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.

Seasonal Guards

The first weekend after the clock ran out on our Seasonal Lifeguard coverage was something else. As we say people were “all down up in that beach”. They were in the water, on the sand, driving around in golf carts, trying to swim in the no swimming areas by the rocks and at the ends of the island, and anywhere else you can think of.
It was a challenge keeping everyone safe while working from the 5 scheduled lifeguard trucks. Not having guards stationed at fixed locations watching to make sure people stayed away from the dangerous areas forced to trucks to stay constantly moving. I was proud of how hard our staff worked. But even with that we still had some near misses. By the end of the weekend we’d made 8 rescues and moved over 1,400 people out of areas near the rip currents by the rock groins.
The thing that saved us (and a lot of people) was that the water was calm. Generally, we have fewer problems when the water is calm or very rough. The toughest time to guard is when the water looks pretty safe but isn’t. A prime example would be a day with small surf but with longshore current that pulls people parallel to the beach.
Longshore, or literal, current is dangerous for two reasons. The first one is that if it runs for awhile it digs deeper troughs between the sandbars, which means steeper drop-offs closer to shore. This can be especially hazardous to children; whose parents think because they’re close to shore they’re safe. It also can mean more lost kids who drift down and come out down the beach with no familiar reference points.
The second danger of a longshore current is that, when it comes into contact with a structure like a pier or groin, strong rip currents can be generated. This means that on both sides of a structure people who are in the water near it will be pulled offshore into deeper water. If they try to swim against it, people can tire, choke on water, panic, and go under. 80% of the rescues beach Lifeguards make both locally and nationally are a direct result of rip currents.
We’ve probably got another month before the water temperature drops to the point that it keeps the recreational swimmers out. And lately it seems that the season stretches farther and farther into the winter months and more and more people are using the beaches. So we’ve definitely got some work ahead of us before we can divert attention to our winter tasks of refurbishing all the towers, repairing equipment, training our full time staff for the next season, and lots of other things we’ve put off until the beach is not so pressing.
All that said, please find some time to come to the beach during a time of year that the water and air temperatures are absolutely perfect, without the pressure of summer crowds. Just remember to be safe!

Support

I’ve been working on a really interesting side project for awhile now. For 20 years, on behalf of the United States Lifesaving Association, I’ve been part of a national task force between the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA), and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). On the NOAA end, its specifically the National Weather Service and Sea Grant. This Rip Current Awareness project includes signage, brochures, teaching aids, videos, etc. Recently, we’ve started a new and really cool addition to the project.
Part of the difficulty in creating a national body of information is consistency of messaging. We may talk about rip currents in a certain way in Texas, but in New Jersey, Florida, or California, they may use different terminology to address similar concepts. Plus, we all think we’re right! So, a lot of the challenge has been to promote uniformity of messaging. To complicate matters more, even if the major organizations are on board with the message, there are often smaller non-profits that pop up after a drowning event that are well meaning and motivated, but aren’t familiar with the standardized terms and push out a similar concept using different terminology or materials. This can be confusing to the public.
So, the new project is to provide a resource specifically for people or groups that want to help spread the word on how to protect yourself from the dangers of rip currents. That’s pretty simple and involves tweaking existing material for that specific purpose. But in the conversation, I mentioned the Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network (SSN) and how much of a difference they’ve made to us all locally. The NOAA crew was really interested in helping various National Weather Service offices and Lifeguard agencies facilitate the creation of SSN groups around the country as part of the tool kit we’re working on.
The mission of The Jesse Tree’s Survivor Support Network to help the families and friends of drowning victims by delivering support through emotional, spiritual, and physical resources. The intent is to assist the Lifeguard Agencies and other Emergency Responders with this support during the recovery process to allow them to focus on their mission to recover the victim, and to follow-up with support and assistance to both the family and the emergency response personnel to encourage closure, healing and preparation for future incidents.
Each incident that calls The SSN to action provides an opportunity to learn how to better assist the family in crisis. Translation, ministry, grief counseling, accommodations, meals, and negotiations with the County Coroner, foreign consulates, and funeral directors have all become standard procedures for the SSN. Community patrons have generously contributed motel rooms, meals, and “Compassion Kits” (coolers of juice, ice, snacks, towels, sun block, and umbrellas) as resources to assist the families.
Our hope is that this incredible program will make as much a difference to others as it has here in Galveston.

For information about becoming involved in the Survivor Support Network, visit the Jesse Tree website at https://jessetree.net.

Drowning

This is the last weekend we’ll be working lifeguards in towers for the season, after which time we’ll pull the towers off the beach for refurbishment. We are held to a 7-month timeframe for the seasonal lifeguard and park staff and, since the season starts in March with Spring Break, we’re at the end of that time. We still have a long way to go as far as Lifeguarding goes in 2020, though. We’ll be running a number of rescue trucks on patrol daily throughout the month of October and November. After that we’ll divert our crews to maintenance aside from one vehicle a day that will patrol throughout the coldest months. Of course, we’re still ready all year for emergencies 24/7/365.
Even though we’re still seeing large beach crowds and are very busy, the season is winding down. The cold snap this week was a portent to things to come. Even though, as Lifeguards, we know that anything can happen at any time, we were starting to relax a little bit at the end of a long, tough season. And that’s when an especially heartbreaking tragedy occurred.
It was a beautiful day with moderate surf, when a man in his late 60’s and his son went swimming right around the eastern border of Jamaica Beach. The son was able to make it to shore, but watched his father, reportedly a fairly good swimmer, being carried farther out. No one actually saw him go under, but after an extensive search by multiple agencies, a Coast Guard Helicopter spotted his body on the shoreline in the middle of the State Park a couple of hours after the event. All the response groups and the Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network performed admirably. They were prompt, efficient, and compassionate. But we were all left with a feeling of “How could this happen?”.
We may never know for sure, but there were some unusual circumstances. When the search teams were out there looking, they detected a rip current pulling from the shoreline, through a break in the sandbar, and a bit farther offshore. To be fair, there are always “microrips” up and down the beachfront, most of which are almost undetectable to all but the seasoned observer. But to have anything stronger and longer that’s not near a structure on a day with only moderate surf is unusual on the upper Texas coast. It was likely the result of some of the changes to the bottom left over from the two storms that came through here. It always takes a little time after a big ocean event until the bottom and currents return to normal.
As we move towards the end of the beach season, remember there is a reduced Lifeguard presence. Be extra careful not to exceed your limits and stay away from areas known to have strong currents like structures or the ends of the island. That said, we are entering the nicest time of the year for the beach, so enjoy responsibly.

Teenager Days

When I was 11 or so, I started at a new school and met Kevin, Jack, and Steve, who had foam boards, bikes, and were already surfing. The four of us lived in the same area and started riding to the beach whenever there were waves. We got wetsuits with beaver tails and were hooked. We’d ride the “mountain trail” at Fort Crocket (now the San Luis Hotel) in the coldest conditions, lock our bikes up at 53rd, surf till we couldn’t feel our feet, and barely make it back to our houses and hot showers.
We widened our net of surfers, and friends, but somewhere in there it became more about the ocean and the sport of surfing than about hanging out with friends. I found surfing alone had its own rewards you couldn’t find in groups. Teen problems, a messy parental divorce, family money issues, and everything else melted away when you were surfing glassy waves alone at sunset. More and more I found myself in the water with or without friends before school, at lunch, or between school and work. When I was finally old enough, I joined the Beach Patrol and started training in Lifesaving Sport in addition to surfing.
Many years later, after living in different places and doing a bunch of globetrotting, I started working as a full-time professional lifeguard/EMT/Peace Officer and administrator. The beach became something else. More complicated. The weight we all bear of all those millions of visitors can be heavy. Drownings are horrible, disruptive, and life altering to everyone connected to them. They happen to people who had a lot of living left to do. We lose really good guards sometimes afterwards and, worse than that, they can negatively impact good people’s psychological balance. But there are also other challenges like staff shortages or conflicts, anxiety that lack of understanding by decision makers of what we need can impair our ability to protect people, fear of our own people’s physical safety, etc.
And lately, all of us are facing additional serious stressors related to natural disasters, disease, racial/cultural/economic injustices, and absurd politics. And lets not leave out just moving around our life and dealing with people who are way more stressed and ready to pop than normal.
The struggle is to remain centered. To focus on the simple things that keep us operating closer to our best version of ourselves. Sleep, good diet, and a little exercise each day are the thing. Simple but hard to do when life is crazy.
And of course, pick that thing that brings you back to you, and don’t get too busy for that.
Even after surfing for 45 years and guarding for 37, every morning when I swim or paddle out into the Gulf, I feel that same magic I did when my friends and I waded out into the water with those beat up boards all those decades ago. And I come back to shore closer to that person I strive to be.

Labor Day Weekend

Early afternoon last Sunday we got a 911 call of a boat running loose in English Bayou. Sergeant Austin Kirwin and Senior Lifeguard Daniel Gutierrez responded.
On 61st they could see an unoccupied boat dragging a ski rope that was causing it to run in circles, as it gradually made its way east towards the houses, boat docks, and people swimming. There were about 4 other boats sitting and watching from a respectful distance.
They launched on the west side and ran under the bridge. Gutierrez drove while Kirwin rode on the back. They knew they had to act quickly. They tried twice approaching with Kirwin standing on one side of the ski but had to back off. Finally, on the third attempt, Gutierrez matched the angles perfectly. Kirwin leapt from the ski over the side of the boat and landed at the console. He quickly grabbed the throttle and powered down the boat.
A boat approached carrying the owner. He said that the driver hadn’t been wearing the key attachment and it sounded like at least one person had been catapulted out of the boat. Fortunately, there were no injuries.
This was one of many incidents we worked over the Labor Day Weekend. Fortunately, we were prepared for the amount of people that descended on the island. We even were somehow able to get all the signage knocked down by the recent hurricane back up by the end of the day Friday. Our staff all showed up, even those that already were off at school. I don’t know what we would have done without them.
The parks were full, the seawall had no parking and bumper to bumper traffic, and the west end was totally clogged up. For much of Sunday our patrol vehicle couldn’t get through the beach access points to the beach and couldn’t make it through much of the 3005 highway because the road was almost impassable.
By the time the weekend ended we’d moved well over ten thousand people from dangerous areas, made 12 rescues, reunited 15 lost children with their parents, and responded to multiple “missing swimmer” calls during both days and nights, two of which ended up being fatalities.
I’m continually humbled by the willingness of so many people and groups to come together in a crisis to protect and save others. Watching the police, fire, and EMS run call after call all weekend was inspiring. Working with volunteers from the County Citizens Emergency Response Team (CERT) and the Beach Patrol Wave Watcher group to protect swimmers, all of whom are away from their homes and families to help out, blows me away. Watching my staff, Coastal Zone Management, GPD managed Park Security Detail, our Accounting and Admin departments, and the Park Staff go to such lengths to make sure we’re all ready for and work hard during the weekend is amazing. And the Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network, who responded so compassionately to support the families of the drowning victims and my staff leaves me in complete awe.

Labor Day Weekend Tips

Coming off a storm is interesting to say the least. We lost many, many signs along the beachfront and have been working to get them all back up as fast as we can. Our accounting department, staff, and local vendors have been incredibly helpful. And our guards who volunteer for the hard work of jetting huge posts into the sand below a couple feet of water deserve more credit than we could possibly give them. There are not a lot of good things about a storm, but seeing how people pull together in a crisis always restores my faith in humanity.

The storm left its mark here in other ways besides tearing out our signs and rescue boxes. It took out sand dunes along the west end and tore up dune walkovers. It swept all the loose sand that’s been plaguing us away and removed every piece of trash and debris from the beach. And it rearranged the sand itself both above and below the water.

Storms have a tendency to flatten out the sand bar and trough system. Until it shifts back into its normal state, we will have weird surf and deep troughs and holes near shore. There are some channels left from strong rip currents that are causing problems as well. With the big Labor Day weekend upon us, be extra careful and follow all the safety recommendations.

When you go out this weekend to enjoy any type of water, remember to take a moment to be aware of your surroundings and potential risks. You also want to remember the basics, such as not swimming alone, staying hydrated, protecting yourself from the sun, observing signs and flags, feet first first time, alcohol and water don’t mix, and non-swimmers and children should wear lifejackets. At the beach, you should also avoid swimming in areas where rip currents are likely, like near piers and jetties, whether or not our bilingual signage is back in place. You also want to avoid the water in the Ship Channel and San Luis Pass, where very strong tidal currents have taken numerous lives.

Choose to swim in areas protected by lifeguards. In beaches guarded by United States Lifesaving Association lifeguards, like Galveston, your chances of drowning are 1 in 18 million. In fact, we are certified as an “Advanced Level” lifeguard agency, which means we have a much higher level of service than most beach patrols around the country.

But above all, YOU are responsible for the safety of both yourself and your family. Lifeguards provide an extra layer of protection in case your safety net lapses temporarily. We will be out in force, along with our partners in public safety. Additionally, the County’s Citizens Emergency Response Team (CERT) will be at the Pass, Beach Patrol Wave Watchers up and down the beach, and the Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network will be on standby.

Enjoy the Labor Day weekend. Grab your mask and meet us on the beach!