50 Years

The United States Lifesaving Association (USLA) is America’s non-profit open water lifesaving organization. They provide certification standards for beach and lake guards, public education material, publish statistical information, oversee lifesaving sport, reward heroic acts, advocate for drowning reduction in open water, and much more. Last week the 50th anniversary of the present form of the organization was held in Huntington Beach, California, along with the biannual board of directors meeting and educational conference.

Lifesaving in the United States originated in the northeast and many older coastal communities, including Galveston had life houses staffed by the US Lifesaving Service in the late 1800s. In fact, here in Galveston, we go back at least as far as 1875. But California was an appropriate venue because the immediate roots for the USLA came from a west coast based organization. A few forward thinking  individuals made trips around the US  promoting the concept of one group in the US that could oversee open water lifeguarding. They found fertile ground here in the likes of Jim McCloy, Vic Maceo, and Joe Max Taylor who saw the value of a modern, professionally run lifeguard service in a beach town that relies so heavily on tourism.

In 1957 a group of US mainland and Hawaiian lifeguards went to Australia to compete in their national lifeguard championships. Their names read like a who’s who of the history of lifeguarding in the US. Duke Kahanameka (introduced surfing to the mainland and other parts of the world), Greg Noll (one of the pioneers of big wave surfing),  and Bob Burnside (inventor of the hard plastic rescue can, world champion body surfer, LA County Lifeguard Chief). They had 120,000 spectators for the event and the US team did remarkably well. Additionally, they showed off the balsa surf board/rescue board and the rescue can. Up to that point, the Aussies had been using a heavier board and had been swimming a line out to victims. Both new innovations spread like wildfire in an aquatically conscious culture like Australia. Three of the original team members, now in their 80’s were present and a video of the original footage was shown. As you would imagine, the stories in the bar afterwards were pretty thick!

One thing that was really nice was that the whole event really promoted the commonalities that lifeguards and lifeguard organization share. Despite the decades this diverse group worked, or the part of the country, everyone seemed to be aware that although each areas has its own unique challenges there are common threads that run through the entire profession.

As always I was happy to get home. I drove across the causeway feeling like part of the overarching lifeguard family. But then I saw the seawall and knew only a Texas guard would have any clue how to work in the huge piles seaweed that blanketed the beach. Our maintenance crews are taking care of it and things will look good soon, but either way, there’s no place like home!

Easter, Menard, and Burgers

Sunday was a good day.

Finally! We finally got the weather we all love. And it actually happened on Easter Weekend. It was perfect with sunny conditions, mild temperatures, flat blue/green water, and heaps of people out enjoying themselves. The crowds were well behaved and everyone seemed to be really thankful for finally getting the chance to hang out on the beach.

I enjoyed the entire weekend. It was great to drive the beaches and finally see so many local and tourist families making sandcastles, swimming, laying out, cooking BBQ, and getting to spend quality time with each other. It was one of those times that makes you thankful for the life choices you’ve made to put you where you are. We had a good turnout Saturday morning for lifeguard requalification and tryouts as well.

Sunday I started my normal high season weekend routine. I like the weekends because I get to do what I originally joined Beach Patrol to do- spend time helping people on the beach. I got up early and checked the entire beach and then had a good long surf-ski (a long, skinny kayak) workout in the ocean. Next I checked the beaches again and got to our headquarters to meet with the second shift guards before they went out to their towers.

After a few administrative duties I had my Sunday indulgence that I look forward to all week- a Whataburger! Generally, I try to eat fairly healthy but this is different. My Grandma and I were close and, after an injury, she relocated from her apartment into an assisted living space. She was kept on a strict diet, but on Sundays, she’d give me a call and say, “Are you bringing my package?” So I’d sneak in two Whataburgers in a backpack, we’d barricade her door to keep out potential snitches, and get to business!

As I went through the drive through the food took a while, so I chatted with the woman working. She was telling me about a reunion she’d been to the day before up on the beach at 29th. She grew up in the neighborhood around Menard Park and many of the old crew have moved out. They all still get together each year for Easter for a friends and family reunion.

Back when I started working as a tower guard I was assigned to 29th most of the summer. There were huge neighborhood parties across the street every Sunday and all the kids came down to my beach to play. I never had to bring lunch as someone always showed up at my tower with a huge plate of food to thank me for watching the kids. When I got off-duty a group of guys around my age would move over to the beach side of the seawall. I’d tell them the trouble spots and they’d keep the kids safe well into the night. Talking about those days brought back some good memories.

Like I said, Sunday was a good day.

 

Special Event Safety

Tomorrow morning we’ll have our second lifeguard tryouts of the season. Candidates that are able to swim 500 meters in 9 minutes or less and pass a drug test and interview will have a shot at being beach lifeguards this summer. Our last tryout is May 10th. All the candidates who pass the initial screening will test their skills in a grueling double run-swim-run event in the surf. Completing this event will qualify them to enter our 100 hour lifeguard academy. Those that make it through this intense course will join the ranks of the Galveston Island Beach Patrol lifeguard staff.

Setting up for the run-swim-run event is quite a production. Two careful head counts take place before and after the event. The guards that work the event have a safety briefing before and a debriefing afterwards. At least one personal water craft (Jet Ski) with an operator and rescuer on board will be in the water overseeing the 8 or so seasoned lifeguards on rescue boards who work a zone formation. All candidates are checked at the finish line.

People in our line of work know how quickly bad things can happen and that eventually they will. It pays to be consistently prepared for any contingency and to put the extra effort in before the crisis. The best you can hope for is that you are over prepared and have safety systems in place that don’t need to be implemented.

This philosophy of risk mitigation is something that communities like ours with lots of tourism, special events, and sporting competitions each year need to embrace fully. With proper preparation and adequate resources we can minimize the number of bad things that happen.

Triathlons are notorious for providing a lot of resources and coverage on the land portions but almost nothing for water safety, where there is arguably greater risk. Minor issues on land that are easily detected and addressed can cause a quick death when they occur in the water.  Organizers will spend thousands of dollars making sure the bike and run legs have plenty of officers and paid staff members to direct traffic and keep the athletes and cars separated. Meanwhile, there may be some pool guards, a couple of boats and/or untrained volunteers in kayaks watching the swimmers, the majority of whom have little or no experience swimming in open water.

A couple of weeks ago the Beach Patrol coordinated a team including Police/Sheriff dive team, Jamaica Beach Fire Rescue, Ironman staff, and a volunteer kayak club. We collectively worked the swim portion of the Memorial Herman Ironman triathlon. Fortunately we were prepared and given adequate resources. The first part of the swim had a strong headwind that caused the swimmers lots of unexpected problems. It could have been catastrophic. But by the end of the event we’d made 36 rescues and 115 swim assists with no drownings or serious injuries.

Whether we’re talking about special events or managing tourism it helps to be imbedded in a community that understands the economic and social value of proper preparation.

 

Oil Spill

Since the oil spill, life has been a blur of meetings, reports, surveys, and passing endless streams of information both up and down the chain of command.

The typical day for me has been to wake up at 4:45 and get to the joint command at the convention center by about 5:50. After checking in, I’d have a quick chat with Charley Kelly and Rosana Beharry from our city Emergency Operation Center to talk about what transpired during the evening the day before and the night. The morning briefing precedes smaller meetings, writing reports and sending them out, surveying beaches, getting input from beach cleaning and park staff and passing that back to the unified command.

Charley and Rosana have been been pulling 12hour shifts in the command center, along with representatives from the Coast Guard, GLO, wildlife recovery groups, NOAA, the responsible party and others. When not on their designated shifts, they’ve been in contact when issues arise, which has been basically 24 hours a day.

Charley and Rosana have represented all of our interests very well, but they are not alone in this level of dedication. The entire command center, which vaguely resembles the NASA control room, is divided up into groups overseeing operations, resource procurement, finance, command, wildlife, environmental testing, liaison, media relations etc. Each person in each group has worked untold hours at breakneck speed to handle this complicated event as it unfolded. All of this has been orchestrated using the guidelines of the national incident management system. Each person and group knows their specific role and how to interface in the most efficient way with the whole. All the information relevant to the city funneled through our local emergency operation coordinators to the appropriate groups. Since the beaches and some parks were impacted, much of this went through me to various departments of the Park Board.

The Park Board Beach Maintenance and Parks staff has been invaluable in surveying and reporting developments, as has been my staff. I’ve been so thankful for all they’ve done as well as city staff and the Tourism and Development and Administrative Departments of the Park Board. But I’d expect that from locals that have so much invested in our beaches, parks and tourism. What I didn’t expect is the response from all the different groups that came here to help.

As of Tuesday, over 15,000 workers have recovered 5,515.5 barrels of mixed oil and water, 116,304 bags of oily solids, and 672.87 barrels of decanted oil. Volunteers and professionals have captured, rehabbed, or recovered 578 animals. Countless volunteers have been checking the beaches, orchestrated by the Galveston Bay Foundation.

It’s been a humbling experience to see so many dedicated people work so hard.  The Coast Guard has done an amazing job coordinating everything and the responsible party has really stepped up. The speed, efficiency, and commitment of all the responding parties not only deserves our gratitude but, for me, has renewed faith in our capacity to dedicate ourselves to a cause that supports others and the environment.

Oil, Tri, and Jesse Tree

Very early one day last week I was about 150 yards from shore directly in front of the 37th street pier. I’ve been working quite a bit lately helping to coordinate resources due to the oil spill and it felt good to switch gears for a couple of hours. It was barely light and really foggy and these big rolling swells were coming in. As I paddled I looked back and saw three bottle nosed dolphins in the wave. Taking off I cut right and saw a big shape half submerged from which a very human looking eye looked at me. The dolphin and I made eye contact for what felt like several seconds before it submerged. I sent a silent greeting and felt gratitude that so little of our local wildlife was affected by the spill, at least compared to what could have happened.

We really dodged a bullet. The beaches look great and were barely impacted. It’s been an amazing experience working with the dedicated people that have been toiling around the clock to make things right.  When we wrap things up I’ll write more about this, but the weather is warming and its beach time! Lots of beach and Beach Patrol related events are coming, but there are a couple that I wanted to share.

Sunday is the Memorial Herman Ironman triathlon at Moody Gardens. This race has gotten huge and there will be several thousand athletes out there. We’re providing water security for the swim along with the Sheriff and Police Department dive teams. Come support this amazing event that brings so many people and so much good PR to Galveston.

In my column, I have shared many stories about how effective The Survivor’s Support Network is when a drowning occurs on Galveston Island. Since The Jesse Tree sold its building on Market Street, many people are unaware that their services not only have continued, but in fact expanded on the island.

The Jesse Tree uses compassionate, common sense in all of its projects and touches thousands of lives across the county and the region. Many of the families of drowning victims come from miles away.  They are so impressed with The Beach Patrol’s ability to connect them with The Jesse Tree and all the resources they bring to bear in their time of need.  It’s been a huge help to us and I encourage you to lend your support to this organization.

In fact, The Empty Bowl Event is coming up on Friday, April 11th at 6 PM at The Garten Verein. It’s a great event and generates funds to support The Jesse Tree.  This year you can sponsor an entire table of ten and invite family, friends or co-workers to turn out to show their support for the organization.  The event is sponsored by The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Galveston. Tickets can be purchased online at www.jesset ree.net. You can also call (409) 599 4847 or mail contributions to P.O. Box 575, Galveston, TX  77553.

Archie

Some people are wired different than others. Some candles burn brighter. Some people are larger than life. Archie Kalepa is such a person.

Archie was the Lifeguard Chief in Maui for quite awhile. We are the same age and knew each other originally through the United States Lifesaving Association and forged a friendship through the years. Archie recently retired his position to become the primary “ambassador” for Olukai sandals and to pursue other interests.

Visiting Archie in Maui is like visiting a prince. Driving through Lahaina with him in his giant monster truck pulling a boat or with an assortment of boards and water toys is almost impossible due to all the people waving, honking, flagging him down, asking favors, or just wanting to chat. But all the attention doesn’t seem to get to him. He stays focused, stays humble, and shows respect to each and every one. He knows every kid that waves as they see him and smiles, yelling “Uncle Archie!” Surfing with him is even better. In a place known for fierce localism, ultra competitive world class surfing, and an overabundance of testosterone in the lineup, you’d expect trouble. But paddling out with Archie gives you a magic shield. Guys that would terrify you in an alley are all smiles and “Your wave brudda”.

This attention has been earned not just by being a nice guy. Archie is a true legend that earned respect in a world full of very accomplished lifeguards, surfers, and athletes by becoming one of the most accomplished watermen on the planet.

His pedigree is impeccable and he comes from a long line of Hawaiian legends. But he carved his own way. Archie first became a local hero when he saved 15 people and one dog during Hurricane Iniki. He was one of the original pioneers in rescue with a personal water craft. In fact, the watercraft rescue program we have here is based on training and materials he, Brian Keaulana and a handful of others provided us.

Outside of lifesaving, he is known as a legendary big-wave surfer. He has performed stunts for Hollywood movies, traveled extensively sharing his knowledge of water rescue, and is one of the few people in existence that is comfortable riding the monster waves of the infamous Maui break “Jaws”. And by “monster” I mean 8 story tall waves! He also is one of a handful of people who pioneered the use of the surf foil and one of the surfers who renewed interest in riding and paddling the stand up paddleboard (SUP), the use of which is sweeping the world now.

As a member of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, Archie has traveled to Tahiti on both the Hokulea and the Hawaiiloa traditional voyaging canoes, and is dedicated to resurrecting interest in the traditional Hawaiian sport of canoe surfing.

You can meet Archie this Sunday. Around 5pm, Strictly Hardcore Surf Specialties and Olukai Sandals are sponsoring an intimate meet & greet followed by live music at Galveston’s own Beach Hut.

See you there!

 

 

Warming Up

Finally! Spring feels like it’s just around the corner. After the long, long winter there’s finally that feeling in the air. The cold is still there but doesn’t seem to penetrate all the way to your bones and even if it’s cold in the morning you’re able to get by with a thin layer or just a t-shirt by the afternoon.

The water, however, doesn’t seem to know that it’s time for winter to relinquish its grasp. On Tuesday, we did a beach workout and were still wearing full suits and hoods, although boots and gloves weren’t necessary. The water temp was 58. Warmer air temperature means that people on stand up paddleboards have been surfing with either just a wetsuit top or even “bare backing” it while people surfing prone are still in full winter gear.

The spring breakers were undaunted by the cold water though. Each time the sun popped out or the wind died they suddenly appeared all over the beach. The first volleyball tournament of the season went off well at Stewart Beach. The lifeguards, shivering in their towers, had to move a number of them away from the rip currents near the jetties. There were, however, some days where it was just too cold to put the guards in the towers in the mornings. Fortunately we kept a number of them on standby knowing that the afternoon would warm up and as soon as the sun popped out and hundreds would suddenly show up. It seems like there were lots of people here on the island hanging out in restaurants, hotel rooms, The Strand, or one of our many tourist attractions waiting for that ray of sunshine so they could hit the beach.

This weekend is the last of Spring Break. It will be safe to drive down the seawall for a short time until summer is really upon us. No one will meander across the lanes in front of you with speeds varying between 5mph and 45. No one will pull a U-turn, almost hit you, and then post up by a potential parking space, unashamedly blocking traffic, while 5 people take 20 minutes to load two chairs and a cooler into the back of their vehicle. But enjoy it while it lasts, because soon it will be time to retreat to the “secret” way you have to move around the interior of the island!

This weekend the Houston schools and a handful of colleges are at the end of their Spring Break and the weather forecast looks pretty good, so we may see those big crowds we’ve been expecting. As it stands this far, the Beach Patrol has only made one rescue. It was a good one though. We, with the help of our police, fire, and EMS partners, saved a father and daughter from drifting off shore on a really cold north wind day. They likely wouldn’t have survived if someone hadn’t had the good sense to call 911.

And so it begins….

 

 

San Luis Pass Patrol

Spring break got off to a slow, cold start this year. But we all know how fickle the weather can be in March and it pays to be prepared. Sure enough, each time the wind slowed down or the sun even hinted that it might come out people started appearing all over the beach.

Fortunately, we had lifeguard re-qualifications last Saturday. After swimming 1,000 meters (40 lengths of the pool) in 18 minutes are less, the returning guards proved they stayed in good enough shape over the winter to still have what it takes to make rescues in the surf. After swimming, filling out paperwork, and drug testing they were back out on the beach for another season. The good thing is that once they meet the minimum requirements and go back to guarding, our daily workouts and training will keep them in great condition throughout the season.

Putting the entire Beach Patrol system back in place for the summer is a complicated process with a lot of moving parts, but we’re getting there. The towers are re-furbished, all 220 signs are up along the entire beachfront, the buoy rescue boxes on the jetties and elsewhere are in good order and stocked, new vehicles are getting outfitted, and winter training is complete. We still have training of new lifeguards and our annual supervisor academy to go but we have to wait until May when the entire seasonal staff is here for that. One big piece of the puzzle was put in place last Tuesday at the Park Board meeting. We decided what the plan will be this summer for the San Luis Pass.

You recall that there were several drownings at the beginning of the summer at the San Luis Pass last year. As a result, we re-directed some funds and increased the number of warning signs about the dangerous currents in and around the pass. We have maintained those signs as they’ve fallen or been vandalized and are committed to continuing that. Signage is good, but there’s nothing like hands on intervention.

Funds have been tight for the past few years and we were worried that we wouldn’t be able to do more at the pass. The board decided to put several projects in a prioritized contingency line item to hold off on until we see how the hotel tax, which comprises the lion’s share of our budget, tracked before committing those resources.

Good news! The hotel tax is above predicted levels and the board felt comfortable releasing additional funding for a weekend patrol at the San Luis Pass. Starting Memorial weekend we’ll schedule a roving vehicle to keep people from swimming in the Pass.

I have to hand it to the board. They have consistently tried to make a difference while keeping expenditures to a minimum. Our money is tight, but ultimately it came down to focusing on what’s best for tourism, Galveston, and our beach visitors.

They found a way to make it happen and accidents will be prevented because of this.

 

 

Tryouts

The group of young men and women radiated nervousness as they lined up on the sand. “On your mark, get set, GO!” shouted the instructor as they raced down the beach around the tower and into the water.

I was about half way out to the buoy when a group of good swimmers caught me and basically swam right over me. By the time I got going again a wave smacked me right in the face as I was taking a breath. When I got to the buoy I had to hang on for a few seconds to catch my breath before pushing on.

The year was 1983 and I finished 11th out of 30 in the Beach Patrol tryouts. They took the top 8. Finally, around the 4th of July I got a call that I could come and work. There was no formal training and no special first aid course other than what I got when I took the Red Cross pool lifesaving course. I was just given a radio and sent to work.

Tomorrow is the first of three tryouts for the Beach Patrol at 7am at the UTMB pool. If you know anyone that wants to work on the Beach Patrol spread the word. The basic swim test is the same as it was 32 years ago when I bombed it. Details are on our website. Candidates who want to start working right away can go through the first lifeguard academy over spring break. We pay them to attend the school where they are certified in CPR, First Aid, and beach lifeguarding. They also go through training in tourist relations, city codes pertaining to Galveston’s beaches, gulf coast ecology, and near shore topography and hydrology. Coupled with all the classroom work is hands on training in how to swim and make rescues in surf, search and recovery, and the basics of lifesaving sport. It’s a busy week and we’ll do it all over again the second week in May for the second lifeguard academy.

In addition to training for new lifeguards we are starting our annual training session for dispatchers, supervisors, and personal water craft rescue operations. By the time Memorial Weekend hits we’ll be up to speed. Despite the huge amount of effort all this requires of our permanent staff members there’s a big payoff for both our staff and the public. The inconsistent training that once took a whole summer is taught in a uniform manner. Each employee is taught the same material and instilled with similar core values. Any one of our guards can handle whatever is thrown at them when and if they complete the training.

So for those that would like to try being a beach guard, I hope you’ll give it a shot. I’m so happy I squeaked in all those years ago. For me it was a life changer. Not many people get to go home at the end of the day with the knowledge that they saved someone.

Breaking the Rules

Four heavy duty water barricades were interlocked and stretched across Boddecker Drive just before the entrance to East Beach. Captain Tony Pryor sat in his Beach Patrol truck working security. His job was to keep cars from entering East Beach.

In years past we’ve had problems in the beach parks after the Strand area was swept clean of the late night party crowd. There have been tons of litter and glass bottles, occasional fights, and damage to the beach pavilion. Better to just keep everyone out.

As Tony sat just inside the entrance a Lexis came blasting down the road until it stopped at the barricade. Revving its engine, it picked up speed as it quickly turned and shot up the sand dune landing inside of the park. Tony hit the overhead lights and the car came to a stop, rolling down the window. “What?!!” shouted the driver. “The park is closed,” Said Tony, “You’re not allowed to be in here”.

The driver looked at him for a long minute. Then he said, “How am I supposed to get out”?

A day earlier, Officer Kris Pompa led a work crew to get all the signs that had fallen over along the entire beach front back in place before Spring Break hit. Beach Patrol maintains some 230 signs along the entire 32 miles of Galveston Beach as well as along the ship channel and San Luis Pass. As you would imagine it requires a great deal of effort and resources to keep them all up. Friday afternoon he came back from working all day tired but seemed happy. “All the signs are up Chief”, he said as he drove off.

Monday Kris was assigned to a patrol shift. During the month of February this means that he and another person patrol the entire beach front. They mostly work the seawall, Stewart and Apffel Beach Parks, but at least once they patrol the entire beach along the west end from the San Luis Pass all the way to the western tip of the Seawall. As they made it back to Stewart Beach I saw Kris in the parking lot. He shook his head and laughed when he told me that two of the new signs and posts that his crew had painstakingly erected and used a water jet to sink 6 feet into the sand had been ripped out and burned for firewood. These signs warn people about how dangerous the waters are in the Pass and are critical in our attempt to keep people from drowning there.

It’s hard at times to maintain the energy, patience, and positive attitude to do the job that Tony and Kris do. Dealing with the public can be frustrating because you often have more interaction with the people that don’t show others respect. Most of our staff, especially Tony and Kris, are good at finding humor in the tough parts and focus on the millions that enjoy the beach in a positive way each year.