Annual BBQ Fundraiser!

Wow! Hard to believe how fast summer is moving. Tonight is our annual BBQ fundraiser. Come down to the Press Box at 24th and Post Office from 6 till 10pm. You can get a ticket at the door for fifteen bucks. You’ll have great food cooked by people who understand great BBQ- the Galveston Rugby Team. The music by Los Mighty Hooks, who have strong lifeguard ties, will be spectacular. But most importantly, you’ll have all the beach people of the island in one place. Surfers, sailors, beach vendors, fisher folk, lifeguards, Wave Watchers, Survivor Support Network members, junior guards, first responders, park staff, beach maintenance crew, park board and city staff, and locals who love the beach will all be there. It’s a great chance to let all the people that make our beaches work know how important they are to Galveston. And for 22 years it’s been the beach party of the year!
We have been extraordinarily busy this season so far. Weekends have been incredibly full. The beaches are packed from the East Beach Park all the way to the tip of the San Luis Pass. We’ve been barely staying on top of things with our whole staff stretched to the limit. I’m so proud of our lifeguards who show up early to train before work, work a full day, then some of them are out in the middle of the night responding to boating accidents, lost people, possible drownings, and all kinds of summer madness. Thanks to the safety net of the Beach Patrol, Fire Departments, Police, Sheriff Office, and EMS we’ve collectively been able to stay on top of it. But it’s clear that there are more people using our beaches, bays, and waterways than ever before. And they’re using them more of the year.
We have enough staff to stay on top of all that we’re covering, but just barely. We still have positions to fill, and as summer wears on we don’t want to burn out the good lifeguards we have now. So starting Monday, June 18th, we’ll be holding an unprecedented third academy of the year. If you know anyone that is interested, we’ll hold tryouts at 7am at the A&M pool and will launch right into a nine day academy that same day. We’ll pay for all the training candidates receive as they go through the course. Join our family!
We’re keeping an eye on the tropical wave as it moves into the gulf. This is a good reminder that its hurricane season, so don’t forget to make your plan and be ready to evacuate if something looks like it’s coming this way. If you’re like my family, they plan on taking a couple trips a year to visit friends and family around Texas, but just wait till the inevitable storm scare to take the trip. That way they get out early without any problems even if nothing happens. Good excuse for a mini vacation.
Hope to see you tonight or soon on the beach!

Big Crowds

The Beach Patrol has had a rough season so far. Much of this has been covered in the news and I’ll cover some of this in a future column. But last weekend we saw what is probably the busiest weekend we’ve had in a few years. Many have attributed this to the news stories that happened during and after Memorial Weekend. Others say it’s because we had such a cold spring and everyone was chomping at the bit to get out to the beach. Whatever the reason or combination of reasons, the combination of crowds and rough weather stretched us to our absolute limits.
At one point of the day we had 4 major calls going on simultaneously including two “possible drowning” calls, a boating emergency, and a CPR in progress call. Threaded through all the big calls was a continual backdrop of lost children (35 or so each day), minor medical calls, swimmers being moved from danger, calls for assistance because people wouldn’t follow lifeguards’ direction, trash can fires, disputes, complaints about music/parking/other people, dogs off their leashes, and a million other things. I was so incredibly proud of how hard our staff worked to take care of their respective parts of the 32 miles of coast line.
The water was no longer blue and clear, although it was still a nice sandy green. But lots of people were asking why we didn’t make the water more blue. I still think some people don’t realize the beach isn’t a water park! But it did get me to thinking about water color and clarity.
There are lots of theories about this but what I’ve seen over the years is that the water follows two basic rules. The first is very obvious. If there are waves the sand gets churned up in the water. So it’s a little less clear than it would be without the wave energy in the water.
The other, and more significant rule, is that if the wind blows from the southwest or west, the current comes from down the coast (from west to east). When that happens, the water gets more brown in color and less clear. There is a very simple reason for that. Just below us the Brazos River empties into the Gulf. The Brazos River is very silty and brown. When it empties into the gulf and the current pushes it up to Galveston.
If the water comes from above us, with a wind from an easterly direction, the water defaults to its normal color of green or even blue. If there is not much surf activity for a couple of days the silt settles out of it and it can get very clear. This happens about half the time, but is typical of the second half of the summer.
So, over Memorial Weekend, with big crowds, media coverage, and beautiful clear water our local secret got out and people know it can get clear and beautiful. I hope they forget before we can’t afford to live here anymore!

Memorial Day for the Books

It’s rare that all the elements come together for a perfect weekend on a holiday. This year’s Memorial Weekend did. Three perfect days in a row. The sun was out, the winds were light. It was warm but not hot. And the water ranged from all the way flat to a very slight groundswell rolling in from the storm that hit Florida. On top of all that, the water was a beautiful emerald green and the fish were biting.
Even the crowds were near perfect. There were a lot of people here, but there wasn’t so many as to cause gridlock. Traffic moved, albeit slowly, on the seawall all three days. And, typical of the early season, everyone seemed to be in a pretty good mood. Everyone just seemed to be happy to be hanging out with friends and family, enjoying the amazing weather, and doing activities that they love.
I don’t mean to imply that things were perfect from the public safety side. You don’t get several hundred thousand people in one place without some mishaps. Some of the west end beaches had some issues later in the day, which were handled admirably as usual by the Galveston Police Department. As is the procedure on holidays, we clear the east end parks at the end of the day according to state guidelines. The process was mostly handled by the Park Board Security Detail, which is run by the Galveston Police Department. Beach Patrol helped as well. It went pretty smoothly considering that several thousand people had to get all their stuff together and get their vehicles out of the park. We also had a lightning storm blast through the east side of the island at peak crowd time on the peak day. Sunday at 3pm was a tough time to clear around 10,000 from the water when their having a good time! But we got through it and everyone got to get back to the party after about half an hour. We also had a tough time keeping swimmers out of the water at the ends of the island.
There were 5 calls of a “possible drowning” that we responded to. Two were false alarms and one was in a pool and was transported by EMS in stable condition. One was of a 3 year old girl at Hershey Beach on Saturday evening. A bystander reportedly pulled her in and started CPR. When we arrived she was alert and conscious. We put her on oxygen and EMS transported her. The tragic call dropped on Saturday morning early. An elderly man was out fishing at Pirates Beach in about waist deep water. A bystander noticed him face down and two men pulled him in. Multiple responders were there quickly but unfortunately, he did not survive. There were no signs of unusual currents or drop offs.
To give a feel for how busy we were over the weekend some stats are: 48,847 preventative actions, 25 lost children reunited, 36 medical responses, and about 200 enforcement actions.
Whew!

Memorial Day Weekend!

All the preparation is done. The equipment is ready, the planning is over, and the time for preparation transitions to the time for action. This week had a great drill to help sharpen our communication strategies and rescue techniques among our group and between our emergency response partners. We finalized plans and schedules and met with our various partners to make sure we’re all on the same page. And our “Night Swim”, when our entire staff goes through a grueling two hour test of skill and stamina, went off without a hitch.
This weekend will see between 250 and 500 thousand visitors to the island. The saving grace is that we are now almost at full strength. We’ll be ready for whatever madness the hundreds of thousands of visitors this weekend bring, as will our partners in the Police, Fire, EMS, Beach Parks, Coastal Zone Management, and Parking teams. We all provide an extra layer of protection, support, and response, but ultimately our visitors are primarily responsible for their safety and well being.
So, this weekend if you’re going to the beach or anywhere near the water, remember it’s easy to let down your guard when you’re recreating. Here are a few of the more important safety tips:
Swim near a lifeguard- almost every tower will be staffed every day for a double shift. We’ll be out there from early morning till dark, so shouldn’t be hard to find. The guard is an added layer of protection although you are still responsible for your own safety.
Stay away from the rocks- where there is a chance you could be caught in a dangerous rip current.
Avoid swimming or wading at the ends of the island- The San Luis Pass and the Ship Channel have very strong tidal flow. The water there is not only very dangerous, but they are illegal areas for swimming.
Don’t swim alone- your buddy can call or wave for help if you can’t.
Don’t dive in head first- to avoid the chance of a head or neck injury.
Observe warning signs and flags- ours are all bilingual and use icons.
Non-swimmers and children should use lifejackets when in our around the water
Alcohol and water don’t mix- most of the beaches here are alcohol free, but if you choose to drink, try to remember that, even though you feel invincible, you’re not.
Take precautions from the heat and sun- such as loose fitting clothing and a hat, sunscreen with a high SPF, good sunglasses, and drinking plenty of non-alcoholic, non-caffeinated beverages.
Remember the beach isn’t a pool or pond. There are currents, marine life, and the bottom is uneven with troughs and drop-offs. You should be much more careful and be sure to not exceed your ability.
Above all, remember the beach is a wonderful place. Go, have fun, and focus on family, friends, recreation, and making memories. Take a well earned break from your routine with friends and family. Just do it safely!

Sailboat Rescue

It was an absolutely beautiful evening with clear skies and a stiff wind. The elderly couple and their neighbor sailed around the south jetty and prepared to watch a beautiful sunset. Unfortunately, things went horribly wrong when their boat began having problems and they started drifting uncontrollably towards the rocks.
At 02:13am our “On Call” supervisor, Nikki Harclerode, received a call from the Coast Guard. Apparently there was a 32 foot sail boat with three passengers that was in distress and not able to sail their boat away from the south jetty. The Coast Guard was nearby in a boat, but was not able to get close enough to effect a rescue. The three passengers were not in distress at the moment but were quickly drifting towards the South Jetty and were being tossed around by the waves. Two of the tree passengers were in their 80’s.
Joe Cerdas rubbed the sleep out of his eyes, grabbed his equipment, and quickly jumped in the rescue truck, as did Micah Fowler. They both knew that a call like this would quickly overwhelm any one person. Nikki Harclerode was the on-call supervisor and breathed a sigh of relief as she heard them on the radio. These are experienced lifeguards and they quickly devised a plan. Joe and Nikki grabbed the boat from our headquarters at Stewart Beach and Micah headed out to the scene to try to locate the boat in distress. Joe and Nikki launched the boat at the Yacht Basin and made it around the tip of the South Jetty at around 03:10. Meanwhile Micah located the boat getting pounded by waves, a little less than 100 yards offshore on the west (beach) side of the jetty, and only about 15 yards off of the rocks. The sail boat was in about 4-5 feet of water and was being tossed around by the waves.
Micah figured out that he could drive the whole way out on the east side of the jetty because sand has accumulated over there. He lit up the boat and surrounding area and called directions to Nikki and Joe as they rounded the tip of the south jetty and made the 2 mile run back to the boat.
When they arrived Joe and Nikki easily found the boat following Micah’s lights. The waves were beating on the boat, and it was very difficult to figure out how to get the people off safely. After making a couple of loops around the sailboat they decided to approach from the leeward side and use the pontoon of our boat to wedge against the sailboat. Joe is a very skilled operator and he was able to gently maintain contact while Nikki carefully brought the elder couple across and assessed their condition. By 3:40 the three people were carefully transferred to the Beach Patrol boat. The passengers were exhausted and beat up, but OK overall.
Joe and Nikki drove them back to the Yacht Basin where a friend picked them up.

Wave Watchers

A group of people stood near the end of the rock groin at 37th street. They took turns removing the ring buoy and attached throw bag from the rescue box and throwing it to an imaginary victim in the water. The trick is to make sure the loop on the outside of the bag is secure by holding it in your hand or stepping on it with your foot while you toss the ring. The ring should be tossed over the head of the victim and gently pulled back to where the person’s head is. You can walk up side to side when you pull to make sure the ring contacts the person. If you miss, you don’t take the time to stuff the rope back in the bag, but coil it on one hand while stepping on the “bag end” of the rope. Your coils should go from the body out, so when you throw they don’t cross over the other ropes and tangle. When you re-stuff the bag with the rope, make sure it’s not coiled. You just feed the rope directly in the bag. It’s all about not letting the rope tangle. As in much of rescue work, the simplest thing gets complicated if not done the same way each time. It’s all about eliminating variables, so when things inevitably go wrong, you have less on your plate. Even professional rescuers don’t always think clearly under duress, so the more you can prepare equipment and practice before hand, the less you have to figure out on the fly.
This was just one activity that our recently graduated class of “Wave Watchers” undertook. Much of the course was in the classroom. They were certified in CPR and became official “Tourist Ambassadors”. We talked about beach topography and near shore bathymetry, rip and long shore currents, lost children protocols, beach rules and ordinances, drowning events, dangerous marine life and treatments, and Galveston areas that are hazardous to swimmers. On the final day they toured the beach, were issued uniform shirts and hats, received an official ID card, and we finished up with a celebratory lunch together.
This was the second class of Wave Watchers to graduate. We were joined at times by most of the Park Board Tourist Ambassadors that work the parking area of the seawall. Former Wave Watcher’s gave lectures and joined the class as a refresher. A wonderful group of 14 graduated.
The Wave Watchers have two running conversations on an app. One is for “Beach Operations” and includes reporting situations that need intervention by Beach Patrol staff or other groups. Their stats are entered into our data base so we can keep track of preventative or enforcement actions. That thread also includes daily beach information, warning flag colors, etc. The other thread is for general communication.
The Wave Watcher program has been a great force multiplier for the Beach Patrol and has become an integral part of our family. Let us know on our website if you would like to join the next class!

Rescue

The group of 10 or so middle school students came to the 24th street beach early. They were well away from the designated “no swim” area, about midway between the rocks and the Pleasure Pier.
5 of the kids went in the water for a swim. What they didn’t notice is that there was a current pushing them towards the rocks.
Captain Tony Pryor and Senior Lifeguard Kevin Knight (AKA “L’il Kev”) were working as our early patrol vehicle. They were doing a first pass of the beachfront. Tony spotted the group drifting quickly towards the drop-off and rip current by the rocks. He told Kevin to get ready, then flipped on the overhead lights and hooked a U turn, intending to pull up in the no parking area so they would have quick access to the stairs leading down to the beach. Unfortunately, there was a red pickup truck parked right in the middle of the emergency lane. Tony quickly found a small space between two parked cars and wedged the rescue truck up onto the sidewalk. Kevin jumped out of the truck, grabbing his rescue tube and fins. Tony hit the air horn and used the loudspeaker to tell the kids to come to shore immediately. They didn’t respond.
Kevin ran over to the steps and down to the beach, entering the water at the base of the rocks. By this time there were three kids caught in the rip current that were near the end of the rocks, and two more on the brink. He high-stepped through the water, then dolphin dove, when it was near waist deep, and finally put the fins on and used the rip current to swim towards the three kids farthest out.
Tony called for backup, then followed right behind, but ran out on the rock groin. He yelled for the two kids that were on the edge of the drop off to go straight to shore. He watched long enough to see that they were making progress and a teacher was headed that way. Then he scanned the groin and water. Kevin had made contact with two of the kids and seemed to be OK as he took them around the end of the groin. A young girl was struggling about ¾ of the way out near the rocks. Tony called for a fisherman to grab the ring buoy out and rope of the rescue box. The man responded quickly, removing the buoy and expertly throwing it to the girl. The girl grabbed it, but was getting washed along the rocks in the heavy surf. She was able to hang on, which bought she and Tony valuable time.
Tony ran to her, slid down the rocks and into the water. He untangled her and used his rescue tube to swim her away from the rocks and to safety. Kevin brought the others to shore. Tony and the girl were cut up, but the kids were fine as Tony and Kevin left to continue patrolling.

Memorial Hermann IRONMAN 70.3 Texas

It’s not too late to sign up for our “Wave Watcher’s Academy” which starts next Monday! Info is on our website.

Last week one morning I went for a swim at the amazing new city pool. The water was just right, but as I got through my warm up set I started feeling really slow. Going through the normal checklist of recent meals, sleep, and previous day’s activities didn’t raise a flag. Then I realized I wasn’t swimming slower than normal, I was just getting shamed by a group of swimmers in the adjacent lanes. Turns out it was one of the pro foreign teams that came to the US to compete in the Galveston Ironman event last weekend!

This triathlon has really put Galveston on the map for the national and international triathlon community. With over 3,000 competitors and all their entourage it’s a big event here. Beach Patrol takes the lead on guarding it with a lot of help from our Galveston Marine Response partners. We’re always really busy during this event. After the final swimmer got out of the water and we received the “all clear” from the event organizers, we’d chalked up 112 swim assists, 16 rescues, and 2 rescues with major medical injuries that we passed over the Galveston EMS crew on site.

There are several reasons that Galveston is such a good site in the spring and fall for the Ironman triathlon and other sporting events. A venue like Moody Gardens is a great place for participants to stay with their families. While they’re out training and competing there are plenty of things for their friends and families to do all over the island. Galveston has a lot of amenities packed into a small, easy to navigate community, and between Moody Gardens, the Strand, Schlitterbahn, and all the beach parks, there’s no shortage of entertainment. But maybe the best thing is our proximity to the ocean.

Even if they never make it to the beach, the water makes the climate just perfect for much of the spring and fall. While inland towns have large temperature fluctuations, Galveston remains relatively constant. We typically see less than a 10 degree difference between the day and night. The ocean is like a temperature buffer. It’s particularly noticeable when we get to May and June. While mainland temperatures may spike into the upper 90’s, we see temperatures in the low to mid 80’s. As long as there’s an on-shore wind, the air passing over the cooler spring water is more temperate. In the fall, it’s the opposite. As mainland temperatures drop, the air hitting Galveston passes over warmer water, keeping it nice longer into the year. Of course, no place is perfect. When August rolls around and the air, water, and humidity are all in the 90’s it can be tough. And that moist, coastal breeze is not very welcome in December and January. But all in all, we’re pretty lucky to live here.

Easter Weekend

I went for a run really early the other morning on the west end. This is the time of year that the beach is just perfect. The temperature is cool but not cold in the morning and the water is warm enough to swim in without a wetsuit. There are not many people on the beach on the weekdays but the weekends are in full swing. As I ran, I noticed some of that colored confetti that’s in the inside of plastic Easter eggs. Later that day, as I drove down the beach making a morning check, I noticed that same type of confetti on the Seawall beaches, at Stewart Beach, and way out by the South Jetty.

What is amazing is that right after this weekend, which brought hundreds of thousands of people down to spend time on the beach, there were so few signs that it even happened. I didn’t see any cans or bottles, trash, or signs of illegal campfires. Just little confetti that was too small for our Park Board Coastal Zone Management crews to pick up. And the city crews seem to have gotten all the trash off of pretty much any public space on the island as well.

Easter has gotten to be a bigger and bigger beach holiday over the past couple of decades. And just like other big holidays it takes a very large network of overlapping groups to handle a crowd that measures in the hundreds of thousands. This is particularly impressive when you consider Galveston’s population of 48,000, and that our support groups are, for the most part, designed to handle a small population.

As I drove from one end of the island to another, morning, day, and evening, I saw hundreds of dedicated Galvestonian workers.  There were cleanup crews working long hours, police security smoothly handling the parks and west beaches, parking ambassadors on the seawall and historical area, police, fire and EMS crews responding to hundreds of emergencies for locals and tourists. And let’s not forget all the people who worked restaurants, tourist attractions, hotels, and stores; or the staff of the hospital and all the emergency clinics that worked overtime to handle all that was thrown at them. Definitely takes a village!

All groups were busy including the Beach Patrol. We had that magic mix of crowds and current that keeps us moving. By the end of the weekend we’d moved 2034 people away from dangerous areas, mostly away from the groins where there are rip currents and drop offs. But we also moved people out of the water in the ship channel, away from areas that have underwater hazards, and closer to shore. We also handled a number of lost children, mostly at Stewart Beach Park, responded to a couple of serious medical emergencies and a number of minor ones, performed nearly 100 enforcements ranging from dogs off leashes to alcohol, glass, or fire violations, and helped well over 100 tourists with directions or information.

And the season is just beginning…

Causeway Rescue

The young man was in his early 20’s and was wearing a black suit and a black backpack. He was dressed for his own funeral as he stood in ankle deep water.

He had waded out near the causeway bridge. One of the best cops and nicest people you’ll ever meet, Alfredo Lopez, was talking to him in calm, reassuring tones, while standing nearby on the shoreline.

Beach Patrol Senior Lifeguards TK Mills and Nikki Harclerode had raced to the causeway after receiving a call from the 911 dispatcher about a suicidal person under the causeway. They parked and TK grabbed a rescue board. He wound his way around Fire, EMS, and Police vehicles and personnel and slipped quietly into the water after the young man who was slowly walking deeper and deeper.

TK told me he was worried about what the guy might have in the backpack, but weighing all the factors decided to take the risk to enter alone, so as not to alarm the young man. As the guy moved farther away from Alfredo, TK began to speak to him calmly and quietly. All the other first responders watched from shore, Nikki and others ready to jump in if TK needed help.

TK started getting worried as the guy walked out to waist deep water, then to his chest, and finally all the way up to his neck. TK still continued the conversation, attempting to build trust, as he subtly positioned the rescue board in front of the guy. This kept TK close but blocked the man from going deeper. He still had hope that the guy would turn around on his own and walk back to shore. But as TK looked into his eyes and realized he wasn’t all the way present, which worried him even more. Suddenly the worst happened…

The guy stepped into a deeper spot and began to struggle. TK moved closer and attempted to pull him up onto the rescue board, but he resisted. They struggled briefly and TK was pulled off of the board. They man struggled a moment more and then slipped under water. TK reached underwater and grabbed him and pulled him up to where he could breathe. As soon as he caught his breath they struggled again. After the third time the man was completely exhausted. TK was able to get him up on the rescue board and climbed up behind him. The man put his head down and was unresponsive.

TK used this opportunity to quietly paddle slowly to shore. He took his time, careful not to splash water or make any noise so as not to get the man worked up. As he eased into the shallows, first responders got hold of the man and stood him up, walking him to shore to get the help he needed.

TK has worked for us off and on for many years, before and after serving his country. He started at 10 in our Junior Lifeguard program. I’m proud of him and how gracefully he handled this.