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!

Happy Holidays

A line of 10and 11 year old kids waited, twitching. Their hands tight on the handles of rescue boards.
“Go!” yelled the instructor. They carried the boards to the water, laid the boards down, and pushed
them until they got about waist deep. Then they jumped on top and started paddling.
Once they got up there were some who paddled on their knees and others who opted for the prone
position. They started making progress towards a buoy that was about 30 yards offshore. A group shout
rang out as a wave approached. Some made it over the top, others grabbed the handles and rolled over,
pulling the boards down. Still others were pushed back by the wave almost to the starting point.
Instructors paddled beside them giving instructions and advice, but mostly keeping a watchful eye on all
the kids. There was one instructor for every 5 kids. Eventually, all the kids made it around the buoy and
headed towards shore. Some of the lucky ones caught waves and rode, smiling, all the way up to the dry
sand. Others slugged it out until they paddled all the way to shore. When they all got to shore, they
huddled up and went over what they learned, giving each other tips. The instructors reinforced the good
techniques and offered encouragement.
By the end of the 6 weeks of the Junior Lifeguard program kids can make that paddle effortlessly. They
get better at swimming, running, and paddling. They learn CPR and first aid. They have an awareness of
the various gulf creatures that can harm you or are just really cool to know about. And they have
general knowledge of lifeguarding techniques. But that’s just part of it.
The kids graduate with an awareness that they can and should help others. They stand taller and speak
more directly and clearly. And each summer when they come back all of this is amplified.
Not being able to have our Junior Guard Program was one of the worst things that Covid caused our
overall program. We love them being there. The guards like having them come up in their towers to
“shadow guard”. And we like the relationship with the parents and community that the program brings
as a side effect.
Our holiday wish is that we are able to bring back some of the things that we had to forgo this year. We
are not just the Galveston lifeguard program. We are an interconnected web of programs including the
Junior Guards, Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network, Wave Watchers. We need to return to our daily
training to keep the guards sharp and our annual BBQ to include the other beach groups and the
community in our world.
Holiday greetings from the Galveston Island Beach Patrol. Lets hope that 2021 will bring back some of
what we missed and that we keep the good things we learned about ourselves and our world this year.
We hope that you and yours have a great holiday and a wonderful new year.

Waves

It was a bad idea.
Archie Kalepa led the group as we swam towards the cliff face. Archie is the former Chief of Lifeguards in
Maui, world renowned big wave surfer and Hawaiian living legend. The problem with being Archie’s
friend is that he is a giving soul and is real comfortable in big water. He wants to share the things he
loves selflessly. And he loves putting himself in situations that normal people should not be in.
Not that our group was green. Among them was Rob Williams- chief of lifeguards in Newport Beach and
former national water polo champion. Also Jay Butki- SoCal legendary Baywatch boat aptain who has
won more national lifeguard championship titles than I can count. All were people who grew up in and
around lifesaving and the ocean. But none of us were Archie, and he was in his backyard.
“I promise you, the waves (probably) won’t smash you against the rocks”, Archie was saying as I started
to get a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. There nothing worse than a bunch of grown up, midlife
crisis having, lifeguard/athletes trying to show off for each other. And this looked like a prime example.
So, these big- I mean really big- ocean waves were smashing up against the cliff face. And we were going
to swim right up there into that maelstrom. As we got close, a big set was just hitting. It lifted us up
maybe 30 feet. You could see the rock face flying by underwater because the water was so clear. We
reached the peak, and then plunged back down, stomach dropping out with the weightlessness of the
descent. I broke the surface to the sound of Archie howling with laughter and pointing to our faces
which varied from bloodless to green to the embodiment of sheer terror. But, true to his word, no one
had a scratch on them. By the time we’d done it a few times we all were howling with laughter, giddy
with adrenaline. And Archie looked like a proud papa showing off his baby to a roomful of visitors.
That wave was an extreme example of a surging wave. A wave that pushes up against some type of
surface and falls back without breaking. We have them next to the groins and against the south jetty.
They aren’t 30 or40 feet, but it’s the same thing. We know if we have a victim up against the rocks we
can get in there and them without getting smashed.
Surging waves are one of 3 types of waves that exist. Rolling waves are deep water swells. Spilling waves
break in water because its shallow enough to break. Surfers ride them and they’re the ones we associate
with our Galveston beach. Plunging waves break onto a dry or near dry surface. A hard beach break or
waves breaking onto a rocky surface would be examples.
Knowing and understanding waves is critical to lifeguarding. So is putting yourself in uncomfortable
situations so you expand the types of conditions you’re comfortable making rescues in.

Sharks

Nat Geo was in town this week to talk sharks and along with a couple of people who were bitten back in
2004, interviewed me about beach dangers.
Back then we had three documented shark bites in one summer. Our average comes to about a bite
every two years. Like anything that doesn’t mean a bite every two years, we’ve had some stretches of 5
or more years without incident.
Generally, bites in our area are just that. Bites. Sort of a case of mistaken identity where a shark is
feeding on schooling fish and the person is in the middle of the school. The shark bites the person by
accident, lets go, and swims away. One of the cameramen for the shoot put it really well. He said,
“Sharks don’t have thumbs”. So, to check something to see what its like can cause damage.
Other beaches where sharks routinely feed on large mammals are a different thing. A surfer can look a
lot like a seal from the bottom. I felt really differently about sharks when I lived in northern California.
Understanding how water animals think is an important way to reduce your chances of bad things
happening. Those of us who are in the water all the time routinely shuffle our feet to chase away small
animals including sharks, avoid swimming near schooling fish, don’t go in the water if we’re leaking
blood, and don’t swim where a river or bay empties in the gulf to stay away from all the bait fish. People
that wade fish a lot don’t sit in the water with a bunch of bloody fish on a short stringer. Commercial
divers paint the silver on their regulators black so there’s no shiny object to attract sharks or barracuda.
All that said, the chances of getting bit by a shark are tiny. We see 7 million people a year at our beach
and only have a bite every couple of years on the beachfront. A lightning strike is much more dangerous.
Rip currents are much more of a threat to human life in the ocean. And what about that drive to the
beach? Deaths in car accidents is way more likely, but we’re desensitized to that, so hardly think about
it.
The ocean is not our natural habitat and we’re guests when we enter it. But if we’re respectful of the
full-time inhabitants and put ourselves in their position, it helps us understand how to reduce our
chances of injury. And its so worth the risk.
Lifeguards have to train in the conditions they rescue people in, so we’re in the ocean almost daily all
year. We view the risk the same way normal people look at driving to work. But for most people, the
choice to enter the ocean is a chance to experience not being in control and to get closer to the natural
environment. Knowing how to reduce chances of injury is important, but when balanced out, It’s worth
the risk.

San Diego

The last two columns targeted the history of the lifeguard service of Galveston, which dates all the way
back to 1875. Galveston and the Houston area have grown significantly in the years since then, and
we’ve all had to adapt as a community, including the Beach Patrol.
We now see over 7 million visitors annually and protect them with a lifeguard budget of around 3
million dollars. We stretch that quite a bit to cover 9 miles proactively for 7 months out of the year with
lifeguard towers at dangerous areas like the rock groins, or high use areas like the beach parks. We run a
large Junior Lifeguard Program which pays for itself and have a small police department comprised of
lifeguard supervisors. We stretch our dollars further by incorporating community volunteer programs
that provide extra eyes and ears, as well as support services to our guards and the public.
Looking around the country we are well above the bar for the service we provide. We like to say that
“pound for pound” we are the best lifeguard service in the country. By this we mean that for the
resources we use, we provide the most protection possible for people that visit our beaches. But its hard
to compare to others in many ways because we all offer different auxiliary programs. One of the most
well-known and professional lifeguard services that offers a lot of auxiliary services is in San Diego.
The San Diego Lifeguard Service deals with something like 28 million people a year and has a budget
that, currently sits somewhere around 25 million, they are in a different ballpark when compared to our
3 million dollars and 7 million people. But looking at all they do is impressive.
The two agencies have a similar call volume during the high season and the beaches have about the
same area to cover. San Diego has year-round beach use where we have 2-3 months when its much
slower. But the San Diego Lifeguard Service provides cliff rescue service, handles the swift water rescue
for the fire department, and provides harbor patrol service. They also have a really well-equipped dive
team that not only is the go-to group for search and salvage, but even has a contract with the military
for the area. To pull all this off they have a large full-time work force which is supplemented by seasonal
part time staff and run their own dispatch operation 24/7. So, the year-round staff can qualify to be on
the specialty teams and are called out from their regular duties of lifesaving, dispatch, and harbor patrol
when they are needed. Of course, to make this work they have to maintain a large staff of well trained
(and well paid) lifeguards.
Many of the other groups around the country hate (in a friendly way) the San Diego group because their
pay is high (and they used to have a helicopter). But they lack something important. They don’t get to
live in Galveston!