Disco Dog Party

The boat had 4 older men in it. They’d been shark fishing for several hours about a mile and a half off shore near the South Jetty. During that time they’d watched a beautiful sunset, had a few beers, and caught several large sharks. It had gotten dark, although the moon was rising and shining through the light cloud cover. They were talking and enjoying being so far away from the pressures of their daily lives and all the hustle and bustle of the city. There was a gentle lapping of the calm, summer water on the hull of the boat and occasionally they could hear the cry of seagulls.

Suddenly a loud voice broke the silence. “YO! ANY OF YOU DUDES SEEN A DISCO PARTY OUT HERE?!!!” They were startled and shined a light in the general direction of the voice. Shiny gold chains and a medallion shone off a bare chest and a gold lame’ shirt. They sat in shocked silence while the young man paddled past them and out towards the end of the jetty.

Back in younger (and wilder) days on the Beach Patrol we had an annual tradition. Right after the hectic 4th of July weekend we would celebrate by holding an elaborate party called the “Disco Dog Party”.

The rules were that you had to get to the lighthouse on the end of the two mile long South Jetty without using any type of motorized craft and had to wear 70’s clothes. We would use a two person surf boat to haul the heavy equipment like a grill, tape player (this was before CDs), charcoal, food, etc on the 4 mile round trip journey. All the participants would have to paddle out and back on boards, surf-skis, and kayaks. Occasionally, someone would bring a small sailboat.

This particular night we had just finished the hot dogs and were eating them as night came on. The music was cranking and someone turned on a battery powered disco ball they’d brought out there somehow. The lights were shining off of the posts of the lighthouse and some of the guards were starting to dance as Troy Stevens paddled up shouting, “Hey I made it. I think I freaked some shark fishermen out about a half mile back!”

Turns out he did more than “freak them out”. One of the men in the boat was a Texas State Senator, who made calls to the Coast Guard and the county Sheriff. Needless to say, that was the last of the Disco Dog Parties, ending a 9 year long streak of this tradition.

Back in the days of the US Lifesaving Service Saturdays were reserved for parties. My Grandma told me stories about how she and her friends would row boats out to the partially sunken cement ship over by Pelican Island back in the ’20’s. I guess this was the latest iteration of young water people celebrating, but at least they didn’t have a Disco King paddling around in the middle of the ocean!

NOAA Conference

Rip currents, which typically pull people perpendicular from shore, are the cause of 80% of drowning death in beaches both in and outside of the USA. In Galveston, we are lucky because rip currents mostly occur right next to the rock groins. That’s why we have signs and ropes near the rocks and why we place the lifeguard towers near that area. Each year we move around 60,000 people from dangerous areas, the majority of which are near those rocks.

Since the water carries you out but nothing pulls you under, there are some clear ways to get yourself out of a rip current. If you relax and float the current will usually pull you out to the end of the groin then back around to the shore. If possible you can call or wave for help. If you are a good swimmer you can try swimming parallel to the shore and if you are able to clear the area with the rip current it is easy to get back to shore. If you see someone in a rip current you should never go after them unless you have proper equipment and training. Instead try throwing something that floats connected to a rope, like the ring-buoys and throw bags we have in the rescue stations on the end of each groin. Or if they’re close you can extend an object (towel, stick, fishing pole) to them and pull them up.

For about a decade I’ve been involved, as a representative from the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA), with a group that developed a body of information to educate the public about the dangers of rip currents. This group includes the USLA and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, specifically the National Weather Service (NWS) and Sea Grant. Over the past couple of years another group has been meeting to design a pilot project where lifeguard agencies are partnered with their local NWS office and give feedback on how accurate the new science of rip current predictions on specific beaches. This partnership between the NWS and USLA agencies has grown to about 25 groups and, after an evaluation period will likely expand throughout our nation’s beaches

Last week the NWS had a conference in Virginia. NOAA brought another USLA representative and I up to a “Coastal Resiliency Workshop” where over 100 researchers and weather forecasters spent three days together listening to presentations and dialoguing in workshops about the best ways to protect our nations beach going population from rip currents in a consistent and proactive manner. Both of the USLA presentations were really well received and it was encouraging to see this marriage between theoretical science and practical applications take shape. As lifeguards our primary mission in protecting people from the dangers of rip currents and other beach and ocean hazards. Being able to provide on the ground data that will eventually lead to accurate rip current predictive models is a real privilege, as it will ultimately lead to lives saved.

 

Image by: Invertzoo

A Day With Babe

I was very, very fortunate last week to get to spend time with a personal hero. A man Molly Ivins once called a “White-Maned Pixie” who needs no introduction. A. R. “Babe” Schwartz joined a group of Park Board staff members and Texas General Land office representatives to take a tour of Galveston’s beaches.

As we bumped across the beach, former Senator Schwartz regaled us all with one hilarious story after another while somehow tracking every conversation on the bus and chiming in anytime he felt a discussion needed a prod in the right direction. By “prod in the right direction” I mean anytime anyone needed to be reminded that Texas beaches are for all Texans to enjoy and legislation was put in place to ensure that. Babe Schwartz ought to know. A few of his many, many accomplishments that affect us here locally include the Texas Open Beaches Act, setting up the Park Board of Trustees as a vehicle to make sure tourist generated resources remain on the beach and are used to attract tourists, and ensuring Beach Patrol and Beach Maintenance are provided what they need to keep the beaches clean and safe for tourists and locals.

Now in the latter half of his eighties, he’s slowing down a bit. But his mind is sharp as a tack, his sense of humor better than ever, and he has every bit of the same grit and charisma that characterize his long and unbelievably productive career.

When we were alone he told me about what it was like to work Stewart Beach as a lifeguard in the ’40’s, and about surfing during those days when the sport was young to the western world. Even after all this time, his love and enthusiasm for the beach and the ocean shone through as he talked. A true waterman never loses that and it was evident in the timber of his voice and the way his eyes shone when he reminisced about that time. Funny how the beach never really lets you go once it gets its hooks in you.

When he was turning 70 he decided to have a beach party. He was going to paddle out in front of his friends and family and catch a wave or two just for kicks. Unfortunately on that day the water was like a “mirror stretching all the way to Mexico”. He missed 80 for some reason and said he’s looking at repeating the plan when he turns 90 in a few years.

Later that day I was standing at the shoreline at Stewart Beach looking at the guards and the people playing in the water on a beautiful Spring Day. I took a moment just to enjoy the feel of it. I realized that Babe Schwartz likely did the same thing in the same place 70 years before. If we respect the measures he put in place a lifeguard will do the same thing on a beautiful, maintained, and well protected beach 70 years from now.

 

Photo by: Daniel Schwen

Man-O-War

Earlier this week in the morning I was out early training in the beach. We were swimming and, although still a little cool, the water was tolerable without a wetsuit. Suddenly I felt a familiar pain on the side of my stomach as a tentacle grazed me. After the swim lap we ran back to the starting point to jump on rescue boards and, as we ran, we noticed several small Man-O-War interspaced along the beachfront.

Man-O-War can come in at any time but they typically seem to be more prevalent in the late summer as currents bring them here from the Caribbean. They are not jellyfish, but are actually a colony of small animals that work together as one organism. They’re one of the more beautiful animals around with a blue, purple or pink balloon top with a sail. They have long tentacles that hang in the water and trail behind the balloon. Larger ones can have a 2foot top with 12 foot tentacles.

The treatment for both man-o-war and jellyfish that the World Health Organization and the International Lifesaving Federation recommend is vinegar. If there are tentacles still on the skin, you should first douse the area with the vinegar, then remove them using a glove or cloth so as not to get stung yourself. Then pour the vinegar on the area again to make sure all the little stinging cells (nematocysts) are neutralized. This will keep the sting from getting worse. Finally, if the person is in pain, use a topical anesthetic. Ice works really well for this. A sting from a man-o-war can be extremely painful, especially if the sting is in a tender area. Fortunately the sting is just on the skin so a true allergic reaction is very rare. That’s not to say people that get stung won’t get abdominal cramps or feel panicky. This is a pretty normal reaction to any pain when the person doesn’t know how bad it’s going to get and if it’s dangerous.

Another thing to remember about the man-o-war is that they, and their cousins the jelly fish, can still sting you after they’ve been washed up on the beach for some time. Kids love to pick up the “balloons” on the beach and some like to pop the man-o-war with sticks. It’s not pretty when the juice spurts up and gets in an eye.

The nice thing about the man-o-war is that when they are around they’re pretty easy to spot. They float on top of the water and if they’re on the beach, they’re in the water. Of course we’ll let everyone know if there are lots on a given day by flying a purple flag on our condition signs and by posting it on our website along with a flag that represents the water conditions. In fact, if you’re interested in getting daily updates by e-mail or text as to the beach conditions you can sign up for them on our website.

Hypothermia Story: Part 2

In last week’s column I talked about a young girl who suffered the effects of hypothermia as a result of swimming in the cold beach water. While most of us know the basics of what hypothermia is there is specific information that could be helpful, especially when swimming during the colder months.

The Mayo Clinic describes Hypothermia as “a medical emergency that occurs when your body loses heat faster than it can produce heat, causing a dangerously low body temperature”. This “dangerously low” body temperature starts at 95 degrees and is more severe the lower it gets.

Your system doesn’t work well when the body is at lowered temperatures. If untreated, hypothermia can lead to heart and respiratory system failure. Eventually it can cause death. Sounds scary right? Does this mean that every time your kid starts to shiver he/she is going to have serious problems? Of course not. This may be just an early warning sign for mild hypothermia. Read on..

The first thing your body does when its temperature drops is to shiver. What it’s trying to do is generate heat by causing movement. When swimming, this is the sign that it’s time to warm up. It may be a matter of just sitting in the sand for awhile then jumping back in the water on a warm day. Or when conditions are more serious this is the signal that you need to get out of the water and warm up, now!

Hypothermia is divided into three categories- mild, moderate, and severe.

The symptoms for mild hypothermia include shivering, hunger, nausea, fast breathing, difficulty speaking, slight confusion, lack of coordination, fatigue, and increased heart rate. As your temperature continues to drop and moderate to severe hypothermia kick in. Shivering eventually stops and you’ll start to show clumsiness, slurred speech, confusion (even to the point of trying to remove warm clothing) and eventually loss of consciousness, weak pulse, and slow, shallow breathing. Babies may have bright red, cold skin, low energy and a weak cry.

Warming a person with a more advanced case of hypothermia can be tricky, since you don’t want the cold blood in the extremities to rush to the center of the body. In these cases you want to call 911 for professional help and to move the person as gently as possible in doors. Remove wet clothing and cover them in lots of blankets. Then wait for help to arrive.

Differentiating between mild and more severe cases can at times be difficult so, as always, when in doubt call 911. But for those cases that we all experience where we’re just shivering a little and our body temperature is near normal warm sun and maybe a hot chocolate is just the thing. Then get back out there and keep having fun!

The good news is that the water has risen almost 15 degrees and is now getting in the zone of comfortable swimming. Just remember that even in warm water swimming for long periods of time can still drop your body temperature.

Hypothermia Story

Many of you probably remember the story from a couple of weeks ago about the little girl who suffered mild hypothermia after swimming in the beach water on a day when the water was 58 degrees over Spring Break. I was fortunate to have a long conversation the other day with her mother and found out there was much more to the story than we originally thought.

The details will be of interest to all parents who take their children swimming in the cooler months. From what I gather the mother and father of the little girl didn’t do anything different than any reasonable and careful parent would do- and they still had a pretty close call.

The family stayed at a hotel on the seawall. The dad took their 12 year old girl across the street to the beach. I can’t remember exactly what she said, but sounds like there may have been another kid or kids involved. It was a beautiful, sunny, warm day and they set up on the beach while the girl went swimming. She was in the water for about half an hour and then came out chilled. She’s a thin and very athletic girl without a lot of body mass. Dad brought her back to the hotel and the kids were playing in the heated pool and then went to the hot tub to re-warm since the girl was still cold.

The parents became concerned when the girl couldn’t warm back up. Her hands stayed white and she was blue around the mouth. At one point the girl lost vision. Rescuers were called and stayed with her until she warmed back up and was feeling back to normal.

Upon hearing the mom’s account directly I was struck by how this story had an almost serious outcome even though the parents did nothing irresponsible. It’s rare that we have a sunny day in the 70’s while the water is so cold. Normally people that swim in cold water warm back up easily. The combination of the girl’s body composition and water temperature were no doubt contributing factors. My guess is that she was having so much fun and the air temperature was so warm that she didn’t pay attention to warning signs as they developed. It’s also probably rare that she swims in water that cold, so neither she nor her parents realized her limits. People vary greatly in how resistant to hypothermia they are. There are many contributing factors so the same person swimming in the same temperature on two different days may react differently.

The problem and danger here is that the way you treat mild hypothermia versus more severe cases varies considerably. Normal things we all do to warm back up when we experience normal mild hypothermia can actually be dangerous for more severe cases.

Fortunately, this case ended up fine and was merely a learning experience and a chance to warn other parents how to avoid a similar incident. Stay tuned for a follow up with more specific information…

Spring Break Update

Spring Break has been interesting this year. So far we’ve had quite a few people down on the island but the weather has alternately been very near perfect or awful. But every time the sun comes out the beaches suddenly fill up so there definitely are people here on the island.

Last weekend the water was in the high 50’s which kept lots of potential swimmers on the beach laying in the sun or making sand castles. But, contrary to predictions, the weather was beautiful with sunny days in the 70’s. Definitely Spring Break weather! We had very few incidents despite the crowd. Since that time, the water has warmed up quite a bit. We did beach water swims both Sunday and Tuesday morning and the water went from 58 to 64 in just 3 days.

Looking back over the last few months we’ve gotten quite a lot accomplished due to the hard work of our full time employees. Supervisor/Officer Kris Pompa singlehandedly has given water safety talks to over 9,200 kids in the area. Supervisor Mary Stewart made 18 recruiting trips to high schools, colleges, and community events. Supervisor/Officer Josh Hale has done a number of enhancements on our website including putting a recruiting video on the home page and a water safety information video under the “Beach Safety” tab. Supervisor/Officer Joe Cerdas has repaired all of our rescue boards and led the charge in refurbishing our lifeguard towers. And our newest full time employee, Supervisor Lauren Holloway, is nearing completion on the first phase of our virtual lifeguard museum project for the website.

We’ve also got some exciting enhancements on the beach for this season. Last year in the Fall we placed rip current warning signs and doggie bags at the base of every place you can access the sand along the seawall. The Park Board Tourism and Development Department designed accompanying signs that we’ve placed right beneath the rip current signs. These signs are attractive, bilingual signs that inform the public about the most important rules. There are icons to let you know to keep pets on a leash and to clean up after them, to not use glass containers or drink alcohol, and that prohibit camping and open fires. This is a game changer in letting the public know what the expectations are. Most people want to do the right thing and will comply if they understand what’s expected. Additionally, when we don’t let the public know the rules it’s awfully hard to enforce them.

Starting Memorial Weekend we will be patrolling the west end every day of the week instead of just weekends. We’ll also continue the special weekend San Luis Pass Detail that keeps people out of those dangerous waters and gets them home safely.

Finally, we will be starting a new program where at 10am on the Saturday of each holiday weekend we will give free public beach safety seminars at strategic locations along the beach front. More to come on that…

Aloha Pat

We’re all really mad at that groundhog that it doesn’t feel like spring, but this weekend is the start of the biggest spring break weekend. The Beach Patrol’s pace accelerates rapidly because the first wave of our seasonal lifeguards come back and do their annual requalification swim and other requirements and head out to the lifeguard towers.

Tomorrow morning is also a tryout day followed by the start of a 9 day lifeguard academy immediately afterward. If you know someone that’s interested it’s not too late for them to meet us at 7am at the UTMB Field House. Information is available on our website.

Our fulltime staff has done a fantastic job of getting everything ready for the beach season. The Park Board Beach Maintenance Department put the towers out on the beach for us and our crew has taken care of the last details of proper signage, flag poles, etc so they’d be ready for the guards. They’ve also gone out and done another round of maintenance on the 300 signs that we maintain along all 33 miles of beachfront- no easy task in the weather we’ve been having. There’s a great deal of prep work that goes into preparing everything for the lifeguard academy, which is a pretty involved deal involving Red Cross and United States Lifesaving Association certifications, along with all the scheduling of facilities and instructors and revising course materials. But it’s all done (and much more) and we’re ready.

We’re starting the season off on a sad note this year. Pat McCloy, a long time Beach Patrol supporter, died early this week. She and her late husband Dr. Jim McCloy of Texas A&M Galveston were always there for us and for many other groups on the island. We’re helping her close friend and former Director of Beach Patrol, Vic Maceo, to organize a paddle out ceremony at around 2pm today at Stewart Beach, which is open to anyone who is interested. Several years ago we participated in a similar one at the same spot for Jim. Friends of Pat and Jim, lifeguards, beach people and others will follow the Polynesian tradition and paddle boards to a point offshore and make a circle. We will then put her ashes in the water along with flowers. There will be prayers, stories, or silence as we say goodbye/aloha to Pat and watch her ashes dissolve in the same waters that hold her lifelong partner’s. They were real ocean lovers and inseparable in life. It seems fitting that they will finally rejoin in the water. Thank you from all of us Pat and travel well in the next phase of your journey.

As lifeguards and rescuers we know we can’t dwell long on the past or even the future. We need to be present and focused when the tourists arrive and need us to help them get home safely. Pat of all people would understand this and cheer us onward into a new beach season.

Winter Dangers

For those who have not heard, there was a terrible accident last weekend involving a couple of kayakers in West Bay. The Galveston Daily News did a comprehensive story on it, but in a nutshell two kayakers were capsized by strong currents and one managed to make it to a channel marker post where he hung on until a boat arrived. At the time of writing this, one of the men is still missing. This incident is only part of a larger safety picture, and hopefully can be used to prevent similar incidents.

With recent water temps in the low 50’s and even high 40’s, getting out on the water requires more foresight and preparation than during warmer months. A quick dip in the water when you’re a couple miles from shore can become a serious thing without proper gear. Kayakers, surfers, kite-boarders, stand-up paddlers, etc. should not only wear a wetsuit, but should have the appropriate wetsuit for the activity and conditions. When at all appropriate it’s a really good idea to not just bring a lifejacket, but to wear it. That way when the unexpected happens you’re able to float and wait for help long after the cold water prevents swimming.

Each spring when the air starts to warm but the water is still cold the conditions are ripe for sea fog. This fog can appear all at once or as a white bank that rolls in. Our Houston/Galveston National Weather Service office, one of the best in the country, is very tuned in to the aquatic environment and puts out all kinds of relevant marine warnings. Last weekend there was a fog advisory, but localized fog can happen without warning. Rescue workers from all agencies associated with the “Galveston Marine Response” coalition were kept busy when several kayakers and boaters got lost in fog in West Bay and the San Luis Pass area over the weekend. Some were really close to shore. In fact, at the San Luis Pass, a fast acting Galveston Fire Department crew was smart enough to go to the area that a kayaker entered the water and blast their siren continuously until the kayaker paddled back in following the sound.

Aside from proper attire and a Coast Guard approved lifejacket there are a few other things you should do before getting on the water. First, be sure someone has very specific and accurate information about where you’re going and what times you’ll be out. Having participated in hundreds of searches for people, I can tell you the better starting point a rescuer has, the more likely he/she is to locate the missing person. Make sure your cell phone is charged and in a waterproof case. If you have a smart phone, there are apps that can help you find your way around, but don’t rely on electronics! A small watch compass has gotten me out of a jam more than once.

Most importantly, take a moment to think of all the things that could go wrong before getting on the water, then plan accordingly.

 

 

Pool Update

Our first lifeguard tryouts of the year are just around the corner on March 14th. If you know anyone who’s interested, information is available on our website at www.galvestonislandbeachpatrol.org . We have a new short recruiting and information video on our homepage as well, so check it out to see all our local lifeguard stars.

Our full time crew has been racking up the road miles lately recruiting lifeguards at area high schools and colleges. It’s always a challenge to get enough qualified lifeguard candidates each year that can pass our swim requirement, which is much harder than what a pool or waterpark needs. We always get a good number from the various area high school swim teams, but without a community pool there is a pretty small group of local swimmers to pick from. That’s one of the many reasons we are excited about the prospect of actually having a public swimming pool here on the island! For those of you that have not heard the latest on this project, they’ve made significant progress.

The swimming pool committee asked for and received an extension from the Moody Foundation regarding their challenge grant, we have until Dec 2015 to generate the balance of the project to get the match. Thus far, a little over $2.12 million has been raised, leaving about $1.6 M to go.  153 individuals have contributed over $62,000.  There are about a $1 million in grants to assorted foundations, people, and state sources pending.

It will only take $50 per person on the island and we will be breaking ground!

There is a big community wide treasure sale coming up March 13-15 at McGuire Dent’s gym.  They need donations of stuff, volunteers to work the sale, and of course we all need to go out and support.

The plan now includes a wall of fame where donations greater than $100 will be recognized in a mural at the entrance to the pool.

The hope is to eventually offer swim lessons for every 2nd or 3rd grader in Galveston and to train a local workforce for all the lifeguard related jobs on the island.  Our residents can’t compete for those good paying summer jobs if they never have the opportunity to learn to swim.

It’s still planned for Lasker Park, 43rd and Q. There will be two pools, one recreational with slides and play features, and one competition ready with 8 lanes x 25 yds. The tennis courts will remain and off street parking will be added. The practice football fields will be rotated and a marked walking trail around the block will be measured off.  The city was kind enough to re-engineer 43rd street so as it is repaired this spring all necessary drainage, water lines and utilities will be upgraded to be ready for the pool.

Donations can be made out to the Galveston Community Swimming Pool and mailed to: 2222 28th street, Galveston, TX 77551. All credit cards accepted at 409-621-3177.