Sand Projects

For those of us who went through Hurricane Ike and were part of the rescue and recovery efforts afterwards, it was easy to think that things would never get back to normal.

On Monday afternoon at the Casa Del Mar listening to Kelly de Schaun, Executive Director of the Park Board, talk to a crowd about the potential for three separate re-nourishment projects all within a years’ time made me shake myself. It felt almost too good to be true after all we’ve been through to see forward motion, but it was encouraging to see a person in a leadership position put herself out there and do what she could to make it happen.

The first project is coming up within a month or so. It involves putting over 118,000 cubic yards of sand at the west end of the seawall. The second is scheduled for next fall, about a year from now. It would involve putting 16.5 million cubic yards of sand from 16th to 61st street. And the third, the one that we’re all hoping will happen, is to put sand from 61st street to 103rd street. This third project is probably the most interesting of them all as it would involve creating a beach where there is not one already and the sand comes from a source that is new for Galveston. The sand would come from the Corps of Engineers when they dredge the ship channel. We’d only have to pay the extra cost to move it by Hopper Dredge to the site.

Surfers, fisher folk, Lifeguards, and beach people develop a sense of how sand moves and is affected by ocean processes. Any of these people will confirm what the engineers say about sand replenishment projects. Nature abhors a vacuum. Since there is sand almost all the way down our 33 miles of beach with the exception of the stretch from 61st to 103rd it is essentially a dead spot that sucks sand from other areas. If it is filled, the entire beach benefits. Sand moves up and down our coast line. By the same token, by putting a bunch of sand at the end of the Seawall, the west end will see a subtle increase of sand, even if currently it’s not feasible to directly re-nourish the west end.

The other big deal about the possibility of creating a new beach is a new income stream. The 2008 Angelou Economic Report for every dollar we invest in the beach we get 4 back. Now some say it is much more. Either way, we’ll see an increase in hotel tax, property tax, and beach user fees. In ’93 when the big re-nourishment project was done on the seawall we had to increase Beach Patrol (which went from receiving 1 penny to 1 ½ pennies of hotel tax) and Beach Cleaning budgets to cover the new areas. These are areas that will have to be addressed creatively, but at least we’ll have some increased funding streams to choose from. And the returns will be exponentially increased.

Why They Come

Early Saturday morning I took my daughter, Kai, to the D’Feet Breast Cancer run at Moody Gardens. She had a great time and did the kids 1K, which was the first race she’d ever entered. Afterwards there was a kids’ party that had a whole lot of sponsorship tables with art projects for the kids. She and a couple of her friends from school were manically jumping from one table where they made stain glass windows to another for pet rocks, to yet a third where they made necklaces. It was a really wonderful event.

My wife was out of town and I really don’t know what to do when I don’t work on the weekends. Kai cooked up some scheme that I went along with. She invited a friend for a sleepover and then we invited a few of her friends and their parents to our place for beach and surf time.

It turned out to be a beautiful day. Kai and her friend Chloe, both 8, went with me to the store to get snacks, which they prepared as if they were top chefs in a fancy restaurant. The mob showed up and we set up umbrellas and chairs and boards and sand toys. I grabbed a 12 foot longboard and took 3 or 4 kids at a time out to chest deep water and pushed them into wave after wave. They squealed and laughed till I thought they’d bust a gut. They switched out and made sand castles, looked for shells, played with hermit crabs, and then came for another round of surfing. I got relieved by another couple of parents and went to hang out under the umbrellas.

Sitting under the umbrella I started to relax a bit. Some parents were chatting quietly and others were just sitting and watching the kids play together. The day was perfect and sunny and neither hot nor cool. And that’s when it hit me:

People do this all the time! And they do it because there’s not much better than sitting on the beach under an umbrella in a comfortable beach chair with friends. And I’ve been missing out. Since I’ve been 16 I’ve always worked on beach holiday weekends and pretty much every weekend that’s warm enough for the beach. I’m not complaining at all, it’s a fantastic job. But when there are 300,000 people on the island there is nothing relaxing about working the beach.

Spending that time made me realize why we have almost 6 million visitors a year. We live in a wonderful place. When they get tired of the beach there are so many great things to do between the strand, Moody Gardens, historical buildings, Schlitterbahn, nature tours, great bars, restaurants, and shopping and more. But mostly they come for the beach.

Sitting under that umbrella and listening to the kids playing, the waves rolling to shore, birds, breeze, and all the sounds that make up the stillness was a real reminder of why they come.

Surf Story

The 10 year old boy lay on his battered surfboard on the west side of the 10th street pier. He had caught a couple of waves by standing besides the board and pushing off the bottom. Now he was a little farther out and was trying to paddle into waves.

He’d had success a couple of times and had caught a couple of rides where he actually stood up, turned and surfed down the wave staying ahead of the white water. He was hooked.

More success increased his confidence and he went farther and farther out after each successful ride. He was about ¾ of the way out to the end when he spotted a pack of surfers just off the edge of the tip of the jetty. He sat up on his board and stared in wonder as one of them caught wave after wave, flowing gracefully. The surfer would take off and make a hard bottom turn that led straight into an off the lip, cutback, or short tube ride. Then he’d meld that seamlessly into another and another maneuver before kicking out right next to the jetty and float effortlessly back out to the end.

The young boy wanted to see more and paddled even further out. As he sat on his board peering over the waves the surfer he’d been watching came screaming down the face of a larger set wave heading right for the boy. Everything happened too fast for the boy to get out of the way and, instead, he ditched his board and dove for the bottom. He grabbed sand and waited to the wave and pointy boards passed over before resurfacing. When he broke through the older man was right in front of him.
“YOU STUPID KOOK!” the man yelled balling up his fist. “I was here first!” he yelled, his little tween voice cracking. The older surfer looked like he was going to hit the boy for a minute, and then seemed to think better of it. Instead he paddled off, a deep gash on his leg trailing blood (which he glued together with crazy glue and kept surfing). He turned, glared at the boy and yelled, “GET OUT OF THE WATER AND GO HOME GROM!”

I learned a lot that day. And now, almost 40 years later, I’m intimately familiar with all the rules I broke. The person on the wave has the right of way. The person closest to the curl has the right of way. The first person to stand up has the right of way. Beginners (“groms”) should stay away from the pier, the rip current, and the pack at the end. And in every surfing pack there’s an “alpha”. That guy or girl gets their choice of waves and should be shown respect at all times.

Nowadays there are more surfers and fewer fights. But the unwritten rules haven’t. Fortunately, it’s a gentler learning process for those versions of the early me out in the water today.

 

Photo Credit: Stan Shebs

Colombo

I’ve written before about Leroy Colombo, the most well-known lifeguard to come from our island, but someone so larger than life deserves multiple visits.

We all know that he was formerly credited in the Guinness Book of World Records with saving 907 lives, the most of any lifeguard in recorded history. Most also know that he was stricken with spinal meningitis at age 7 which left him deaf and without the use of his legs. With the help of his brothers he started swimming to rehab and eventually became a champion distance swimmer. As a champion swimmer and the first hearing impaired lifeguard he is a real testament to the human spirit’s ability to overcome adversary.

But it wasn’t until much later in life that he was considered a hero. As with almost all lifeguards it isn’t a career that leads very often to accolades. He did reportedly get a tip for saving a woman’s false teeth and for saving a poodle. And he got a couple of cans of beer once for saving a young girl from drowning. But there were hundreds saved without any type of recognition, even though he is said to have nearly drowned 16 times while making rescues.

He made his first rescue at 12, and by the time he turned 18 in 1923 he tried out for Galveston’s prestigious “Surf and Toboggan Club”. To do so he had to swim 3 hours without stopping. He officially became a Galveston lifeguard that year as well. We continue this tradition today with our “night swim”, the final physical challenge for the incoming lifeguards. All the staff joins them in completing a tough course involving lifeguard skills including swimming, rescue board paddling, running, climbing, and even some knowledge based activities, which can also be as long as 3 hours.

He followed the tradition of the Hawaiian “Waterman” (which included women) in that he lived in a way that was close to the ocean and practiced many of the disciplines related to the surf environment. In fact he was one of the first people in Galveston to practice the sport of surfing. His close childhood friend and fellow lifeguard, Ducky Prendergast, told me stories of how they used to overinflate long surf mats so they were rigid enough to surf on. We were fortunate to receive a wooden surfboard that he owned that eventually will be a focus point in a Lifeguard museum here on the island.

He exemplified the “Lifeguards for Life” motto of the United States Lifesaving Association. Even after he retired at 62 due to a heart condition, he kept swimming for the remainder of his life. That level of commitment doesn’t end just because the flesh wears out or the job is no longer an option. He’s a real role model for those who carry on with the tradition.

Hopefully those of us who share his love of the ocean and commitment to serving others through lifesaving will inspire future generations. He has certainly done this for us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fall and G-Bay

You can feel summer slipping away. It’s not just the cooler temperatures and the fact that we’re starting to see frontal systems push all the way through. There’s something in the light, the shorter days and the look of the surface of the water that is just different.

Last Sunday was the last day of the year for John’s Beach Service at Stewart Beach. Max Wilson has been working for decades along with his brother Walter. It’s a model business that runs like clockwork. Part of the winning formula is to not change what works. They open each year on Good Friday and close the last Sunday of September. They dig the holes at 7:30am and the umbrellas come off the beach at 5pm. Like the birds that migrate south, Max leaves just after they close to travel the world. For many years he went all over the place. But countries are like people and people are attracted to both like-minded people and countries. Max spends the majority of his off season in Australia. But for me, Max leaving is as much a portent of fall as the cooler weather.

For me this signifies the best time of the year. The beaches are beautiful and empty. The weather is still warm but more comfortable. And the burden of managing a staff of over 100 millennials and a day camp of nearly 100 teens and pre-teens is lifted somewhat. I love them but am happy to have some time that involves more planning than in crisis-management. I also like the way that without all the distraction of crowds it feels like we can see the beach and all the wildlife again.

Tuesday will be our very last day for working seasonal guards. Stewart Beach Park’s last day is Sunday and East Beach is already closed for the season. The lifeguard towers will be picked up mid week and moved to a central location so our staff can refurbish them during the winter months. But we still have plenty of guarding to do. Our full time staff of 9 will be working double time to cover the beaches from the rescue trucks and will continue to patrol until December. Then in February we’ll start again although, like always, we’ll continue to provide emergency response to 911 calls year round.

Last weekend was the G-Bay Paddle that was based at Moody Gardens and happened in Offats Bayou. This event was held for the second time and nearly doubled in size since last year. It is a day of racing Stand Up Paddleboards (S.U.P.s) and kayaks. Beach Patrol and the Galveston Police Department Marine Division provided the water security and Galveston EMS handled the medical coverage. It went pretty well. We only rescued one person who ended up being ok after a little attention from EMS. The sport of S.U.P. is taking off in leaps and bounds and we should expect to see more of this type of event in the near future.

 

The System

There’s been quite a bit of talk lately about the relationship between the city and the Park Board. When the Park Board was originally formed, it was intended to be a vehicle for tourism management. The beach, being Galveston’s primary attraction and driver of tourism, was a big part of that equation. It’s tough to talk about the relationship between the city and Park Board without including the management of the beaches, namely Beach Patrol, Beach Maintenance, and Beach Parks Departments. No matter how nice the attractions, hotels, and restaurants on the island may be, they would have a tough time staying afloat if they were located in the desert.

Making sure the beach is clean and safe is an integral part of the tourist experience. If there was a general perception that the beaches were not well maintained and well protected, tourists would not come in the numbers they do now. If they didn’t visit the beach, they wouldn’t be on the island to stay in hotels, eat in restaurants, shop in stores, or visit any of the wonderful amenities the island has to offer. Creative and comprehensive advertising is important, but it only works for the long term if you have a good product to promote. A clean and safe beach with decent amenities is the best advertising there is.

To make sure the beaches were managed properly, in the very early 80’s a highly intelligent group of people figured out a system that enabled us to have adequate resources to keep the beaches maintained and protected by a first class lifeguard outfit. Lifeguards and Beach Maintenance were moved under the Park Board of Trustees. Actually financial management fell under the Park Board but operational oversight of the Beach Patrol was moved from the Police Department to the Sheriff Department at the same time the funding source changed (Nowadays, the Beach Patrol is a mature organization and is an independent lifesaving and law enforcement entity). Using tourist dollars that came to the Park Board in the form of hotel tax (H.O.T.) monies and beach user fees guaranteed this independent funding source because the money came with the caveat that it could only be used for specific purposes. Beach Patrol received one penny for every dollar spent in the hotels.

When the first large beach nourishment project happened, Beach Patrol received an extra half a penny of hotel revenue to help cover the increase of beach use the new sand enabled. But a decade and a half ago, about a third of a penny (22% of the Beach Patrol’s H.O.T. allocation) was taken from Beach Patrol and Beach Maintenance to help build the Convention Center on the Seawall. How this affected the operational sustainability of both programs is another story, but the upside of using H.O.T. tax monies and beach user fees is that, in theory, as tourism grows the two programs could grow proportionally.

We all owe a lot to the group that designed this system.

 

Tri Swim Tips

This Sunday the 21st is the big triathlon day at Moody Gardens. The Lone Star Spring and the Ironman are great events 5150 kick off early in the morning. There’s info at http://5150.com/race/5150galveston if you want to register or find out the details. Great event if you’re able to go watch.

The longer race has a swim of 1.5 Kilometers, or just under a mile. The short race has a swim of about 500 meters, which is the equivalent of 10 laps/20 lengths in a 25 meter pool. The Galveston Island Beach Patrol provides the water security for the two races each year and it’s a big undertaking making sure everyone gets through the course safely.

Part of the challenge is how popular the sport of Triathlon has gotten and thus how many people are new to it. This means that a huge percentage of the swimmers are swimming in open water for the first time and don’t know if they can make it all the way through the course. People who can barely complete the distance in a pool, or aren’t even sure if they can make that distance at all, jump in with hundreds of others and go for it. We’ll rescue scores of people, who panic, have cramps, get exhausted, etc. on Sunday. But it’s easy to prevent it with a few simple tips about open water swimming.

First of all, you should be able to swim at least double the distance in a pool that you plan on swimming in open water. Second, if the water is cold enough to wear a wetsuit you should. Not only is it faster, but a layer of neoprene adds a lot of flotation which means you essentially are bringing a lifejacket with you. Third, in open water you don’t usually get to touch bottom so you want to go a little slower than you might try to go in a pool. Conserving a little air and strength gives you a margin for error that makes it easier to recover if you hit some chop or get smacked by someone’s foot by accident. The extra buoyancy of salt water will help as well. Another good trick is that if you’re not a strong swimmer it’s not a bad idea to line up on the side of your swim wave so you don’t get knocked around when everyone is starting off and not yet spread out. You’ll actually do better as a strong swimmer by lining up in the middle of the pack because if you get behind a group of slightly faster swimmers you can benefit from getting sucked along in their draft. Finally a great tip is to look up every few strokes as you breathe (eyes first, breath second). Even if this slows you a little you’ll be faster overall because you’ll swim a straighter course.

Most importantly we have a great bunch of guards. If you get in trouble stay calm and hold up your hand. We’ll be there.

 

 

Clear Water

The orange ball of the sun balanced on the horizon line, mirrored in the glassy water. The world was silent, except for the faint sound of the surf ski slicing through the water, and occasional gulls as they flew by.

When the water is glass, a surf ski, which is essentially just a skinny fast kayak, really comes into its own as you skim across the water. As I settled into my workout, I fell out of time for awhile until, much later, movement caught my eye. The sun was a bit higher and I was about a mile or so offshore paddling parallel to the island when I noticed shadows passing beneath me. As I looked closer, I realized the water was exceptionally clear and I could see a school of cow-nosed rays passing beneath me. A few minutes later I saw more and then again more. All in all I must have seen 40 or 50 of them.

I like training early on the beach. An empty beach is a really different thing than a crowded midday one. You see things you’d never notice when the press of humanity and the operational needs of the Beach Patrol combine. This past week has been extraordinary because we’ve had some of that rare, super clear water we only get from time to time. While swimming in 10 feet of water you’ve been able to see the ripples of the sand on the bottom. While paddling a board you can see fish below the surface. The only bad part is that for those who spend a bunch of time in the water it’s a bit unnerving to actually see all the animals that you know are there, but don’t have to think about because you rarely see them.

Just the right set of conditions of a gentle east wind causing a slight east to west current with no surf came together to make this happen. The seaweed even stopped coming in, at least temporarily. I’ve noticed the few beachgoers we’ve had the past few days often wade out to shoulder deep water and stop for long periods looking down at their toes and small fish swimming around.

One of the good and bad things about living here is that it’s such a dynamic environment. The bad part is this beautiful water will be gone soon. But the good part is that we’ll be seeing cooler weather, maybe some surf, and soon this mosquito infestation will be over!

The weekends will still be busy for quite some time but the weekdays in the fall are finally here. Locals, this is your chance. Time to go to the beach without all the hubbub and be reminded that one of the best things about living here is the ability to enjoy this incredible environment we all take too much for granted.

Even if you don’t go to the beach it’s now safe to drive down the seawall. At least on the weekdays when drivers stay in their own lanes for a change!

End of Summer

“Good Morning. Ma’am, do you mind hopping down out of our lifeguard tower?”

“Why?”

“The towers are there for the lifeguards and we prefer other people don’t sit in them.

“That’s ridiculous.”

“There’s a sign right next to where you’re sitting saying ‘no trespassing’, so it would be the same as sitting in someone else’s house and refusing to leave.”

“Well then I guess I’ll leave. But I’m leaving the beach in that case. It’s too hot out here!”

Late in the summer it seems that people just get frayed. There are more complaints, arguments, fights, and weird things happening than earlier in the season. It’s like the veneer of civility gets burned away by the heat and sun and all the raw emotions people usually have tamped down come boiling to the surface. It can be a challenge, but if I have my head right it can be wildly entertaining. I especially like it when people seem to feel that they have their own little bubble of rules that differ from everyone else.

“Excuse me sir, do you mind putting your dog on a leash?”

“Why?”

“Galveston has a city ordinance requiring dogs to wear leashes. Also, there have been instances where dogs have been off a leash and…..” (you get the idea)

Then it goes into a whole list of reasons that all generally have the same theme that this particular case should be exempt from the rules. Some of the best ones are: “he’s really friendly and loves people”, “she just likes chasing birds and hardly ever bites anyone”, “I have him for protection”, or, my personal all-time favorite, “my dog is on a verbal leash”.

The other common technique that can be fun is the “stall technique”. We open with something along the lines of, “Hey, I’m sorry but you can’t use a tent or tarp in this area. You can, however, use it on the other side of those blue poles” And from there it goes a little something like this:

“What?”

“Can you please move your tarp to the other side of those blue poles?”

“I have to move my tarp?”

“Yes”

“Where?”

“To the other side of the blue poles”

“So…. I can’t have my tarp here?”

After it runs on for a while like that, they realize that even if you keep asking the response is the same. Then they might move it. Or if you’re lucky they might go into the previous technique and point out that they need shade more than other people because…..

End of summer grumbling aside, we got through the weekend pretty well. Despite the weird weather we still had moderate crowds out in the rough surf conditions. We moved about 520 people from dangerous areas, made four rescues, and a number of enforcement actions. Busy, but not like a holiday weekend would traditionally be.

It’s been a busy summer and I don’t think any of my staff minded ending the high season with a whimper as opposed to a bang!

 

 

Main Image
Seaside Heights, New Jersey
Hypnotica Studios Infinite from Toms River, New Jersey, USA

Labor Day Advisory

With Labor Day upon us we’re expecting several hundred thousand people to be on the island this weekend. That’s a lot of chances to have something go wrong.

Over the past couple of weeks there have been several rescues that we’ve had to make by the rock jetties despite our best efforts to keep people far enough away to avoid trouble. There have also been a couple of incidents involving young children in area pools that nearly drowned and two men drowned in the San Luis Pass area while boating from the Brazoria County side. Most or all of these incidents happened at least partly due to momentary lapses in judgment.

People do things when on vacation or out recreating that they would never do in their normal life. Parents who no doubt are very attentive to their children lose them repeatedly at our large beach parks. We can have up to 60 lost kids in a single day at Stewart Beach alone. People who are not generally risk takers swim far from shore and/or pay no attention to warning signs, flags, or lifeguard instructions. Are the parents bad parents? Are the people ignoring safety messages intentionally? Not in my opinion.

All of us get in a different mindset when we’re away from our routine and when we do something fun. We throw caution to the wind and immerse ourselves in the sea and sand and fun. This is good to a point and that point is sometimes the shoreline. Water is not our natural element. Things can go wrong quickly in the water so it only takes a momentary lapse of judgment or seconds of inattention for things to break bad.

But is doesn’t have to be that way. Taking a moment to observe your surroundings at the beach or pool does a lot. Asking someone who is knowledgeable, like a lifeguard, what to watch for before getting wet means that you greatly reduce your chances of an accident.

When you go out this weekend to enjoy any type of water remember to take a minute to be aware of your surroundings and potential risk. You also want to remember the basics like not swimming alone, staying hydrated, protecting yourself from the sun, observing signs and flags, feet first first time, alcohol and water don’t mix, and non-swimmers  and children should wear lifejackets. At the beach, you should also avoid swimming in areas where rip currents are likely, like near piers and jetties. These are protected by lifeguards and clearly marked with bilingual, iconic signage.

Choose to swim in areas protected by lifeguards. In beaches guarded by United States Lifesaving Association lifeguards, like Galveston, your chances of drowning are 1 in 18 million.

But above all, YOU are responsible for the safety of both yourself and your family. Lifeguards provide an extra layer of protection in case your safety net lapses temporarily.

Enjoy the Labor Day weekend. You deserve it. See you on the beach!