National Championship

The early morning light glimmered across the water, bathing the line of figures in a coppery glow. Each of them carried a narrow, sleek racing board under their arm. They were coiled and vibrating until the whistle blew and they exploded in a blur as they raced out into the water. First they high stepped until they were in deeper water then they hopped on the boards either prone or on their knees. Waves knocked a few back, but the front pack shot through the surf line in a tight clump and headed out to a line of flags and buoys.

The leader sliced through the water with the others drafting in his wake. They jockeyed for position as they neared the first turn, knowing  even a small error would be critical at this point. Only a few would advance to the next round.

One of the competitors who was towards the rear of the front pack nabbed a nice wave on the outside, joined shortly after by a clump of others. Having been able to rest on the wave, he jumped up in knee deep water and sprinted in through a funnel finish.

Welcome to the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA) national lifeguard championships. This year Daytona Beach, Florida hosted around 900 competitors and their support crews. The best of the best ocean lifeguards and junior lifeguards in the country competed in a multitude of Lifesaving Sport events which simulate the skills needed to rescue people in trouble.

More than any other of the emergency services, ocean lifeguards rely very heavily on their skill and fitness in the water to effect rescues. All the inter and intra agency competitions lead to regional competitions and eventually the best duke it out at the “Nationals”. Competition is the key motivator for thousands of beach lifeguards to maintain the incredibly high levels of physical fitness required to do the job.

The Galveston Beach Patrol has a long history of doing well at these competitions and are known throughout the country for this and for the innovative professionalism shown though decades of service. This year they did not disappoint.

Top junior guard finishes were:

Carlos Guerra (older group) 2K Beach Run-12th place, Run-Swim-Run- 15th place, Iron Guard (Run-Swim-Board Paddle)- 11th place

Mac Livanec (younger group)- 2K run- 2nd, beach flags- 8th, rescue board- 7th, Iron Guard- 12th

Baxter Wright (12-13)- 2K run-11th, board race- 2nd,

Carlos Guerra/Baxter Wright Swim Rescue Race 9th place

 

Finals for Lifeguard Competitors were:

Loree Pryor– American Iron Woman (run-swim-paddle)- 2nd, Beach Flags- 3rd, Run- Swim-Run- 4th, Rescue Board Race- 4th

Kevin Anderson– International Ironman- 4th, 2K Beach Run- 6th, Run-Swim-Run- 7th, Surf Ski- 8th, American Iron Man- 10,

Peter Davis– 2K Run- 2nd, American Iron Man (run, swim paddle row)- 4th, rescue board- 4th, surf ski- 4th, International Iron Man- 4th, Surf Ski 5th,

Nikki Harclerode/Caitlin Fairhurst– Surf Boat- 7th

Alana Anderson– 2k- 4th, American Iron Woman- 6th, Board Race 9th, Run-Swim-Run- 5th

Ellie Cherryholmes

One of the things that’s such a privilege about my job is getting to see so many people enter our program at 10 as a Junior Lifeguard, and blossom into truly exceptional people as they move up through the program and enter adulthood. Allow me to introduce you to Ellie Cherryhomes.

Ellie is the youngest of three and was raised by a single mother, who is one of our biggest supporters and is always there for Ellie. At times her mom has held down three separate jobs to make things work. Ellie also has a father and three half siblings in Equatorial Guinea, which may have contributed to her broad world view.

As she finishes her third year of guarding, Ellie’s accomplishments are impressive. She recently graduated 5th in her class from Ball High School. She won a “Research and Design” internship at UTMB. She was the National Honor Society President and the Vice President of the Technical Honor Society. She was also Captain of the Water Polo Team.

6 hours after graduating she was on a plane to California. She was one of the two first recipients  of the Ben Carlson Scholarship, given in memory of the Newport Beach Lifeguard that died tragically a year ago during a big wave rescue. His death and her first big rescue happened on the same weekend and she feels a connection. She received a fairly large sum of cash for school, which will help her pay her way through college. She also received clothes, a wetsuit, and a custom board from Hurley which won’t hurt either!

Beach Patrol has been a big part of Ellie’s life. She describes it as, “…more of a lifestyle than a job”, and feels it has given her a good set of friends and connection to the ocean. Not many of her peers have the same qualifications and experience. Nor have they been “entrusted with such a high level of responsibility- not just for people, but for the ocean and nature in general”. She feels this has given her a real leg up on college applications and other awards she’s received.

Through her connection with Beach Patrol, sports, and the ocean she found a mentor in Joe Cerdas, a full time Supervisor/Officer. Joe is the leader of a stand up paddle group that has been branded “Ocean Tribe”. With Joe and his dedicated band of athletes she’s competed all over the state and elsewhere.

Most recently, Ellie won a very prestigious scholarship from National Geographic, where she spent a month traveling in northern India with a group and three professional photo journalists. Staying with farmers, teaching in schools, and being exposed to all kinds of new things was “life altering”.

It will be interesting to see where Ellie ends up. We do know that she’s the best that Galveston and the Beach Patrol has to offer. Wherever she goes she’ll move forward with integrity, genuineness, and a real commitment to do more than scratch the surface of our lived experience.

Naked Lady

The heat was kicking in as late afternoon settled over the beach. Tempers were getting frayed as sunburned, dehydrated, families packed up their stuff and got ready for the long, sandy ride back to Houston.

Lifeguards had been busy all day with a persistent current pulling people towards the rocks and small choppy surf keeping everyone on edge. The radio crackled with calls of lifeguards moving swimmers broken up with occasional medical or enforcement calls.

Suddenly an excited voice broke the pattern. “Tower 47 to headquarters, there’s a naked woman fighting someone on my beach”. The area supervisor arrived within a few moments and called that they were stepping out on a disturbance and requested the Galveston Police Department and another lifeguard supervisor for backup. Then there was some confusion and a Galveston policeman came up on our radio channel requesting us to send another unit that way to back up our guards since they had gone in the water.

Turns out the “naked” woman actually had a top on. Just not the bottom. When she and her wife stopped fighting and the lifeguards and police arrived she put on her bottom. Then she inexplicably took off all of her clothes, left her wife and two small kids, and ran into the area next to the groin where the rip current is. Supervisor Gabe Macicek and Senior Guard Emma went in after her and were trying to keep her away from the rocks so she wouldn’t get caught in the rip or step into the really deep area.

That’s when it started to get weird.

The woman was 6ft tall, big and strong, and was pretty worked up. She was yelling at Gabe as he kept trying to get her to return to shore and leave the dangerous area. They were able to gradually talk her into waist deep water. She asked him if they were cops. He told her no. Then she said, “You wanna be a hero?!!” and she started hitting both he and Emma. They tried to block her blows and stay away but she ended up connecting on Gabe 3 times and twice on Emma repeating her mantra of “You wanna be a hero?!!!) over and over.

The second lifeguard truck arrived while this was going on and Supervisor David Nash came up from behind the woman and bear hugged her so she couldn’t hit them. All three moved her a little closer to shore as several GPD officers went way above the call of duty and waded out to their knees and cuffed the woman (thanks yet again GPD!).

The teamwork the GPD and my staff showed was impressive. The guards who showed so much restraint and put themselves in harm’s way to protect someone who was (at least at that moment) combative, dangerous and completely out of her head are a real credit to both our organization and to the profession of lifesaving.

15 minutes later our “Heroes” stepped out on another altercation between two more people 7 blocks away. All on a Tuesday!

SHARKMANIA

Ahhhhhh….. SHARKMANIA!

With the sensationalism of the shark attacks on the Carolina coast it seems like everyone is on the lookout. Social media adds to the drama and we often get calls from reporters about sightings that they hear about. There was a good one floating around recently about a huge Great White that was caught swimming about a mile from Galveston’s shoreline. Turns out it was a Mako caught off of Nova Scotia during a fishing tournament several years ago. But where does reasonable caution intersect with irrational fear?

You have a greater chance of being struck by lightning or killed by a dog bite than being bitten by a shark. In the past 25 years we’ve responded to or received reports of 9 or so shark bites on the island. No doubt there are others, especially incidents with fishermen, but the number is very small. With around 6 million tourists visiting the island a year, the math works out pretty good… for the swimmers.

There are a number of reasons that our number of bites is so low compared to other beach locations and you very seldom hear of an actual “attack” involving multiple bites. One of these is that we don’t have rivers or inlets flowing out where there are a significant number of recreational swimmers. For example in Florida’s New Smyrna Beach, which is basically a river mouth, there are a number of bites every year. Another reason is that sharks in this area don’t have a regular food source that resembles a person. When I lived on the west coast and surfed regularly at Santa Cruz I often thought about how the white of my board resembled the soft white underbelly of a seal from below.

Aside from avoiding swimming in river mouths or in areas where bays and estuaries meet the ocean, there are a number of precautions you can take to reduce your chances of an unpleasant encounter with a shark while swimming in Galveston:

  1. Avoid Swimming in the middle of schooling fish- Sharks eat fish and could grab a hand or leg by accident. Even though the most likely scenario is for them to release and go for easier prey, that one bite could do some damage. This is the typical scenario I’ve seen in the handful of shark bites I’ve worked through the years.
  2. Shuffle your feet- When you drag your feet in a sort of “ice skating motion” you send out vibrations. Small sharks, stingray, fish, etc will try to get away from you. If you don’t step on them they won’t try to fight back.
  3. Don’t swim while bleeding- Sharks are extremely sensitive to the smell of blood and can detect a very small amount.

Part of the fun of swimming in the ocean is the excitement of being in a place that’s not your natural habitat. With a reasonable amount of caution you can significantly reduce the risk of a mishap and have a great time.

Beach Tips

I’ve noticed that many websites have a “helpful tips”, or a “frequently asked questions”. After the busy 4th of July weekend (and all the goofy stuff people ask and do!) my staff and I have compiled a tentative list for our website. Keep in mind that this is a very rough draft and probably needs a bit of polishing. It’s also based on actual events:

  1. Emergency lanes are not for dropping off and picking up all your coolers, BBQ pits, dogs, kids, couches, and other beach necessities.
  2. If you’re dog is off the leash, knocks over a little kid, and urinates on someone’s beach towel, they’re not in the wrong for complaining.
  3. Getting really drunk and almost hitting a child while riding a jet ski does not entitle you to pick a fight with the child’s parents.
  4. Losing your child 3 times in one day means it’s time to re-evaluate something. Maybe your drinking habits?
  5. Losing a 2 year old is not the kid’s fault and he doesn’t need a spanking.
  6. (To a large group of grown men) No sir. The Beach Patrol did not steal your Wiffle Ball bat.
  7. The job description of a lifeguard does not include picking up jellyfish, dead fish, or dirty diapers.
  8. Being a “taxpayer” does not mean you are allowed to drive your vehicle anywhere you want, including areas that other people (who also pay taxes) are not allowed.
  9. While we are happy, when able, to help anyone out however we can, giving your car a boost does not take precedence over responding to a possible drowning call. Even if you threaten to have us fired and even if you do “pay taxes”.
  10. (This one is more of a beauty tip). While sporty and sassy, that yellow bandana tied around your ankle does not hide that court ordered “low jack” ankle bracelet that you’re wearing with your bikini
  11. I’m sorry sir, but the “verbal leash” you have your dog on does not meet the city code.
  12. Saying “I’m not driving in a prohibited area, I’m just dropping off my stuff” does not mean you can blast through all the people on Stewart Beach in your big SUV to drop off your cooler and chairs. You have to use the parking lot just like the other 150,000 people who came to the beach today.
  13. You can’t swim in the “No Swimming” area by the rock groins. Even if you’re a Red Cross pool lifeguard who “swims like a fish”.
  14. When your big, slobbery, off his leash, pit bull is charging a small child, you yelling “he’s friendly” does little to comfort or calm his/her parents.
  15. Yes. You are welcome to fill out a complaint form because you are very angry that the rescue truck doesn’t carry a pump to blow up inflatables, such as your big Shamoo doll.
  16. (My favorite) Happy Birthday! But that doesn’t mean no one can play “chicano music”…..

The 4th

Summer is flying by. There have been so many people on the beach that even weekdays feel like weekends. As busy as it’s been even all of our rookie lifeguards have gotten a good amount experience under their belts which helps things run smoothly. We’re already to the 4th of July weekend!

The beach has shifted into its summer pattern. Tides have dropped from spring to summer levels. We requested that the Coastal Zone Management Department of the Park Board move our towers closer to the shoreline. Winds and waves have started dropping and we’re bouncing between green (calm condition) flags and yellow (caution).

The water is full of all kinds of critters now so we’ve been seeing a few jellyfish stings and an occasional stingray hit. This is still pretty minimal when you compare it to the hundreds of thousands of visitors, but more than we were seeing a month ago. Just as a reminder, the treatment for a jellyfish sting is rinsing with saline solution (or salt water if that’s the nearest thing). This gets the tentacles off and keeps the sting from getting worse. Then do something for the pain like rub ice on it or treat with a topical anesthetic. Most stings are a pretty short time event and it’s extremely rare to see any kind of allergic reaction to them. For stingrays, they’re easily prevented if you shuffle your feet while in the water. If you are unfortunate enough to catch a barb in your foot or ankle you want to soak it in hot water immediately- but not so hot you burn your skin. The pain goes away very quickly. Then you need to seek medical attention because they have a 100% infection rate.

We would really like to thank all of you that attended our 18th annual BBQ fundraiser or sent in donations. Well over a thousand people came to support, swap stories, eat food, and hang out. It ended up being a perfect night and a really good time. We really appreciate all the support and it was good to have all the friends, supporters, and beach people in one place!

If you or yours are headed to the beach this weekend remember to swim near a lifeguard and don’t check your brain at home or on the other side of the causeway. Stay far away from groins and piers.  Also remember to keep a close eye on your kids and wear a lifejacket if you’re a poor swimmer/child or on boats.  One thing to keep in mind is that we typically see a lot of heat related injuries (heat exhaustion and heat stroke) on this particular weekend. I’m not sure what it is about the combination of 10 hours of sun, food, and beer that brings this on? But it’s an easy thing to prevent if you remember to stay hydrated (no my fellow Texans, beer doesn’t count!), wear protective clothes and use sunscreen, seek shade periodically, and use decent sunglasses.

Have a great holiday!

Canine Rescue

Supervisor/Officer Joe Cerdas was on his way to work early the other day in his personal car. He lives on the west end and was just nearing the end of the seawall. It was in the height of tropical storm Bill and the wind was blasting, so he was driving carefully. Suddenly his radio crackled as an emergency call came through.

Apparently a man had been on the edge of the seawall looking at the huge surf as it bashed against the seawall and sent plumes of foam over the top of the wall. The tide was really high so you could hardly see the rocks at the base of the wall as wave after wave pounded in. His dog became excited and jumped off the wall.

The west end of the seawall has long been a trouble spot for the Beach Patrol. When the current sweeps from west to east people can get caught in the ever present rip current at western side of the wall and swept around in front of the wall. They can’t swim back the way they came, and there’s no beach in front of the seawall. When the tide is high and there are waves, you have to get over the rocks while the waves break on you. Then, you have to find a stairwell, and there aren’t many in the area. We’ve made many dramatic rescues using rescue boards to ride people over the rocks, often with the fire department lifting them up the wall.

As Joe pulled up he looked over the wall to see the 80 pound dog in big trouble. The poor dog’s pads were bleeding from multiple attempts to climb to the top of the wall, only to be repeatedly dragged down the wall between waves.

A GPD K9 unit and the animal control unit arrived right behind Joe.

He grabbed a rope from the animal control unit that was being used to try and lasso the dog. He then asked the officers and bystanders to lower him down the seawall so he could grab it. The plan was that once he had the dog they could pull him up and over the seawall.

He improvised a harness which he tied around himself and was then lowered down the seawall.

His first attempt to grab the dog was unsuccessful as a wave hit them both, causing him to lose his grip as he was tossed around by the powerful surf. On the second wave he was able to grab the dog and place him higher on his shoulder which gave him a more secure grip on the big canine.

As the peace officers and bystanders hauled them up, they were hit by numerous waves which slammed them against the wall. But Joe held fast and didn’t lose his grip.

As they finally neared the top of the wall, Joe passed the dog to his owner, and then he pulled himself over the top of the wall to safety.

All we heard on the radio was:

“Cerdas back in, one canine rescue”.

FOT6AA8

BBQ and Recognition

It’s been a rough summer. The guards have performed under all kinds of adverse conditions admirably. Come support them tonight for our 18th annual BBQ fundraiser. This is the beach party of the year with well over a thousand Lifeguards, Junior Guards, water people, beach lovers and supporters of the various groups that work so hard to keep our beaches safe, clean, and enjoyable.

This year we’ll have it in our traditional spot at 24th and Post office and the base will be the Press Box from 6-10. If you haven’t gotten your tickets yet you can buy one at the door. Music provided by DJ Joe Rios and luau style BBQ cooked up and served by the Galveston Rugby Team. There will be a silent auction as well. Proceeds benefit the Lifeguards and Junior Guards and help cover the cost of competing at the national lifeguard championships and various water safety projects. The Press Box is owned by none other than Rudy Betancourt, long time Beach Patrol Lifeguard and 100% G-Town local.

Last week we had the honor of giving awards to all the groups that came together to support the search for the 12 year old girl who drowned at 56th street. An unbelievable amount of volunteers, including family members, aided in the search. Food and lodging were provided while public safety personnel from a myriad of agencies spent untold amounts of time searching. We wanted to do something to recognize them. The sensitivity, perseverance, and altruism these scores of people showed is hard to describe. The intent was not to detract in any way from the unbelievable loss that the family is facing. While acknowledging that, our hope was to simultaneously recognize that there is an emotional component to the work the first responders do and they have a need for some type of closure to the incident as well. Hard tightrope to walk.

The Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network spent three days with the family providing counseling, translation, and information regarding the search efforts. The Red Roof Inn and 4 Seasons provided rooms and an area for the families of two separate events to base. Tortugas, Kroger, and the Lighthouse Charity Team brought food. The US Coast Guard spent hours of air and water time. Texas Parks and Wildlife put two boats in the water to search, the Sheriff Office and Galveston Police Department Marine Division were ever-present, and the Galveston Fire Department did everything in their power to help. The Galveston County Community Emergency Response Team came out multiple days using volunteer labor to try to speed up the recovery process. They even allowed for walk up volunteer labor at their command post.

It’s not enough. It never can be. But I people have a basic desire to do whatever it is we can do to help others when they need it most. All these groups did everything they could and, at the very least, they showed their love and support through their actions.

 

Beach Patrol Fundraiser Poster2

Sandbars

I got an interesting call from a local woman who told me to write about what it means to “step off a sandbar” and why that can cause someone to drown. The woman, now in her 90’s, said when she was young she had to hand her 3 year old to someone else and trust him to bring her child to shore when she “stepped off a sandbar” herself.

Most of what we focus on in beach safety involves rip currents. Rip currents, responsible for 80% of rescues in the ocean (and presumably drownings) run roughly perpendicular to shore and are formed when water brought in by waves has to find a way back out past the surf zone. In Texas our strongest and most predominant rip currents are formed near a structure like a jetty. This is why we recommend people stay away from the rocks and why we post our towers on the seawall near the groins. If you’re caught in one, float with it and you’ll likely return to shore on your own. If you’re a good swimmer, try swimming parallel to shore, but never try to swim directly into a rip current (directly to shore).

The phrase “stepping off a sandbar” refers to times when someone is standing in relatively shallow water and currents or waves push them from the shallow sandbar into a trough where the water is deeper. Just as is the case with rip currents, if you simply relax and float you’ll be fine, but bad things happen when people panic or choke on water.

At our beaches we have a sandbar and trough system, both of which run parallel to the shoreline. As you walk into the water from shore you’ll step into deeper water, then shallower water, than deeper, shallower, and so on. Gradually it gets deeper and deeper but we have 4-5 sandbars and troughs before it gets deep enough for the bottom to level off. The sandbars farther from shore need bigger waves to break on them but the first couple are easy to spot by the breaking waves even from shore. Waves break in water about 1.3 times their height, so an experienced guard or person can tell water depth by looking at the waves. The waves don’t break in the deeper water so the troughs are calm looking areas between the sandbars.

The difference in depth between the sandbars and troughs is exacerbated by long shore current, which runs parallel to shore. The longer and harder it runs, the deeper the troughs. Generally when the current lets up the bottom levels off to normal in a couple of days, but this past week it was so calm that the normal “jiggling” of the bottom sand didn’t happen and there was a neck deep trough very near the shoreline all week.

Generally the most important way to be safe is to swim near a lifeguard, but it’s also a good idea to stay in shallower water than you would in an artificial environment.

GC Speech

Galveston Police Department Chief Henry Porretto and I both sit on the advisory board for the Galveston College Law Enforcement Academy. Last week we both had the honor to speak to the graduating class. Chief Porretto did an excellent talk about the core values of a peace officer, so I chose to focus on the idea of compassion through public safety work. In light of last week’s drowning of a 12 year old girl, excerpts of this seem especially poignant and I’d like to share them with you.

“…there’s something special about each of you that put you in this room today. You want to- you need to- make a difference.

A peace officer is entrusted with unbelievable power. The ability to take away someone’s freedom should never be taken lightly. You have trained and will continue to train on how to do that responsibly and professionally while protecting you, the public, and fellow officers as much as possible. But that isn’t the most powerful tool in your tool belt. Nor is your weapons and self-defense training, or even all that information crammed in your head right now…

…You have chosen a career that will put you with people on the worst day of their entire lives. It is one of the most intimate moments that humans experience. It is during these moments- these horrible times- that our lives fork. There are few moments in all of our lives where we knowingly or unknowingly choose a path that becomes destiny. You will be with people as they go through this. And it’s not like in the movies with fuzzy light and perfect skin and sparkly backgrounds. Normally reasonable people will be bleeding, spitting, cussing, fighting, and they may focus all their hate on you during this time. They will at these times be at their most… unlovable. And you have the horrible responsibility and unbelievable privilege of sharing these moments with them. Your actions in these brief moments can determine the course of their lives- and those of everyone they’re connected to.

Most of what emergency responders do, particularly peace officers, isn’t black and white. It is in this grey area that you can use the most powerful tool in your possession. It’s in this grey area that your power is the greatest, you’re integrity shines brightest, and your choices the most critical. Officer discretion. Some people need to go to jail. Others don’t need any help from you. But a large percentage of your calls are in that grey zone. Use your power of discretion to do what good cops do best. Solve problems and show compassion. The choices you make during these moments will affect the rest of their lives- and the lives of people they are close to or even who they encounter.

In those intimate moments you share with complete strangers your compassion can be the drop that causes the ripple that makes the difference.”…