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!

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!

Galveston Island Beach Patrol History

In the 1800s, Galveston Island was one of the largest cities in Texas and one of the more important ones in the country. Much of this was due to it being a great natural port for the shallow draft boats of the time.

Before that time, the United States Life Saving Service was created in response to humanitarian efforts to save the lives of shipwrecked mariners. Today’s Beach Patrol traces its roots back to the lifesaving station at San Luis Pass which was established in 1875. Galveston has had continual lifesaving protection since that time.

Through the late 1800s, the lifesaving stations on Galveston Island continued to rescue shipwrecked mariners, but the problems of shipwrecks began to fade with the new steamboat technology. In the early twentieth century, the lifesaving stations eventually transitioned into part of the U.S. Coast Guard. Meanwhile, with the advent of the industrial revolution and a leisure class, recreational swimming began to emerge as a popular pastime, and the need to rescue distressed swimmers became apparent.

The three large storms that hit the island in the late 1800s culminated with the big one of 1900. After the 1900 Storm, Mr. George Murdoch, proprietor of the Murdoch Bathing Pavilion, announced that he was building a new pavilion on the site of the old bathhouse to accommodate the increase in tourism.

George Murdoch also provided ropes by which bathers could hold onto since most people did not know how to swim. He also kept beach patrol and lifesaving crews on duty. In 1910, bathhouse records showed more than 150,000 people came to Galveston’s beaches.

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 lifeguards, stationing them at 3 main points of the island in addition to the then-called “Negro Beach.” Galveston and its beaches were booming.

By the 1940s, the island added a “lifesaving beach patrol system,” and their first emergency response vehicle. In August 1941, the Galveston Island Beach Patrol boasted 20 guards. That number remained more or less constant until the late 80’s.

By the 1950s, lifeguards were given police authority and provided aid to the increasing number of beachgoers.

By the late 1970s, the Galveston Beach Patrol had been switched multiple times between municipal departments, with no real commitment for funding or ownership. Increased tourism meant drowning rates soared. In stepped Senator Babe Schwartz, Dr. Jim McCloy, Sheriff Joe Max Taylor, and the Moody family, all of whom contributed significantly.

In 1981 The Sheriff’s department took over management of the Beach Patrol, 1 penny was dedicated by state law from the hotel tax through the effort of Senator Schwartz, and beach-user-fee monies were funneled through the Park Board of Trustees to modernize and expand the Beach Patrol. The United States Lifesaving Association was formalized at a meeting facilitated by Jim McCloy at Texas A&M Galveston.

The USLA and a Moody grant assisted in the professionalization and modernization of the Galveston Beach Patrol.

Lifesaver

A lone figure wound his way down the shoreline through the dark night. He picked his way carefully along the uneven surface using a lantern to see. The night was cold and windy as a mix of sleet and rain caused him to readjust his woolen coat. There was no ambient light, and he passed no houses or other buildings. He had been walking for several hours when he spotted a light in the distance.

He approached a very small wooden building and opened the door. Inside, was another man with a similar appearance. Both men wore beards partially covering lean, weather-beaten faces. They sat together for a time, talking about the weather, the surf, and gossip about the people that also inhabited this remote landscape. Then they exchanged small coin tokens and walked back in the direction they’d come from.

In the mid 1800’s and these were “Lifesaver Men” or “Surfmen”, who were employees of the US Lifesaving Service. They spent most of their time in life-saving stations working under the authority of the “Station Master”. During the day they performed tasks involving maintaining the station and at least one surf boat. They also, as first responders do today, practiced their skills regularly. This involved practicing an early form of CPR and maintaining a high level of proficiency in rowing the surf boat with the rest of their squad. At night they took turns walking the beach searching for shipwrecks between their station and the next station if there was one nearby. They would exchange tokens to show the Station Master that they’d actually made the walk, and would often meet in a shack that was a halfway point to take shelter from the horrible weather that they often worked in.

When they would find a shipwreck, they had to get people off of the boat and to shore safely, usually using a rope and pully system. Another option was for the crew to don lifejackets made of cork and to row out to the ship. Almost no one at the time knew how to swim, including the rescue crews. This was very dangerous work and there are many tales of bravery against insurmountable odds.

There was a network of these stations around the country and world. The Texas coast had a number of stations as well by the late 1800s. In fact, the Galveston Island Beach Patrol traces the roots of continued lifesaving on the island back to the station at the San Luis Pass that was established in 1875.

In the 20th century the US Coast Guard took control of many of the lifesaving stations. and, with the advent of the industrial revolution, a leisure class, and resulting recreational swimming, modern beach lifeguarding techniques were developed under the guidance of the United States Lifesaving Association. This is the group that sets training standards and certification for most open water lifeguard agencies in our country, including the Galveston Island Beach Patrol and the men and women that protect todays beachgoers.

Respect The Water

The young scanned the pool frantically and couldn’t see her toddler anywhere, until she heard the other adults gasp and point up to the high dive. Her son crawled up the ladder, out on the board, and jumped off. He sank directly to the bottom of the deep end. Using superhuman mom power, she beat the guards to him and pulled him to the surface quickly as he coughed up water.

The wood of the dock was rough under the little boy’s feet as he looked down at his bony legs. He felt like he was going to throw up. Somehow, he was cold and hot at the same time. Loose clothes draped on his scrawny body. Being 9 at summer camp is scary enough without having to swim in a “clothes relay race” and be the smallest kid out there.

It was almost a relief when the larger boy splashed up to tag the dock and he finally got to jump in the cold water and start stroking towards the other dock. He had been on a swim team and was a good swimmer, so the first few strokes felt good. But then the clothing started dragging him down and he panicked. He choked on water and went from powering forward to barely maintaining his head above water. Midway between the docks, with all the big kids watching, he started going under.

Suddenly, the strong arm of a teenage councilor grabbed him across the chest firmly. As she stroked both of them to the safety of the dock, she told him he’d be ok, and it could happen to anyone. The only thing more powerful than the shame he felt crawling up on the dock was the relief and gratitude to be alive. He vowed never to let anything like this happen again, but that’s not the way it worked out.

12 years later, a surfer at Oceanside Beach, California was surfing big, meaty, storm swell. It was around 12 feet and he’d caught a number of amazing rides. Paddling back out after an especially good one, he saw the horizon disappear as a monster set approached. Everyone in the lineup scratched for the outside or powered towards shore. He joined the few headed out. He felt those butterflies from long ago as he realized he wouldn’t make it. He tossed his board and dove deep, grabbing the bottom. He made it through and resurfaced with relief, feeling his lungs would burst. But all he saw was the shadow of the next mountain, which looked even bigger. 6 or 7 waves later he somehow crawled back to the surface a final time. He floated on his back for a long time before being able to swim back and crawl up on the beach, vomiting seawater.

I still remember those events like yesterday. The words of my friend and mentor, Ducky Prendergast shortly before he moved on resound in my head.

“Son, you got to respect the water”.

Drownings

We’ve had three drowning fatalities in the past two weeks. For us, it’s hard not to think, or in this case write, about anything else.

The first one was eerily familiar. Many of you recall that last year, just a few days after our seasonal lifeguards ended their 7-month term of employment, two kids died off the end of the 17th street groin in a rip current. This year a man drowned in almost the same spot just a few days after the guards ended the season. Just off the head of the groin on the west side.

The second had similar conditions, but it happened at 53rd. This man was swimming with his two children, and they were able to get to shore. The man drifted near the rocks and was caught in the rip current. A bystander tried to save him and was nearly overcome. Fortunately, the bystander was able to make it to shore.

The third one was a very different scenario. A man walked out on the South Jetty to fish. He was wearing waders. We’ve been in a weather pattern with a consistent southeast wind. When we get this wind direction the wind travels a long distance over the water and there is a tendency for the water to pile up, especially on the east end of the island. It looks like this man walked out on dry rocks and was out there for some time. As the tide came up, it surged higher than normal because of the wind direction. The rocks were almost submerged as he tried to make it back to shore. There are a couple of cuts in the rocks and he was attempting to cross one of them when he went in the water on the east side. His waders filled and he went under as a result.

These are just heart wrenching accounts. They’re especially tragic because, as are the vast majority drowning fatalities, they were preventable. Drowning prevention is all about layers of protection. If the first two men hadn’t gotten near the rocks because they either knew swimming near structures is dangerous or because they’d noticed the signs, its likely they would have been fine. Or if we had a lifeguard in those towers, the lifeguard would have whistled them away from the rocks like we do for several hundred thousand people a year. Or if someone in their group knew to remind them to say in a safer area. If the third man had not worn waders or knew the area would fill up. If any of them would have worn lifejackets. The list of potential layers goes on and on.

My staff is working hard to be that final layer of protection. They’re even currently having a competition of who can log the most patrol miles in a shift. They’re preventing hundreds of accidents a day, but there’s nothing that compares with a stationed lifeguard at each potentially dangerous spot to make that simple, but critical, preventative action.