hours when he spotted a light in the distance.

He approached a very small wooden building and opened the door. Inside, was another man with a similar appearance. Both men wore beards partially covering lean, weather-beaten faces. They sat together for a time, talking about the weather, the surf, and gossip about the people that also inhabited this remote landscape. Then they exchanged small coin tokens and walked back in the direction they’d come from.

In the mid 1800’s and these were “Lifesaver Men” or “Surfmen”, who were employees of the US Lifesaving Service. They spent most of their time in life-saving stations working under the authority of the “Station Master”. During the day they performed tasks involving maintaining the station and at least one surf boat. They also, as first responders do today, practiced their skills regularly. This involved practicing an early form of CPR and maintaining a high level of proficiency in rowing the surf boat with the rest of their squad. At night they took turns walking the beach searching for shipwrecks between their station and the next station if there was one nearby. They would exchange tokens to show the Station Master that they’d actually made the walk, and would often meet in a shack that was a halfway point to take shelter from the horrible weather that they often worked in.

When they would find a shipwreck, they had to get people off of the boat and to shore safely, usually using a rope and pully system. Another option was for the crew to don lifejackets made of cork and to row out to the ship. Almost no one at the time knew how to swim, including the rescue crews. This was very dangerous work and there are many tales of bravery against insurmountable odds.

There was a network of these stations around the country and world. The Texas coast had a number of stations as well by the late 1800s. In fact, the Galveston Island Beach Patrol traces the roots of continued lifesaving on the island back to the station at the San Luis Pass that was established in 1875.

In the 20th century the US Coast Guard took control of many of the lifesaving stations. and, with the advent of the industrial revolution, a leisure class, and resulting recreational swimming, modern beach lifeguarding techniques were developed under the guidance of the United States Lifesaving Association. This is the group that sets training standards and certification for most open water lifeguard agencies in our country, including the Galveston Island Beach Patrol and the men and women that protect todays beachgoers.

Shoulder Season

Driving down the seawall last Monday, I spotted a couple of people right next to the rocks towards the
end of the 53rd street rock groin. They were right in the dangerous area. Thinking I only had seconds, I
flipped on the overheads and made a U turn. Once I was off the wall and rolling down the rocks, I hit the
airhorn and gave instructions on the PA system to come directly to shore. I assumed any second they
would step off into the hole caused by the rip current and be in serious trouble.
I spotted a bag on the groin, so assumed that they’d walked back to shore and gone around the three
signs and under the rope and flags we stretch across them as a reminder. They’d also walked by a rip
current advisory sign at the base of the steps. We maintain these at every access point along the beach,
as well as the ones at the water’s edge.
I called for backup and jumped out, grabbing my rescue tube and fins, then raced to the water…
For good reason, there’s been quite a bit of discussion lately about the time between when our seasonal
lifeguards end their 7-month work period and when it is cold enough to prohibit swimming. We’ve had
three drowning fatalities that happened just after the tower guard season ended. Once it’s cold we can
be pretty effective in preventing drowning fatalities from mobile patrols. During the season we have
guards covering about 9 miles of beach, making proactive preventative actions throughout the day. But
on a busy weekend with guards we make several thousand preventative actions because the guards are
right there on the spot. In the trucks, if we really work, it may be a few hundred. The right weather,
crowd, and water conditions can be a real issue without guards.
This window has become more and more of an issue as: 1. The Houston area population increases,
resulting in a corresponding increase in visitors here in Galveston, 2. The weather seems to stay warm
later into the year, and 3. We add on to our beaches and market ourselves in the fall and spring as a
tourist destination This year, due to the limitations on recreation imposed by Covid, we saw a marked
bump on top of this trend of increased beach use more of the year.
Many coastal communities have faced this issue as tourism expanded. Many worked out a hybrid
system that involved a lifeguard service that was not “seasonal” in nature. We’re exploring options. I’m
sure funding will be an issue if we find something appropriate for Galveston, and that won’t involve the
city’s general fund or property tax dollars. But ultimately and eventually we have to find a way to ensure
our visitors’ safety.
As for the two people we left hanging in the water, they avoided the hole. They got back safely with just
a scare and a story to take home. And hopefully they’ll read the signs and notice the flags next time.

Respect The Water

The young scanned the pool frantically and couldn’t see her toddler anywhere, until she heard the other adults gasp and point up to the high dive. Her son crawled up the ladder, out on the board, and jumped off. He sank directly to the bottom of the deep end. Using superhuman mom power, she beat the guards to him and pulled him to the surface quickly as he coughed up water.

The wood of the dock was rough under the little boy’s feet as he looked down at his bony legs. He felt like he was going to throw up. Somehow, he was cold and hot at the same time. Loose clothes draped on his scrawny body. Being 9 at summer camp is scary enough without having to swim in a “clothes relay race” and be the smallest kid out there.

It was almost a relief when the larger boy splashed up to tag the dock and he finally got to jump in the cold water and start stroking towards the other dock. He had been on a swim team and was a good swimmer, so the first few strokes felt good. But then the clothing started dragging him down and he panicked. He choked on water and went from powering forward to barely maintaining his head above water. Midway between the docks, with all the big kids watching, he started going under.

Suddenly, the strong arm of a teenage councilor grabbed him across the chest firmly. As she stroked both of them to the safety of the dock, she told him he’d be ok, and it could happen to anyone. The only thing more powerful than the shame he felt crawling up on the dock was the relief and gratitude to be alive. He vowed never to let anything like this happen again, but that’s not the way it worked out.

12 years later, a surfer at Oceanside Beach, California was surfing big, meaty, storm swell. It was around 12 feet and he’d caught a number of amazing rides. Paddling back out after an especially good one, he saw the horizon disappear as a monster set approached. Everyone in the lineup scratched for the outside or powered towards shore. He joined the few headed out. He felt those butterflies from long ago as he realized he wouldn’t make it. He tossed his board and dove deep, grabbing the bottom. He made it through and resurfaced with relief, feeling his lungs would burst. But all he saw was the shadow of the next mountain, which looked even bigger. 6 or 7 waves later he somehow crawled back to the surface a final time. He floated on his back for a long time before being able to swim back and crawl up on the beach, vomiting seawater.

I still remember those events like yesterday. The words of my friend and mentor, Ducky Prendergast shortly before he moved on resound in my head.

“Son, you got to respect the water”.

Drownings

We’ve had three drowning fatalities in the past two weeks. For us, it’s hard not to think, or in this case write, about anything else.

The first one was eerily familiar. Many of you recall that last year, just a few days after our seasonal lifeguards ended their 7-month term of employment, two kids died off the end of the 17th street groin in a rip current. This year a man drowned in almost the same spot just a few days after the guards ended the season. Just off the head of the groin on the west side.

The second had similar conditions, but it happened at 53rd. This man was swimming with his two children, and they were able to get to shore. The man drifted near the rocks and was caught in the rip current. A bystander tried to save him and was nearly overcome. Fortunately, the bystander was able to make it to shore.

The third one was a very different scenario. A man walked out on the South Jetty to fish. He was wearing waders. We’ve been in a weather pattern with a consistent southeast wind. When we get this wind direction the wind travels a long distance over the water and there is a tendency for the water to pile up, especially on the east end of the island. It looks like this man walked out on dry rocks and was out there for some time. As the tide came up, it surged higher than normal because of the wind direction. The rocks were almost submerged as he tried to make it back to shore. There are a couple of cuts in the rocks and he was attempting to cross one of them when he went in the water on the east side. His waders filled and he went under as a result.

These are just heart wrenching accounts. They’re especially tragic because, as are the vast majority drowning fatalities, they were preventable. Drowning prevention is all about layers of protection. If the first two men hadn’t gotten near the rocks because they either knew swimming near structures is dangerous or because they’d noticed the signs, its likely they would have been fine. Or if we had a lifeguard in those towers, the lifeguard would have whistled them away from the rocks like we do for several hundred thousand people a year. Or if someone in their group knew to remind them to say in a safer area. If the third man had not worn waders or knew the area would fill up. If any of them would have worn lifejackets. The list of potential layers goes on and on.

My staff is working hard to be that final layer of protection. They’re even currently having a competition of who can log the most patrol miles in a shift. They’re preventing hundreds of accidents a day, but there’s nothing that compares with a stationed lifeguard at each potentially dangerous spot to make that simple, but critical, preventative action.

Seasonal Guards

The first weekend after the clock ran out on our Seasonal Lifeguard coverage was something else. As we say people were “all down up in that beach”. They were in the water, on the sand, driving around in golf carts, trying to swim in the no swimming areas by the rocks and at the ends of the island, and anywhere else you can think of.
It was a challenge keeping everyone safe while working from the 5 scheduled lifeguard trucks. Not having guards stationed at fixed locations watching to make sure people stayed away from the dangerous areas forced to trucks to stay constantly moving. I was proud of how hard our staff worked. But even with that we still had some near misses. By the end of the weekend we’d made 8 rescues and moved over 1,400 people out of areas near the rip currents by the rock groins.
The thing that saved us (and a lot of people) was that the water was calm. Generally, we have fewer problems when the water is calm or very rough. The toughest time to guard is when the water looks pretty safe but isn’t. A prime example would be a day with small surf but with longshore current that pulls people parallel to the beach.
Longshore, or literal, current is dangerous for two reasons. The first one is that if it runs for awhile it digs deeper troughs between the sandbars, which means steeper drop-offs closer to shore. This can be especially hazardous to children; whose parents think because they’re close to shore they’re safe. It also can mean more lost kids who drift down and come out down the beach with no familiar reference points.
The second danger of a longshore current is that, when it comes into contact with a structure like a pier or groin, strong rip currents can be generated. This means that on both sides of a structure people who are in the water near it will be pulled offshore into deeper water. If they try to swim against it, people can tire, choke on water, panic, and go under. 80% of the rescues beach Lifeguards make both locally and nationally are a direct result of rip currents.
We’ve probably got another month before the water temperature drops to the point that it keeps the recreational swimmers out. And lately it seems that the season stretches farther and farther into the winter months and more and more people are using the beaches. So we’ve definitely got some work ahead of us before we can divert attention to our winter tasks of refurbishing all the towers, repairing equipment, training our full time staff for the next season, and lots of other things we’ve put off until the beach is not so pressing.
All that said, please find some time to come to the beach during a time of year that the water and air temperatures are absolutely perfect, without the pressure of summer crowds. Just remember to be safe!

Support

I’ve been working on a really interesting side project for awhile now. For 20 years, on behalf of the United States Lifesaving Association, I’ve been part of a national task force between the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA), and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). On the NOAA end, its specifically the National Weather Service and Sea Grant. This Rip Current Awareness project includes signage, brochures, teaching aids, videos, etc. Recently, we’ve started a new and really cool addition to the project.
Part of the difficulty in creating a national body of information is consistency of messaging. We may talk about rip currents in a certain way in Texas, but in New Jersey, Florida, or California, they may use different terminology to address similar concepts. Plus, we all think we’re right! So, a lot of the challenge has been to promote uniformity of messaging. To complicate matters more, even if the major organizations are on board with the message, there are often smaller non-profits that pop up after a drowning event that are well meaning and motivated, but aren’t familiar with the standardized terms and push out a similar concept using different terminology or materials. This can be confusing to the public.
So, the new project is to provide a resource specifically for people or groups that want to help spread the word on how to protect yourself from the dangers of rip currents. That’s pretty simple and involves tweaking existing material for that specific purpose. But in the conversation, I mentioned the Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network (SSN) and how much of a difference they’ve made to us all locally. The NOAA crew was really interested in helping various National Weather Service offices and Lifeguard agencies facilitate the creation of SSN groups around the country as part of the tool kit we’re working on.
The mission of The Jesse Tree’s Survivor Support Network to help the families and friends of drowning victims by delivering support through emotional, spiritual, and physical resources. The intent is to assist the Lifeguard Agencies and other Emergency Responders with this support during the recovery process to allow them to focus on their mission to recover the victim, and to follow-up with support and assistance to both the family and the emergency response personnel to encourage closure, healing and preparation for future incidents.
Each incident that calls The SSN to action provides an opportunity to learn how to better assist the family in crisis. Translation, ministry, grief counseling, accommodations, meals, and negotiations with the County Coroner, foreign consulates, and funeral directors have all become standard procedures for the SSN. Community patrons have generously contributed motel rooms, meals, and “Compassion Kits” (coolers of juice, ice, snacks, towels, sun block, and umbrellas) as resources to assist the families.
Our hope is that this incredible program will make as much a difference to others as it has here in Galveston.

For information about becoming involved in the Survivor Support Network, visit the Jesse Tree website at https://jessetree.net.

Drowning

This is the last weekend we’ll be working lifeguards in towers for the season, after which time we’ll pull the towers off the beach for refurbishment. We are held to a 7-month timeframe for the seasonal lifeguard and park staff and, since the season starts in March with Spring Break, we’re at the end of that time. We still have a long way to go as far as Lifeguarding goes in 2020, though. We’ll be running a number of rescue trucks on patrol daily throughout the month of October and November. After that we’ll divert our crews to maintenance aside from one vehicle a day that will patrol throughout the coldest months. Of course, we’re still ready all year for emergencies 24/7/365.
Even though we’re still seeing large beach crowds and are very busy, the season is winding down. The cold snap this week was a portent to things to come. Even though, as Lifeguards, we know that anything can happen at any time, we were starting to relax a little bit at the end of a long, tough season. And that’s when an especially heartbreaking tragedy occurred.
It was a beautiful day with moderate surf, when a man in his late 60’s and his son went swimming right around the eastern border of Jamaica Beach. The son was able to make it to shore, but watched his father, reportedly a fairly good swimmer, being carried farther out. No one actually saw him go under, but after an extensive search by multiple agencies, a Coast Guard Helicopter spotted his body on the shoreline in the middle of the State Park a couple of hours after the event. All the response groups and the Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network performed admirably. They were prompt, efficient, and compassionate. But we were all left with a feeling of “How could this happen?”.
We may never know for sure, but there were some unusual circumstances. When the search teams were out there looking, they detected a rip current pulling from the shoreline, through a break in the sandbar, and a bit farther offshore. To be fair, there are always “microrips” up and down the beachfront, most of which are almost undetectable to all but the seasoned observer. But to have anything stronger and longer that’s not near a structure on a day with only moderate surf is unusual on the upper Texas coast. It was likely the result of some of the changes to the bottom left over from the two storms that came through here. It always takes a little time after a big ocean event until the bottom and currents return to normal.
As we move towards the end of the beach season, remember there is a reduced Lifeguard presence. Be extra careful not to exceed your limits and stay away from areas known to have strong currents like structures or the ends of the island. That said, we are entering the nicest time of the year for the beach, so enjoy responsibly.

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.