Sooner or Later

Sitting in the middle of storm season brings all kinds of things to mind. Have you ever seen the pictures of the amazing structures that existed before the 1900 storm? Huge wooden beach pavilions that stretch into the water. Galveston was such a draw and such an important place at the time we neared the industrial revolution. This was really before recreational swimming was even in the public consciousness. I love to sit and imagine what was going on in the pictures. What were they talking about? How did people speak differently than we do now? How did people see the world, each other, race, gender, religion, and politics? When one of those people in the pictures walked along the sand, did it feel the same to them? Did they see the marine environment differently before recreational swimming became commonplace?

After each hurricane, these structures were re-built, or new ones were added. Thousands flocked to the beachfront and used the buildings. Then they’d be demolished again by the power of the sea. It sounds like there would be considerable debate whether or not to rebuild and, some weren’t rebuilt for some time. But eventually, the economic draw was too much, and they’d put something else there.

This extends to the present. Why do we choose to live in a beach house or rebuild a structure in front of the seawall when you know there is a time limit? If we look back at those incredible beachfront structures from the 1800’s or early 20th century knowing they would only exist for a few years or decades, why spend the energy and resources? Is this wasteful and self-indulgent, or is there something else at work here?

It seems we, as a species, have a tough time thinking past our immediate experience and the short term. We seem to have a baked-in inability to give serious consideration to the long-term effects of our actions. When the population was small, and the world was big, this may have been a survival trait that allowed us to take risks that eventually allowed the human population to flourish.

It also seems that we are capable of incredible optimism. Why did people cross the Bering Strait? Why do we collectively choose to live on this vulnerable barrier island? Why choose to put such considerable resources into a place where there is such a risk of impermanence?

I believe the answer is simple. Because your life is not what you accumulate. It’s the sum of your lived experiences. If you have a deep, meaningful connection to a place that facilitates connection to something bigger than yourself, all the rest pales in comparison. Galveston, for all its many shortcomings, provides this to those who are open to it. The privilege of living close to the ocean is worth the risk and impermanence.

And, at the end of the day, everything we build only amounts to a sandcastle. Sooner or later, the tide takes it all away, leaving just the memory of building it with someone you love.

A Dynamic Environment

If you’ve been on the beach anytime in the past couple of weeks, you’ve probably noticed that we’ve had day after day of wind running parallel down the beach. And then, on top of that, we had extreme conditions over the weekend. This does some pretty interesting things to the bottom, which affect the safety of people that swim or wade in the water for quite a while.

The bottom within the surf zone has a memory. When current runs it picks up sand and moves it, causing a trench or trough, which is also known in “Galvestonese” as a “hole”. These are found consistently near structures like groins or piers and between the sand bars along the beachfront. These troughs can last hours to days, even after the conditions change significantly.

An example would be when wind blows parallel with the shoreline, causing a “littoral” or “longshore” current. This cuts deeper spots that run parallel to shore, forming our sandbar and trough system. This system is always there, but after a few days of strong current the difference between the sandbars and troughs is more pronounced. Deep troughs can be scoured out pretty close to shore. So, in extreme cases you can find water 5-6 feet deep only 15 yards from shore. Imagine the dangers for small children on these days. To make matters worse, when this is coupled with high surf, water from the waves can be pushed up to the shoreline and will have to find a way back out. If it breaks through a sandbar on the way out, more water follows, and it causes a trench perpendicular to shore that is a conduit for even more water to head back offshore. This causes a type of rip current called a “fixed rip”, which can last several hours.

Another example is that the groins and piers cause the water flowing parallel to head out away from the shore. This causes rip currents (not rip tides!) which are always there, called “permanent rips”. The deep spots near the rocks caused by all that water flowing out are responsible for water flowing out, maintaining the troughs, and causing danger, even on calm days. Water is lazy. It always seeks the path of least resistance.

A final danger imprinted in the “memory” of the bottom is “inshore holes” formed when larger/stronger waves break close enough to shore that they spill over, cut through the water, and smash into the bottom. These holes can be fairly deep. My daughter and I body surf a lot in the evenings lately and we were laughing because I was up to my neck and she, while standing right next to me, was about waist deep.

As conditions calm, we’ll start seeing more normal bottom conditions after the sand jiggles back into place. For now, be extra careful.

The beach is a dynamic environment. This is why the guards are required to physically get in twice a day to check their area. That way they’re better able to spot trouble before it actually happens.

Photograph by Mabry Campbell

Lifeguard Bower Rescue

It was a rough, windy, morning. Clouds scudded across the sky pushed by a strong wind from the west. The water was brownish because of currents pushing up from the mouth of the clay colored Brazos river. The 8-year-old boy floated along on his boogie board. As he neared the 61st street rock groin, a feeder current gently started pushing him farther out. As he neared the rock groin, he panicked and lost the board. He struggled for a moment before the current pushed him close to the rocks near the end of the groin where the fishing pier starts. He hung on tenuously as waves bludgeoned him.

Every morning before he reports to his tower, Lifeguard Bill Bowers walks down to the beach near his house and takes a swim. Bill has a long history as a competitive swimmer and coach. He joined the Galveston Beach Patrol network originally as a volunteer “Wave Watcher”, before deciding to try out to be a beach guard in addition. At 62, Bill was still a great athlete and trained regularly. He had no problem passing our swim trials and sailed through the lifeguard academy. Now in his third year of service, he’s become something of an icon. The younger guards ask him for advice and his supervisors love him. He’s a terrific guard. He’s proactive, personable, and goes the extra mile to make sure all the beach patrons in his area are taken care of. His work ethic and presence have raised the quality of what we do. He’s also very modest and shares any credit he gets with the team. He’ll hate it when he see’s I’ve written this column about him.

Bill was in the middle of his morning swim, towing a rescue tube behind him. He spotted the young boy, made contact, pulled him off the rock, wrapped him in the rescue tube, and navigated through the barnacle encrusted poles of the fishing pier. Popping out the other side, he swam past the rip current and brought the boy to shore safely. A bystander witnessed the event and was kind enough to write a letter about it, which I shared with the staff and asked him for a pic for social media. Bill’s response was as follows:

“Thanks Chief, but it wasn’t a heroic act. I had been swimming down the beach about a mile and I lifted my head to take aim at shooting under the bridge when I spotted the child. I simply snatched him up, kicked away from the rocks, shot through. We headed in and a truck was there almost immediately. I credit you with telling me to wear my buoy when working out!

As far as pictures what if they posted pics of all guards who have had a rescue. That would be really impressive number wise.

Bill”

 Heroism isn’t just about bravery. Its also about the discipline and drudgery of maintaining skills that may help someone, somewhere, someday. In this case an 8-year-old got to go home because of Bills heroism.

Mexico Trip

Almost 20 years ago Vic Maceo and I went to Veracruz, Mexico with a contingency from Galveston which included the city manager, Steve Leblanc, Gilbert Zamora, and others. Veracruz and Galveston had set up a sister city arrangement, so we went down for Carnival.

They were excellent hosts, but we felt bad because it was clearly an effort to entertain us all, since they were in the middle of Carnival. Vic and I wandered around until we spotted a lifeguard tower, and met the lifeguard on duty, Juan Gabriel. Juan explained that the program was new and had been started because of a rash of drownings. They were trying to figure out how train guards, operate a program, etc. They had a number of people who knew about the beach and ocean because they were fishermen, surfers, or swimmers. There were no programs near them, but they did have a model. A popular show called “Guardianes de la Bahia”. Baywatch didn’t provide them with a lot of useful information about swim standards, medical training, tourist relations, or rescue techniques. It did, however, garner a lot of attention from the local politicians, who provided resources for some shiny jet skis that couldn’t be repaired locally and no one had rescue training on, and some great ideas for uniforms.

Juan introduced us to the manic and politically connected, head of Civil Protection, Julian Flores. In Mexico Civil Protection is a catch-all for coordination of emergency responders, disaster response, and some code enforcement related to public safety issues. Julian had his hands full, but he was real interested in the lifeguard program because he saw the value for the tourism industry and the public relation possibilities. He explained that he understood it was ridiculous to have two jet skis while half of the guards he had were connected to local politicians and couldn’t actually swim. He saw in us a chance to change the game by raising awareness of what professional lifeguards do and to use outsiders to make the case, so he didn’t have to burn political capital. Through his efforts and political wrangling coupled with our knowledge of the lifesaving field, they moved from an average of 25 drownings a year to around 4 within a two-year period.

Fast forward 20 years. We’ve held some 20 lifeguard academies there and they’ve been to ours. We trained the Mexican Navy version of SEALS. We’ve stayed at each other’s houses, made rescues together, taken trips together, our families are friends, and he even tried to set up an arranged marriage between his son and my daughter when they were 5. More importantly, he changed lifesaving and public safety in the State of Veracruz significantly. Most importantly, we became lifelong friends.

I went down last fall with Lifeguards Stephen Limones and Bill Bower to teach an academy. Two weeks ago, Julian, a seemingly indominable force of nature, died of Covid 19.

He left a huge vacuum. And giant footsteps all over both Mexico and Lifesaving.  

Holiday Weekend Wrap Up

Hope everyone had a good 4th of July Weekend, despite the weird thing of not being to celebrate it on the beach. Big news here is we’ll be having yet another lifeguard academy. Tryouts are Monday, July 13th, and info is on our website.

We spent most of our weekend doing the unenviable task of telling people they couldn’t have a good time. But it was also so eerily quiet that it was, in some ways, a welcome break from how hectic this summer has been so far. By Sunday evening, we’d moved around 2,500 people off the beach and responded to a handful of potential emergencies. This is completely different from what we’d normally have been doing. Normally we’d have reunited scores of lost children with their parents, moved thousands from dangerous areas, made a few rescues, and responded to a whole bunch of medical and water related emergencies.

The beaches are back open, so as a reminder there are a few simple safety tips that can keep you and your family safe while enjoying all that our beaches have to offer. Of course, avoiding rip currents is number one. Rip currents move perpendicular to shore and in Texas typically occur near a structure like a jetty or pier. They create holes or trenches underwater. Although they don’t pull you under, they do pull you out and can cause exhaustion and panic. Obey warning signs and instructions from a lifeguard to be safe. Also, pick a stationary point as a reference, so you don’t accidently drift into a problem area. If accidently caught in one, stay calm and go with the flow. Call or wave for help if possible. If you’re a good swimmer, try swimming parallel to shore until out of the current, and then back to the sand. If you see someone in a rip, don’t go in after them. Multiple drownings often occur when a well-meaning Good Samaritan goes in without proper equipment or training. Instead throw a floating object or line to them.

As a general rule, pick a lifeguarded area to swim. Our guards are well trained and are some of the best. You are still responsible for your own safety, but they can provide an added layer of protection if needed. They can also help with first aids, lost kids, or virtually any type of beach emergency. It also helps to swim with a buddy, obey warning signs and flags, and not diving in headfirst. Of course, non-swimmers and small children should wear a properly fitted lifejacket when in or around any type of open water or swimming area.

We are now looking at some pretty hot and humid weather so be sure and take precautions. Hydrate with non-alcoholic, non-caffeinated beverages, wear protective clothing, use sunscreen with a high SPF, and wear sunglasses to protect your eyes.

Overall, use good common sense in the water and take precautions for Covid on land. Know your limits. The ocean isn’t a pool or pond, so you should be extra careful.

4th of July Safety Tips

Happy 4th of July Weekend!

For lots this is all about grilling and chillin on the beach, and I’m sure even with the spike in Corona cases, we’ll still see plenty of people on the beach and elsewhere on the island.

It’s hard to believe how fast summer flies by, especially when you’re busy. This summer has been pretty intense so far with tons of people and very rough water on top of all the other weirdness. Fortunately, it looks like the rough water we’ve been having will ease up a little before the big weekend.

For the big weekend, there are a few simple safety tips that can keep you and your family safe while enjoying all that our beaches have to offer. Of course, avoiding rip currents is number one. Rip currents move perpendicular to shore and in Texas typically occur near a structure like a jetty or pier. They create holes or trenches underwater. Although they don’t pull you under, they do pull you out and can cause exhaustion and panic. Obey warning signs and instructions from a lifeguard to be safe. Also, pick a stationary point as a reference, so you don’t accidently drift into a problem area. If accidently caught in one, stay calm and go with the flow. Call or wave for help if possible. If you’re a good swimmer, try swimming parallel to shore until out of the current, and then back to the sand. If you see someone in a rip, don’t go in after them. Multiple drownings often occur when a well-meaning Good Samaritan goes in without proper equipment or training. Instead throw a floating object or line to them.

As a general rule, pick a lifeguarded area to swim. Our guards are well trained and are some of the best. You are still responsible for your own safety, but they can provide an added layer of safety if needed. They can also help with first aids, lost kids, or virtually any type of beach emergency. It also helps to swim with a buddy, obey warning signs and flags, and not diving in headfirst. Of course, non-swimmers and small children should wear a properly fitted lifejacket when in or around any type of open water or swimming area.

We are now looking at some pretty hot and humid weather so be sure and take precautions. Hydrate with non-alcoholic, non-caffeinated beverages, wear protective clothing, use sunscreen with a high SPF, and wear sunglasses to protect your eyes.

Overall, use good common sense in the water and take precautions for Covid on land. Know your limits. The ocean isn’t a pool or pond, so you should be extra careful.

But all that said, the 4th is intended to be a time to remember that despite how crazy things have been, this is still a wonderful place to live. Spend some quality time with friends and family while still social distancing.

Have fun you deserve it!

Captain

After Hurricane Ike there was a very clear psychological effect on the general population. Right afterwards there was this sort of heightened manic cheerfulness that slowly seemed to turn sour in a number of different ways. A psychologist friend told me that he felt like we were all suffering from group post-traumatic stress that was not acknowledged. Several months into the Covid pandemic and standing on the precipice of an economic recession/depression there seems to be a number of different social psychological forces at work simultaneously.

While much of the population has been sequestered in their safe places and have developed some kind of mild agoraphobia and/or depression an entirely different thing seems to be happening on the beachfront. Enormous crowds have inundated the island each weekend and even the weekdays are pretty crazy. The crowds, in true Galveston fashion, are really diverse. But there’s definitely a segment of the beachgoing population that has this sort of manic/hedonistic energy. No masks or social distancing, and traffic rules seem to be seen as weak “suggestions”.

One on the beach it seems like lots of people are on edge. What would normally be a small issue often explodes into something major. Things as simple as asking people to not swim in dangerous area like at the ends of the islands or near rock groins turn into big arguments. Same thing for the usual litany of things we enforce such as dogs on leashes, littering, campfires, alcohol in some areas, glass containers, etc. It seems a crisis brings out the worst in us at times. But it can have the opposite effect.

My staff, for the most part, has been exemplary. Not that they’re perfect and we definitely make mistakes, but they’ve suited up, showed up, and handled everything with grace. We’ve been through the beach closure, extreme budget cuts, staffing shortages, enormous and sometimes rowdy crowds, and extremes in weather. Sure, some have fallen into blaming others for their anxiety over Corona, or fear of being overwhelmed by the call volume. But generally, they’ve all made me so proud. Particularly one person.

Captain Tony Pryor has been here over two decades and oversees our operational side of things. Day after day without pause he sits in the vortex of the storm, calmly assigning placement of guards and Supervisors creatively to make up for our staffing deficit. He also makes the schedule, organizes maintenance details, and generally takes care of business. These are all in his scope of job responsibilities. But because of staffing issues, he is currently also starting every day at 6:30am, and preparing equipment to place on the beach and to drop to the towers so guards don’t meet at headquarters. He patrols until midday when the troupes come in for the busy afternoon, then picks up anything that needs to be picked up or done from the bottom to the top, including the inevitable crisis. All with grace, and all without ever losing his sense of humor. Because he’s 100% Lifeguard and because he cares.

Galveston is Booming

Summer, summer, summer… The water is now up in the 80s and crowds are above anyone’s expectations. Driving down the seawall on the afternoons makes you face the fact that Galveston is booming despite a pandemic. The beach is in full effect. The lifeguards are doing a great job and the new rookies are integrating into the Beach Patrol culture well, even to the point of becoming accustomed to the heavy workload that each guard carries.

That workload primarily consists of moving people out of areas where they could drown and is of the utmost importance. The most dangerous areas in Galveston are the rip currents along the groins, and at the ends of the island where there are intermittent powerful tidal currents. We are perhaps the lifeguard agency that focuses the most on prevention in the entire country. Part of this is because we are in the fortunate position to be able to identify areas where rip currents are likely, because along the upper Texas coast these are almost always next to some type of structure. Other beaches with a steeper grade have other types of rip currents that can pop up anywhere at a moment’s notice.

The key is to be able to identify areas that could be potentially dangerous and keep people out of them. This concept applies anywhere, not just on the beachfront. Once you get to the point to where a lifeguard or another person needs to attempt a rescue, you are already in a very tough spot. Water is not our natural habitat. So, every time someone makes a save, there is a tremendous amount of risk for both the rescuer and the victim. Without the specific training and tools that lifeguards possess, there is a very high chance that not only the victim, but the would-be rescuer will drown as well. Every year you hear about tragedies where someone went to save another person and a double or triple drowning fatality was the result.

So, what to do when you see someone actively drowning when there is no trained and equipped lifeguard around? First of all, DON’T ENTER THE WATER! Call 911 or summon trained help and then extend something or throw something that floats to them. That way, you’ll be safe, and the chance of additional victims is diminished. On the end of each of our rock jetties here in Galveston, we have a “rescue box” that contains a ring buoy attached to a rope in a “throw bag”. All you have to do is open the box and hold onto the rope while you throw the ring buoy to the person having trouble and then pull them up onto the rocks. We estimate 20 or 30 people are saved each year by bystanders without additional risk to the rescuers.

If you ever find yourself caught in a rip current, try to relax and float. No current pulls you under, just out. Call for help and either float or swim parallel to shore.

See you on the beach!

Busy Weekend

The storm swell arrived Saturday afternoon with some beautiful little ground-swell waves. A few surfers made it out to enjoy the conditions before it got dark. But by then the unusually large beach crowds we’ve been seeing merged with a very peaceful looking protest, and a large social media driven event. It was everything we could do to stay focused on what was a very busy day on the beach because of the traffic issues up on the seawall and elsewhere. Our always creative Supervisors moved their patrols down to the sand, which was slow going, but much faster than trying to make their way through the gridlocked traffic. Luckily, we didn’t have any major events aside from a couple of rescues, so slow response times weren’t an issue.

Sunday morning the bigger swell arrived, along with a high tide exacerbated by both a full moon and storm swell. The combination of 5-foot waves and a 12 second period meant that fat waves pushed the already high tide even higher. The East Beach Park and Boddecker drive were both underwater by 7am. Stewart Beach was half full as well. The Park Manager at East Beach made a good call and closed the park. Stewart Beach was able to allow people in by some creative parking strategies that kept everyone on higher ground until the park drained with the outgoing tide. Another lucky thing happened in that the tides reached our towers, and in some areas covered them, but overall we made a good call in not pulling all the towers off the beach and trying to guard the thousands of people on the beach without the advantage of an elevated platform.

By the end of the weekend we gave 423 Water Safety Talks, made 5219 preventative actions, reunited 6 lost children with parents, and made 6 water rescues. It was an extremely busy weekend. In fact it was equivalent to most Memorial Weekends, which is typically our busiest holiday of the year.

On top of everything else, we’ve seen a recent influx of Sea Nettle, or Japanese Jellyfish. This jellyfish is one of our most common. They’re usually present in lesser numbers but lately, when the wind and currents are right, there have been quite a few. Over the weekend we treated 479 jellyfish stings.

For most of the types of jellyfish we have here in Galveston the most up to date treatment is to rinse the area with copious amounts of saline solution and carefully pick off any tentacles, while protecting your hand. If you don’t have the fancy bottled version, sea water works just as well. The reason its recommended is because when a tentacle touches your skin, only about 10% of the stinging cells (nematocysts) fire. Washing them off with a solution that resembles their natural environment does not cause more of the cells to fire, so the sting isn’t exacerbated. Then just treat for pain with ice or a topical anesthetic. Or swim near a lifeguard and we’ll do it for you!

 

Photo by: Billy Hill

Memorial Day Advice

It’s hard to believe that we’re already to Memorial Weekend! Looks like sunny skies for the most part, some surf and a bit windy, but overall, really nice weather.

It’s a little bittersweet this year because this is usually the end of our “hell week” where we have a large mass casualty exercise, the “night swim” final physical challenge followed by food and a get together, and an all staff meeting. Because we’re committed to not encouraging gatherings, maintaining social distancing, etc., we’ve made the difficult call to not hold those events, cancelled our Junior Lifeguard Program for the summer, and are not hosting our annual BBQ fundraiser for the first time in over two decades. These are part of our culture and traditions, so for us it’s a big loss. But we also know its not just about modeling the behavior we hope the general public will observe when visiting both Galveston and our beaches. Its also the idea that if COVID spreads through our staff and takes a significant number of us out of commission, we won’t be able to protect people that use the beaches. So we’ve made these tough decisions with the knowledge that we need to focus on our primary purpose, and that we’ll resume these activities that are part of us and the other groups that use, protect, and enjoy the beach when the time is right.

With the bad, as always, comes the good. I mentioned all the masks people made for us last week. This week a wonderful woman named Joanne who is a “friend of the Sunflower Bakery” brought us gift cards so that each lifeguard on our staff could have a nice meal at a local business. People’s capacity for good when things get tough is just humbling.

If you’re one of the several hundred thousand we’ll see on the beach this weekend, remember to be safe while you’re out having fun. Specifically, swim near a lifeguard, stay far from the rocks, avoid swimming at the ends of the island, don’t swim alone, obey warning signs and flags, take precautions for the heat and sun, remember alcohol and water don’t mix, watch your kids closely, and for non- swimmers and children especially- wear a lifejacket when in or around the water. If you’re not sure about anything check with the lifeguard. All hands will be on deck so we’ll have really good coverage at all the parks, groins, and even on the west end including the San Luis Pass. We have a new crew of lifeguards that just completed over 100 hours of training that will be out working with the more experienced guards. And we’ll have yet another lifeguard academy start on June 15th so are on the lookout for some new guards. Spread the word!

Happy holidays from all of us here at the Beach Patrol. If the beach is part of your plans this weekend, please swim safe, swim near a lifeguard, and social distance. And have fun!