Foggy Days

Sitting in the lineup waiting for a wave, the small pack of surfers could barely make out the dark silhouette of the rock groin. The heavy fog and lack of wind made for an eerie scene. They could hear voices from surfers at the next groin and from people walking on the beach, even when they were speaking in normal conversational tones.

One surfer saw a dark mass looming in front of her and spun around to paddle into a wave. She popped up and cut down the smooth, opaque glass. She could feel the spray beating on her wetsuit and hear the hoots of the other surfers as if they were right next to her. Suddenly the rocks appeared before her. She kicked out and the rip current by the rocks pulled her back out to the lineup.

Having so much moisture in the air can be a bit unnerving because the water in the air conducts sound more than on a normal day. But surfing in the fog can be a great experience. Typically, on these days there isn’t a ton of wind and the air is fairly warm. Spring on the Texas coast can often be foggy, as the colder winter water interacts with the warmer air.

But fog can be dangerous because it’s so easy to get disoriented. On days where the sun doesn’t show through and there’s not a prevailing wind direction, once you’re outside of the surf line there are no references. Its easy to think you’re paddling to shore when you’re headed out to sea. A few of us train and race on something called a “surf-ski”, which is essentially a long, skinny kayak designed for the ocean. I learned years ago to always have a compass on my watch for times when a fog bank rolls in and I’m offshore. It only takes getting caught 2-3 miles offshore once to never forget a compass again.

For lifesaving, fog has special challenges. Even the simplest things can be complicated. This week we had to walk out on the groins to see what the surf conditions were, so we could set the flag color. Later in the spring we’ll have at least a few days were our trucks have to stop and walk out on each jetty to make sure there are no people getting close to the rocks. The other night we responded to a call where someone thought flares were set off in Offatt’s Bayou. It was so foggy our Supervisor couldn’t see anything. And the only boats that can search need to have radar and a GPS, and even then need to be extremely careful.

Fog is just another reminder how the winter months present challenges when going in the or on the water. The main thing to remember is that because there is less of a safety net and more things that can go wrong, you need to plan carefully in advance and take more safety precautions than normal.

Lifeguard Program

The first day I worked for the Beach Patrol was in 1983. I stood in the sand early in the morning waiting to get my radio which was passed to me out of our “Headquarters”, which was a smallish trailer in the sand next to the old pavilion on Stewart Beach. There were 17 of us on staff and we worked 6-7 days a week for about 10 hours a day with no organized breaks and no formal training.

Back in ’83 we had no Junior Lifeguard Program, no daily training exercises, no lifeguard academy, no classroom space, very minimal community outreach programming, and no real equipment that needed to be stored on the beach. But even back then we knew the importance of having our headquarters, as humble as it was, on the beach. People needed a central location that right on the beach that was close to the action. They needed a first aid station and a place to hand out daily equipment.

Fast forward 36 years. Our staff tops out at 135 during the summer. We have 5 jet skis, 12 patrol vehicles, a boat, and 3 UTV’s. We have space to hold equipment for work and training; and a classroom for a Junior Lifeguard Program of 125 that is on the beach so they can bounce back and forth between lectures and skills practice. Lifeguard training programs include a two-week long lifeguard academy, dispatch training, Supervisor/Senior Guard Academy, CPR, Emergency Medical Response and much more. Most of this involves running from the classroom to the beach and back repeatedly. On-line courses are held by computer for National Incident Command, Boater Safety, EMT and Law Enforcement recertification. We do classroom/beach courses for at risk, other first responders, and surf camp instructors. And every day before the lifeguards pick up their equipment they run, swim, paddle, and practice skills in the water, on the shoreline, and in the nearby classroom.

Our Headquarters, like pretty much every headquarters for reputable beach lifesaving programs around the planet, is right on the most populated beach. That way we can provide first aid and tourist information while acting as a resource and an informal tourist office for the city. Our dispatchers have a bird’s eye view on the busiest beach on the island and can spot for lost children, water emergencies, and problems developing, while keeping an eye on the lifeguards in the area to make sure they’re safe.

For those who don’t spend time on the busy beaches during the busy times its difficult to fathom the volume we deal with, how busy it is, and what an important role the lifeguard play in keeping everyone safe. For those who do, and who see all the training and structure required to get this done, it makes sense that we need to have our Headquarters where its been for the past decades. If we were not right there on the beach, and on a busy beach, we’d be far less effective in serving the public in such an efficient manner.

Polar Plunge

Last Saturday 6 Lifeguards volunteered to come out and stand in the 54-degree water keeping watch for almost 300 people who participated in the Polar Plunge. They were freezing cold when they came out of over an hour in the water wearing only 3-millimeter wetsuits. Amazing that they chose to do that during a time they’re not working. While watching over them and the groups who were running in the water, I also noticed one of our blue “Wave Watcher” shirts on shore.

Carlos Guerra was standing on the shoreline adding an additional set of trained eyes to our layers of protection for the swimmers. Carlos and his wife Iris have been big supporters for many years. Their son, Carlos was in our Junior Lifeguard Program for many years, and now works as a lifeguard. Three years ago, when we started our “Wave Watcher” program, Carlos and Iris were among the first to sign up and have been very active volunteers.

The Beach Patrol has been fortunate for many, many years to have great support from the community and county. We are so lucky that the hard work our guards do is recognized and appreciated and we recognize that that is something we continually need to strive to maintain. That’s a big part of why we have so many programs that tie to the community in which we are imbedded, such as the Jesse Tree/Beach Patrol Survivor Support Network, our Junior Lifeguard Program, being designated as a “Safe Place” for kids, our School Outreach Program, At Risk Kids Camps, and, of course, our Wave Watcher Program.

The Galveston Island Beach Patrol Wave Watcher Volunteer Program is a way for ordinary citizens to join our team. It’s a mini lifeguard academy for that is free of charge and that will serve as a force multiplier in our effort to prevent drowning deaths and aquatic accidents.

We’ll have the Wave Watcher Academy in April. Participants will go through 20 hours of free training that includes topics such as, Beach Patrol history and operations, rip currents and general beach safety, “Code X” (witnessed drowning) procedures, victim recognition, first aid and CPR, and tourist ambassador certification (CTA Training). There is no swimming involved and everyone is welcome!

Once they graduate, they can help with our LCD (Lost Child Detail) on holidays, join us for special events and competitions, or assist with large scale emergencies. Most importantly they will form a cadre of informed beach goers who have “the eye”, so are able to spot trouble developing before it happens and notify us or other emergency service groups. This could happen in the course of their normal daily lives when they drive, walk, fish, surf, etc. along the beachfront. Or it could take place with a more organized activity. The level of commitment and involvement will be completely up to the graduates.

If you or someone you know is interested in joining the crew there is info on our website or they can call Tricia at 409-763-4769. Join us!

Galveston Crabs

A tourist was walking down the beach in Galveston and saw hunched over figure up ahead of him on the shoreline. The early morning sun glinted off the water, so he couldn’t make out what he saw until he got closer. Finally, he was able to tell that it was an old weather-beaten man who was shuffling from the shore line to what looked like a hole in the sand. He was wearing the Galveston uniform of shorts, flip flops, a faded t-shirt, and a floppy hat.

The tourist, thinking this would be a great chance to mix with some local color and have a story to tell his friends up in the Rice Village, asked him what he was doing. The old man, looked at him in amusement, looked down at a crab he was holding, and back at him without saying anything. The tourist, feeling a little silly, said, “I see you’re crabbing. “Yep”, the old man said while dropping the crab into the hole and shuffling back out to his crab lines. The tourist watched him, taking in the beauty of the morning. The man picked another crab off the line and, holding it from the back so as not to get bit, shuffled back over to the hole, dropped it in, and headed back out to the water.

The tourist thought for a minute and realized that something wasn’t quite right. He looked in the hole and saw there were a whole bunch of crabs in there crawling all over each other. “Sir”, he said, “I notice that you’re dropping those crabs in a hole dug in the sand. Does that hold them?” “Yep” said the old man. The tourist thought some more and finally said, “That can’t work! The crabs could just climb out. What’s the deal?”

The old man turned his weather-beaten face to the tourist. His eyes twinkled and he cracked a very slight grin. So slight that you wouldn’t notice, except that the tourist was studying him at this point with rapt attention.

“Son”, he said chuckling, “These here are Galveston crabs. If one of them starts to climb out of the hole, all the other ones will grab its legs and pull it back down to the bottom of the hole”

Some version of this story, or one like it, has been told to every long-term Galvestonian from a young age. So many times, it does seem to hold truth as we see great ideas shot down and people or organizations who try to excel brought back down to status quo.

But I have to say that there is change in the air. Bold, progressive ideas are being put forward.

There was once a time we dared to build large scale beach pavilions, or build the seawall, Bishop’s Palace, Ashton Villa, the Opera House, and Moody Gardens.

We see and visit other communities because people followed big dreams: Vegas, Paris, New York, Santa Monica, New Orleans, South Beach.

Why not here? Why not now?

Sergeant

Happy New Year! We’ve been systematically working on finishing repairs to our lifeguard towers, replacing signage and rescue boxes, and a bunch of training. Some of the training includes a report writing course, Red Cross Lifeguard Instructor Training, and Swift Water Rescue Training Certification. Before we hit the beach in earnest, we also have planned to do some law enforcement training, put the crew through a death notification course, make sure everyone is a Certified Tourist Ambassador, and get everyone certified as first aid and CPR instructors.

We recently made a promotion to a Sergeant position which has been really helpful in getting all of this accomplished. Long time Beach Patrol lifeguard Austin Kirwin has stepped into the spot and has, in a very short time, become the glue that holds the troupes together.

Austin is a 4th generation Galvestonian who recently returned from a stint oversees with the Texas Air National Guard. He graduated from Ball High School, where he was captain of both the swim team and the water polo team. He started working as a lifeguard while still at Ball High. He then studied history at the University of Texas in Austin and started working for his Uncle, Henry Beall, as an electrician assistant during the winter breaks. In 2011 Austin started working for the Beach Patrol and we put him through the Law Enforcement Academy and he became a peace officer/EMT/Lifeguard Supervisor in 2012.

Austin loves serving the community he grew up in. He likes Beach Patrol because it gives him the opportunity to be of service to the community and its visitors in an environment that he enjoys. He is an adrenaline junky and an incredible athlete, so the rescue side of the job is a good fit. But he also enjoys mentoring and training the next generation of guards and helping those in need.

Lifeguard Sport is a tool we use to keep our crew in top condition. There are many different pieces to this, but Austin has been drawn to, and is proficient in, the Surf Boat event. This is a two-person row boat designed for waves and the surf environment. It is the most “macho” of the Lifeguard Sport disciplines and requires an unusual mix of fearlessness and technique. Austin can be found early many mornings charging the surf in this 300-pound monstrosity with whatever poor fool he can convince to join him. Between rowing, rugby and his normal swim/run/paddle/weight workouts, he keeps both busy and in top condition for lifesaving.

Austin has really impressed me ever since he first went through our lifeguard academy, which he now supervises. He is smart, direct, motivated, fearless, and is all about the team and the mission. And his commitment to Beach Patrol and Lifesaving are a credit to us, the Park Board, and the City of Galveston.

Austin says, “I’m thankful to Beach Patrol because it has taught me to never quit and keep my skills honed, whether I’m rescuing someone or doing anything else in life”.

Spring Training

The mission statement of the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA) includes that we “work to reduce the incidence of death and injury in the aquatic environment through public education, national lifeguard standards, training programs, promotion of high levels of lifeguard readiness, and other means.” Much of this happens when many of us gear up during the spring.

During the spring many agencies including Galveston, step up public education programs in order to do what we can to drown proof students before school lets out and millions flock to the beach. We have increased our numbers of agency reported public safety lecture contacts to the point where it’s almost a half million per year nationally, and locally were hitting over 20,000. Looking at drowning from a public health perspective, there is a concept called “herd immunity”. If the majority of people in a group are inoculated against polio, then the minority who are not have a drastically reduced chance of contracting the disease. By the same token, if a group of people have been educated in how to avoid hazards when they go to the beach, it is unlikely that other members of the group who have not received the “inoculation” of this information will run into trouble. The thing about this is that  there’s not any way to tell how many people our efforts save because they just go to the beach, have a great day, and return home without a problem. But we nonetheless know intuitively that all our collective efforts across the country in this area are making a difference. For example here in Galveston County it’s relatively rare that one of our own die from drowning.

Agency renewal ensures that we are all at least meeting minimum accepted standards when we train new guards and re-certify experienced guards. Since all USLA agencies meet the same standards when we train and certify guards, we are making sure the family that goes to the beach in Jersey, South Carolina, Hawaii, Texas, California, or almost anywhere in the United States where they can swim near a lifeguard is protected by professionals who meet standards that ensures the safety of both beach goers and lifeguards. The Galveston Beach Patrol exceeds the national minimum standards by quite a bit.

Many of us tend to get busy in the spring with outreach, recruiting, training, prepping for junior guard programs, and dealing with special events and high beach use during times that our staffing may be less than full capacity. Many of our guards are working in conditions that can add even more risk, such as high surf or cold water. During these times we need to watch each other’s backs even more than when we have a full safety net around us. Our Beach Patrol full time staff works very hard to provide the training and educational tools that our many seasonal guards need when they join or return. That, a healthy respect for the water, agencies doing the best they can to train and equip guards properly, and all of us watching each other’s backs is a big part of protecting the protectors.

Japanese Coastline

We pulled up a little before first light and parked under an overpass. We sat in the van as the world turned slowly from black to dark grey. The guys spoke quietly in Japanese, but even without understanding the words I could detect an underlying tension and excitement to their voices. A big swell was reportedly hitting this section of the Japanese coastline and we’d driven the better part of the night from Osaka to be here. The beach wasn’t much to look at, just a thin strip of brown sand, but we could hear and feel the growling, vibrating surf with each pounding wave. As it got light enough to make out the surf, I could see we’d definitely hit the swell right on.

Onosan was the leader and not only did he have a successful surf shop, but he’d surfed professionally and had spent a couple of years on the world tour. In true Japanese fashion he had a whole possessed of disciples. As we paddled out through the big surf I stuck close to Onosan. There’s nothing like local knowledge and he seemed to know exactly how to find the rips to get out and how to time it perfectly between sets.

It was fully light by the time we made it to the outside. It was bigger than I thought and I had some serious butterfly’s. None of the disciples had made it all the way out but I spotted them on the inside break. None looked good but they were dropping in with no fear and a sore of reckless abandon. Onosan had taken a couple of big ones before I worked up my courage to drop in on a juicy 12 footer. After that , following him I started adjusting and catching good rides until I got caught in a close out and my leash broke. It was a long swim in and I had to detour around a fat rip current. But I switched out leashes and made it back out.

Suddenly I heard shouting. Several of the disciples were trying to get a swimmer to shore and he almost choked one of them who got too close. They had him on a board but that rip current was keeping them out while the waves pounded them all. A fire truck arrived and some guys in bunker gear yelled from shore. I paddled to them and we ended up swimming sideways out of the rip and eventually to shore. The guy was in bad shape and left in an ambulance. But the surfers spotted Onosan catch a nice tube on the outside and excitedly ran back into the water.

Hopefully that beach has a lifeguard service by now!

When Things go South With a Offshore Wind

Even though we train our lifeguards very thoroughly, there’s no substitute for experience. Even guards who have been with us for a number of years can, at times, make dangerous mistakes without the safety net of more experienced guards around them. We had an incident earlier this week that was a wake-up call to how the dangerous combination of winter conditions and lack of experience can potentially be catastrophic.

A young woman walked into the water near the Pleasure Pier carrying a surfboard that she’d rented from a local surf shop. It was very cold, and the wind was blasting off shore. She paddled out and was quickly carried a distance from shore, where it got choppy enough to where she couldn’t paddle back in. Someone called 911 fortunately, so we were in the area quickly, as were other first responders. With these types of conditions, it can be really hard to spot someone because even though it looks calm close to shore, the chop can hide them once there farther from the shoreline. It took us a long time to locate her with binoculars, but we finally spotted her way, way out near 10th street. While one vehicle watched from shore another couple of guards launched a jet ski and headed in her direction. Even so it was a process. The waves blocked the view, so our rescuers had to follow radioed instructions until there were close enough to see her. By the time they found her, she was a couple of miles off shore and it was about half an hour before dark.

If this young woman hadn’t been found before dark, this could have been a whole different thing. Even wearing a wetsuit its doubtful that she could have survived the night once hypothermia set in. But fortunately, our crew got her back to shore where EMS checked her out. She was fine.

But it didn’t end there. Our ski crew felt bad because they were able to get her board almost to shore but as they were taking care of her and other equipment the board blew back offshore. So, they went down the beach in a rescue truck looking for the board, which they found floating only about 50 yards from shore. Even though it was almost dark they decided that one would paddle out on a rescue board and grab her board till the other got out there swimming. Then they each would paddle in. It didn’t go as planned.

A similar thing happened. The loose board was moving too fast to catch, and at one point our guards got separated in the twilight. Fortunately, one of our experienced supervisors, Nikki Harclerode, realized we hadn’t heard from them for awhile and started a search. We found the vehicle and had two jet skis on the way to find them before dark set in. For the record, they made it out without help, but I’m glad our staff was ready if things went south.

It was an interesting debriefing, but I doubt we’ll make this mistake again.

Winter Workout

You stand on the beach, wind whipping around you and easily penetrating your wetsuit. The air
temperature is in the mid 50’s, but the real feel temp is in the 40’s. It feels wrong to be standing
exposed, really wrong to be about to get in the water, which is in the mid 50’s.
The small group starts to jog down the beach. Because of the rubber hood sounds are different. Internal
sounds, like your breathing and heartbeat are uncomfortably loud, as is the wind. But everything else is
muted. As you run, your heels seem to make a metallic spring sound when they hit the sand. Your feet
are starting to get numb, so you are careful to avoid shells and bits of debris. You wouldn’t feel it if you
were cut.
Entering the water brings an involuntary sense of panic. Where your skin is exposed, there is sharp pain.
You force yourself not to turn back, but instead to take high steps until you get to chest deep water.
Piercing streams of water creep up your legs. Then comes the worst part.
You dive in and several things happen simultaneously. The water pours down your suit from the neck. As
it hits your chest you feel like you can’t breathe. But its hard to even think about that because the
source of the most discomfort is your face. You have an ice cream headache where your forehead used
to be. The skin on your face feels like ice is being rubbed on it. And when the water enters your mouth,
it hurts our gums and teeth. As you start to swim you take a breath, and ice-cold water pours into your
right ear and feels like it goes all the way into your brain. This is the point that you have to trust in mind
over matter. You tell yourself it will get way better in 100 strokes.
You reflect on the fact that wet suits only work when there’s a thin layer of water between your skin and
the suit. But when the water enters its basically the same as jumping in the water with nothing. So,
there’s a gap from entry until the suit gets water in it and the water is heated to body temperature.
There’s also an adaptation period for skin to adjust to the cold, but for water in the upper 50’s and
higher this will happen. Knowing all this and reflecting on it helps a bit. 5 minutes makes a huge
difference. Also, experience helps you know what wetsuit thickness and pieces to wear for certain air
and water temperatures, as well as activity levels. And you begin to trust that things will get better, even
comfortable, for as long as your body is able to continue generating heat.
After the hundredth stroke you realize that you feel ok and you can focus on the workout.
Doing this a minimum of once a week keeps our winter crew ready to make rescues in all types of
conditions.

“Prevent, Rescue, Enforce, Educate and Train”

For a few months our newer full-time staff members have been getting acclimated to their new jobs. Josh Bailey is one of the 6 new hires we made in October. He’s a great addition to the staff and brings special skills to our team. 

He was originally from Nebraska, then Oklahoma, California, and eventually attended college in Missoula, Montana. In high school he lived in Apple Valley, California where he wrestled, played soccer, and bowled. He also interned in the office of Congressman Paul Cook, where he increased his administrative capability, about working with people, and learned how much you have to apply yourself to effect any type of meaningful change. During college in Montana, he worked as ski patrol at a local resort, but felt like there wasn’t enough action. He also managed a GameStop for a year and a half long stint, which he enjoyed because he was a big gamer, is a decent salesman, and likes people. He also got into lifesaving and was a swim instructor at the local YMCA. 

From there he was ready for a life change. He saw a news program about what was going on here during Hurricane Harvey. He saw lifeguards working in concert with other public safety entities to save lives and knew that was what he wanted to be part of. Since not a large percentage of our nation’s lifeguard agencies operate at that kind of level, Galveston was where he wanted to be.  

Josh showed up here for lifeguard tryouts. He impressed us with his enthusiasm. He also impressed us with a big book of all his accomplishments that he brought to the perfunctory interview that we do with all our seasonal staff. When, at the end of the season, a full-time spot opened up he was hired. We’re looking to build capacity in our organization, which includes leadership development. Josh is full of potential and we decided to hire him even though he had only been here a short time.  

Since Josh started working full-time, he feels that he’s learned a myriad of new skills. He’d never been on a rescue board, done maintenance projects, or dispatched. More importantly, he has developed a deep appreciation for Galveston and Beach Patrol’s place in it. He feels like its an “honor to work for Beach Patrol, which plays such an important part in the community”.  

I chose Josh to lead a group to explore expansion of our core mission. Part of what we’re working on here, which is part of a larger change within the Park Board, is changing our decision-making process to be more collaborative and less hierarchical. So, Josh headed up a group of his bosses to look at what 5 words we feel best expresses the essence of what we do. Josh and his team rounded it out with two additional, and I have to say very important, concepts. Now our mission is encapsulated by the words “Prevent, Rescue, Enforce, Educate, and Train”.  

Nice work Josh!