OTB – Spring Break and SSN

Looks like all signs point to yet another big Spring Break! Seems like one day its winter and the next the sun’s out, the water’s warm, and the beaches are packed. Despite the fact that we’ve just been through an ice storm and are a year into the Covid pandemic, we all need to gear up for the beach season. Ready for another year on the beach and all the challenges, work, and even joy that it brings.

Don’t forget that next weekend on Saturday, March 13th, we have lifeguard tryouts. Our website had details if you or someone you know is interested. We need the help!

As you know, we put a great deal of effort into preventing drownings and the numbers have been reduced through the years. Unfortunately, despite these efforts there are usually a handful each year. Support for the families has traditionally been one of the hardest things for our staff. If the body is not recovered rapidly, families can end up sitting on the beach near the last spot that person was for long periods of time. In these few cases, there can be the need for food and drink, counseling, translating, acting as a point of contact for different agencies, and dealing with consulates and embassies, etc.

As you can imagine, this was way beyond the scope of what a lifeguard agency can effectively handle. Our friends and partners at the Jesse Tree stepped up a few years ago. Ted Handley and David Mitchell developed a program with our input called the “Survivor Support Network” (SSN).

The SSN is a web of people and organizations that respond to this type of situation. They have filled all the needs described above and even provided Critical Incident Stress Debriefings to the lifeguard staff after undergoing traumatic experiences. They have provided this service at little or no cost to us for a number of years and we are deeply appreciative, as are the people whose lives they touch.

All kinds of non-profits like the Jesse Tree are suffering in the current economy, so volunteers are all the more important. The SSN relies on volunteers groups and people to function. If you or your group is interested in participating in this incredible program, please contact David Mitchell at the Jesse Tree 409-762-2233 or dmitchel@jessetree.net . We’re especially interested in finding licensed grief councilors or people that specialize in Critical Incident Stress Management, but everyone’s got a skill or resource that is welcome.

Typically, the SSN is only activated a handful of times a year, but when it is the need is severe. I can’t begin to tell you the difference I’ve seen it have on the lives it touches. If you feel this is for you, get with David.

Another option to help the beach guards and the general public is to join the Wave Watcher Cadre. More on that later, but info is on our website and we’ll have an academy in April.

See you on the beach!

OTB – Season Starting

The beach water temperature dropped down to 45 degrees during the ice storm. And two weeks from now we’ll be starting the main week of spring break. Must be Texas.

We’ll be holding lifeguard tryouts that weekend as well on Saturday, March 13th, at 7am at UTMB Pool House, 301 Holiday Dr. Anyone interested can find details on our website www.galvestonislandbeachpatrol.com. Don’t be late we start right at 7! Spend your summer on the beach in a fun, challenging, and a responsible position working as an Ocean Lifeguard! The Spring Break Lifeguard Academy will start immediately after the swim and drug test. At the end of the 9-day course graduates will start working the Galveston beaches. The course involves open water swimming and rescue techniques, a beefy first aid and CPR course, being a tourism ambassador, diversity training, a leadership module, training on how to enforce beach rules and city ordinances, representing the Park Board and the City of Galveston, and a lot more. It’s one of the most challenging things many of our candidates have ever done but the rewards are worth it.

We’re now in a pre-game flurry of activity, especially since we lost a little ground last week. We maintain over 600 safety signs along the beachfront and all of them need to be back up before Spring Break kicks off.  Many of these have to be set using a water jet, so we have to have just the right tide and wave conditions. While the crew is out there, they also jet out any stumps that are broken off from previous signage. We try to remove any light debris and work with the Coastal Zone Management crew to get the heavier stuff out. Prevention isn’t just about moving swimmers away from rocks!

We are also starting to do water safety talks for the schools in the Houston/Galveston area. Normally we’d be deep into this part of our program, but Covid has thrown the schools for a loop and many are just now getting scheduled. Lots of these will happen on Zoom this year, so we’re learning to navigate all of that.

We’re also looking at a hybrid Wave Watcher Academy for our volunteer cadre. If you’re interested in attending the free Wave Watcher Academy this year, you’ll have the option to do it online, in-person with Covid precautions, or a combination of the two.

One thing we’re going to reinstate this year is our Junior Guard Program. This popular day camp will be back, also with new safety precautions due to Covid. We are currently accepting applications, so if you have kids between 10-15 we’d love to have them join the team. We even have scholarships available for those who qualify.

We are anticipating an extremely busy beach season and it will kick off shortly whether or not it feels like it right now. We’ll need every piece of our safety network and the help of all our partner groups to keep the millions who will visit our beaches safe. We need you!

OTB: African American Lifeguard Heroes!

Last week’s column was an overview of our local lifeguarding history that left off with the time that African American beaches were designated by law and by Galveston’s dominant culture of the time. To talk about this part of our collective beach history I have to lean on someone who knows much more about this (and about pretty much everything else), my wife.

Carol Bunch-Davis works at Texas A&M Galveston as the Assistant Vice President for Academic Affairs, is an Associate Professor of English, and is the Chair of the Civic Literacy, Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity Committee. No, she doesn’t write these columns for me (looking at you Tom Linton)! At least that’s my story and I’m sticking with it. Anyway, Carol recently wrote an essay called “Always on Duty: Galveston’s African American Beaches and Lifeguards” that I’ll draw from for this column.

In 1922 there were already two African American Beaches. One was at 28th and was referred to as “Brown Beach”, and the other on the west end and was called “Sunset Camps”.

Waverly Guidry worked the 28th street beach location from 1942 until 1957. When he died his obituary didn’t mention his lifesaving career, but referred to him as a ‘self-employeed

When Wavery Guidry died in 1986 at the age of 74, the obituary did not mention his 14 seasons as lifeguard at 28th Street Beach, or “Brown Beach” as it was sometimes called. It instead identified Guidry as “a self-employed vegetable man” and a “merchant seaman”. But he was the second African American lifeguard to work that beach and is credited with nearly 30 rescues that were documented in the local news, and likely many that weren’t documented.

One example that illustrates just some of the challenges that lifeguards, and particularly African American guards, of the day faced occurred when an African American worker on the Pleasure Pier fell off some scaffolding and drowned. Being a white beach, they called Guidry from his guard post to find the body. He spent hours with a grappling hook, which was the technique of the time, looking for the body as the two white guards on duty stood watching him.

The African American community petitioned for a paid lifeguard from 1921 until 1935 when James Helton was officially hired. He’d actually been volunteering as a guard from the time he graduated from Central High School a year earlier. He worked most of his career at the port as a stevedore and finished his beach guarding in1943. Early in his career, a fully dressed white woman walked into the water. A white deputy noticed her and turned his car around to see what was going on. Helton dove into the water and saved the woman from drowning and potential suicide. Effecting what was, no doubt, a difficult save as a young man starting his career, he woke the following day to read in Galveston Tribune that the rescue was attributed to “the intuition of a special deputy sheriff with the assistance of a negro lifeguard”.

 

 

Photo:  Courtesy of Rosenberg Library

OTB: African American Beaches

Seeing two heads near the rocks on the west side of the groin at 27th, I flipped on the overheads, pulled a U turn, radioed for backup, parked, grabbed fins and a rescue tube, and sprinted towards the beach. Subtleties in the way the heads moved, the location they were in the rip current, and the time I estimated it would take me to get to them, left me with a sinking feeling in my gut.

After an eternity, I hit the bottom of the stairs and sprinted hard across the rocks. Glancing up, something was wrong. Well actually, something was very right. The two heads were now distinguishable as a couple and were farther from the pier, out of the rip and hole, and were standing in chest deep water. They were waving appreciatively at a tall, strong, older African American man on the pier, who was blowing a whistle and motioning them even farther away.

The man introduced himself as O.C. Brown, who had worked this same stretch of beach for many years. It was the early 90’s, and he was in his 70’s but was, as the United States Lifesaving Association’s slogan says, a “Lifeguard for Life”.

10 years before that, as a second and third-year guard, I had enough experience to work the groins. I moved from my tower at Stewart Beach, and cut my lifesaving teeth as the permanent guard at 29th street. I learned a lot about lifesaving and more about a lot of other stuff. Most of the families that frequented the beach were locals, although on the weekends there were Houston visitors as well. It was a busy beach, but I had tons of help. I rarely ate the lunch I packed each day as the regulars brought me plates of food. At the end of the day, the seawall and Menard Park filled up with teens and young adults. A group of guys around my age became the self-appointed evening guards. I’d sit up on the bench with them when my shift ended and point out areas or people that needed attention. They’d take it from there, sitting, talking, having a few beers, and jumping down when kids veered too close to the rocks, or someone started doing something that would get them in trouble. Sometimes one or two would swing by my tower the next day with a report from the night before. It was definitely a team effort. Galveston had a lot of drownings in those years after hours, but I don’t remember anything bad happening at that stretch of beach.

I didn’t realize till later that that stretch of beach had been an African American beach since the 30’s. It was called “Brown Beach” and was at one time officially designated for black people during segregation. Another African American Beach called Sunset Camps existed on the west end. Early African American pioneers Waverly Guidry, James Helton, and others heroically faced both environmental and cultural challenges to protect people of all colors.

-to be continued….

 

 

photo courtesy of: hippostcard.com

OTB – Gtown Lifesaving up till 50’s

We’ve got about a month before lifeguard tryouts. Spread the word to anyone interested and tell them to start swimming and check our website for details! We’re going to need a lot of new guards to address the increased beach use that’s been trending.

With just a few weeks left before the beach kicks into high gear and each week there is news for this column, it’s a great time to look backwards.

As you may know, the first lifeguards were really dealing with shipwrecks. But through the late 1800s, the problems of shipwrecks began to fade with the new steamboat technology, making ships stronger and more resilient. In the early twentieth century, the lifesaving stations eventually transitioned into part of the U.S. Coast Guard.

Just after the turn of the century, with the advent of the industrial revolution and development of a “leisure class”, recreational swimming began to emerge as a popular pastime, and the need to rescue distressed swimmers became apparent.

In 1913, the YMCA organized a crew of volunteer lifeguards for Galveston Island. The volunteers were unpaid but patrolled Galveston beaches from March to October each year. In 1919, this agency became a member of the Red Cross Life Saving Corps. They called for plans to build a two-story clubhouse structure, combining a storeroom and headquarters in one facility, built on pilings outside and above the seawall midway between Murdoch’s bathhouse and the Crystal Palace. This building would contain necessary equipment, such as stretchers, life buoys, and signs for marking sink holes on the beach. The lifeguards remained unpaid volunteers, but were given police authority to help maintain and control the beaches they guarded. Galveston’s legendary lifeguard, Leroy Colombo worked this beach.

With the number of the beachgoers growing, the city realized the demand was beyond the volunteer level. By 1935, Galveston had hired a handful of paid lifeguards, stationing them at 4 main points of the island, including the then-called “Negro Beach” on 28th street, which was guarded by a small number of African American lifeguarding pioneers. (More to come on that topic). Galveston also had what may have been the first all women “Surf and Toboggan Club” un the USA, which helped tremendously by stationing a rescue boat and rowing team on the beach during busy times. Guards worked eight-hour shifts from March through October.

By the 1940s, the island added a “Lifesaving Beach Patrol System,” and the first emergency response vehicle. With this vehicle, they were able to patrol more miles of beach at a faster pace, and provide lifesaving medical aid in the field, as opposed to taking victims to the hospital with no prior care. By August 1941, the Galveston Island Beach Patrol boasted 20 guards.

By the 1950s, lifeguards were again given police authority and were put in charge of keeping the beaches clean, along with providing aid to the increasing  number of beachgoers. The area at the west end of the seawall became a second designated beach for African Americans.

 

 

Photos courtesy of the Rosenberg Library

OTB Fog

Warm air and cold water these days. Spring weather. This combination brings in one of the best and worst phenomena along the beachfront. Sea fog. It can be totally clear, and a big bank of fog can roll in unexpectedly. And since the whole coastal plains area is full of water, this fog can extend well inland.

From a lifeguarding and marine rescue standpoint sea fog is a disaster. Along the beachfront we have to go into a “special operation mode” involving walking out on each groin to see if anyone is getting near the rocks. Boat operations are a nightmare even with the use of GPS, sonar, and radar. Fog affects almost all aspects of water rescue and search and recovery work.

I like all kinds of training on the water, but one of my favorites is the surf ski. The “lifeguard spec” ski is basically a 17-foot-long ocean kayak but is extremely narrow. Think sculling but facing forward with a fancy double bladed kayak paddle. Once you have the hang of it, they are very fast and efficient. Paddling at a decent distance pace you can make about 5-6 miles in an hour. I love to paddle straight out into the chop for about three miles then head back. On the way back you can catch little runners on offshore swells, and it’s like taking a long downhill ski run. While getting a great workout you see dolphins and all kinds of other wildlife and get far enough offshore that you feel like you get some perspective.

A younger guard who has taken up the surf ski recently asked me for advice. The first thing I told him was to get a watch with a compass and never go without it, especially in the spring. With so many Spring days having cold water and warm air the fog can roll in unexpectedly at any time. I’ve had numerous experiences when the day looked clear and I got caught offshore. It’s incredibly easy to lose your orientation if there are no reference points. After one close call years ago where I had to use the position of the bright area where the sun was as a reference point in order to find my way back, I never went on the water again without a compass.

Like much of life on the beach, and life in general, things come with a good and a bad side. With all the danger sea fog brings, there is good. Earlier this week at dusk I was catching some nice glassy waves out in front of my house, lying on my board in a toasty wetsuit and feeling connected and in the moment. The fog was so thick I couldn’t see anything more than 30 yards away. The moisture in the air amplified all sounds to the point where I could hear every seagull or sound on the beach for a mile away. The fog seemed to insulate from every negative thing out there while locking in all the good.

OTB Winter Conditions

Now that winter is fully here water activities take on a new dimension. Whether you’re out there surfing, kite boarding, swimming, kayaking, fishing, or any number of other activities there is a greater possibility that a small over site could turn into a major emergency.

Hypothermia, or reduced body temperature, is the major threat. Once your core temperature drops, mental and physical acuity is diminished. It becomes easy to make serious judgment errors. Bad decisions that you normally have the physical endurance and vitality to compensate for can become life threatening. The classic example is the inexperienced surfer that doesn’t come into shore before he/she starts to freeze up. Then when something happens, the surfer is unable to respond as normal. I remember one time when I was young that I stayed out too long and couldn’t remember my bicycle combination and no longer had the dexterity to work the lock with my numb fingers.

With the water in the lower 60’s, and dipping into the 50’s, proper equipment is a serious issue. Most surfers in Texas have one full length wetsuit that is 3mm, with sections that are 2mm. Each person is different but generally, with a decent quality wetsuit, this works well down to about 58 degrees. It can be used for short periods in colder water, but you need to know when to get out. For water lower than that, you’d need something that’s around 4mm to stay out for any prolonged period of time. Experienced water people generally have a range of wetsuits and associated booties, gloves, and hoods to allow for a variety of conditions.

Another factor along the beachfront is the recurrent north winds that blow through with frontal systems. Because for us this means the wind blows offshore it can cause its own hazard. When the wind blows offshore, the water near the shoreline is really calm, since there’s not enough fetch, or distance of water, for it to build up little choppy waves. Also, because there are structures near the water the wind is partially blocked. People can enter the water expecting a certain set of conditions and, after getting blown off a couple hundred yards that can change quickly. Each year we make scores of rescues where someone drifts off on a float or surfboard and can’t paddle back in against the chop and wind. These situations are very dangerous because it’s really hard to find someone once you can’t see them from shore. Combine this with winter conditions and hypothermia and it’s easy to get overwhelmed.

All that said, there is a lot our water offers in the winter months. For those with the proper experience level and equipment, the surf and un-crowded conditions have a lot to offer.  Just make sure someone knows where you’re going and how long you plan on being out. Most importantly, stay in tune with your environment, your body conditions, and weather patterns. And, of course, know when to say when!

Cold Winter Months

Cold water is no joke. But lifeguards have to respond regardless of the conditions, so we train in and for cold water rescues. Even when we’re building towers, working on signage, or even working in the office we have to be ready at a moment’s notice to enter the water, potentially for prolonged periods, if an emergency drops.

The water is sitting in the 50s right now but can drop into the 40’s here in the winter. This can kill you pretty quickly if you are not prepared and don’t know what you’re doing. For this reason, we buy our full time staff good wetsuits that they keep handy at all times. Few people could function for more than a few minutes water this cold without a decent wetsuit.

There’s a misconception that all you have to do is pop on a wetsuit and you’re good in any temperature of water. This isn’t at all true and there are several variables that go into effect when you’re doing rescue work in cold water, such as body mass, how accustomed you are to the cold, etc. Even so, probably the most important thing is having the right wetsuit for the air/water temperature, duration, and for the activity. But even with the right suit, the first thing that happens when you jump in is freezing cold water slips into the suit, taking your breath away. If you don’t know what happens next you may panic. Fortunately, after just a few minutes that water in your suit is heated by your body and forms a thin layer of insulative water between your skin and the suit. This layer of water acts as actually keeps you warm despite the cold water outside the suit, and to a more limited extent against cold wind above the water.

For example, if you’re going scuba diving in 50 degree water you will need a very thick wetsuit, maybe 6 millimeters, with boots, gloves, and a hood. In that same water temperature, for a strenuous rescue or swim session taking 45 minutes or less you’d want more flexibility in your suit and you’d be generating a great deal more body heat, so you might be happy with something that is only 3 millimeters thick. Some suits are designed for swimming with flexible areas around the shoulders and others are better for surfing with areas around the hips that are more flexible. But all are way better than just jumping in!

Originally wetsuits were made of rubber and designed by a west coast aerospace engineer (who was a surfer) for the military. But soon after, the use of neoprene with its flexibility and closed cells trapping air inside the material made it affordable and practical for surfers and lifeguards and later for all types of water sports enthusiasts.

As we continue to see more beach use during the cold months we’d be lost without wetsuits to help us protect increasing numbers of people recreating out in the cold.

 

 

Photo: Ellis

January 6th

It’s difficult to write about anything not related to the unbelievable tragedy that befell our country on January 6th. It’s hard to think about anything else. Not just because I’ve been a peace officer for almost a quarter of a century, or a first responder for close to four decades. But as a citizen, as a parent, as a member of our community and the larger community of the United States.

What hits the hardest, and hopefully what will stay with us all, is the unbelievable fragility of our peaceful democracy and of our way of life. This little glimmer of light in the history of the human presence on the world hasn’t been around very long- less than 250 years. But we have taken it for granted.

We think that our version of democracy is impenetrable, impermeable, and constant. That we can ignore it, work selfishly for ourselves without thought for the greater good, or even actively work against the principals that we all, in theory, subscribe to. But that’s not the case. To have the freedoms we hold as inalienable rights takes effort. Peaceful democracy is a fragile thing. It needs to be nurtured continually. We all have to buy into the concept both at the macro and the micro level.

Newer models of governance involve collaborative decision making. Even in the various public safety groups, which have an obvious need for a strict chain of command, we’ve found ways to be more democratic. We stress the importance of following the chain of command for some things like emergency response, while assigning strategic planning and longer-term tasks to groups who establish their own leadership models that exist outside of our ranking system. We stress the need for fairness and equality of treatment to all of the public we serve.

The beach is the great leveler. Everyone comes to the beach. When you’re wet and sandy it’s really hard to tell who is rich or poor, successful or destitute. It’s a place where, at least for a time, you can shed the trappings of your social status, lay in a chair or in the shallow water and just…. be. And all of us that serve the public on the beach -the lifeguards, police, EMS, firefighters, vendors, park staff, maintenance workers, parking attendants, etc. have a responsibility to treat everyone with equal dignity and respect, no matter who or what they are. The responsibility to serve and to protect. And the responsibility to nurture the delicate democratic ecosystem that exists between the nearshore water and the human world.

This concept of the sanctity and democracy of this space is not something that we who regularly inhabit it discuss directly. But in every coastal place I’ve had the privilege to visit, it exists- at least at some level.

And maybe that’s how we preserve our democracy. Maybe we work to maintain its ideals in our living and work spaces wherever they may be. Maybe those ripples we create will radiate out and ensure that something like what happened on January 6th doesn’t repeat for a long, long time.

Happy New Year!

We have worked for many years with the lifeguards in our sister city of Veracruz, Mexico. After awhile I
grew to love not only the city and people, but the entire coastline. When my wife and I had our little girl,
we drove down there for the course, stayed a few extra days, then toured around Mexico. We had a
restored VW camper van, which made the travel easy. Often, we’d ride down the Gulf Coast, camping
and surfing the beaches. Then after the course ended, we’d shoot over to the Pacific side and work our
way up the coast to Mazatlán before heading home across the mountains. Each year, we’d follow the
suggestions of our friends there and check out somewhere new.
One year someone in the course suggested we go to the mountains near Morelia to see the place the
Monarch Butterflies come from. Our daughter, Kai, was two or three at the time and we thought that
would be a cool thing, especially because she was into butterflies just then. We arrived at this tiny
mountain pueblo and got a room at one of the two hotels near the plaza. The next morning a guide
picked us up in a 4wd truck and took us up this steep, bumpy road to an indigenous community. There,
and old man took us up and up these ancient stone steps to a meadow full of butterflies. We thought
that was it and were already impressed, but he laughed and explained in broken Spanish that we had to
go into the trees. By a small brook we were completely enveloped in butterflies. The whisper of
thousands of wings drowned out all other sound. Between the 4 of us standing about 5 feet apart there
must have been several hundred, and they covered us head to toe. He told us how they are born there
and then migrate up to several places in Texas and elsewhere before heading north. But eventually they
all find their way back to this on mountain. It takes three lifecycles to complete the entire journey, so its
the grandchildren that return to the mountain, as they’ve done for thousands of years.
From that time on, I’ve been acutely aware of the cyclical nature of things, particularly the beach. The
moon revolves around the earth, causing the tides. Animals and plants periodically flourish in numbers
and then go through periods where there are relatively few. Waves go through cycles of large and small
swell patterns. Hurricanes and storms periodically sweep the beach clean of all debris and knock down
the sand dunes, which in turn re-grow. And, of course, the seasons come and go.
The new year marks the beginning of another season, and a new start. This year will hopefully bring a
return of programs like Junior Guards, Wave Watchers, and Survivor Support Network. And it will bring
new challenges and unexpected good things.
Good luck Galveston as we move with the changes, the time, and the tide. And Happy New Year!