Cinco De Mayo

In case you haven’t noticed this beach season started with a bang and has been rolling in like a freight train. Last weekend was packed, and this weekend we’re looking at Cinco De Mayo, which has become a big beach holiday. The following weekend will be another big one with Gay Splash Day on Sunday which can be a big event. That is also the weekend we start our May Lifeguard Academy, so if you know anyone that would like to be a beach guard this summer tell them tryouts are Saturday morning at 7 and info is on our website. We’d like to have 50 new guards so are hoping for a big turnout.

Cinco de Mayo is the celebration of the Mexican victory over French forces at the Battle of Puebla, on May 5, 1862. It’s a bigger holiday here in the US than in Mexico though and has come to be associated with the celebration of the Mexican-American culture. Here on the Texas coast it’s a huge beach family day.

Bill Bower is one of a small, hardcore group of guards who started working at first opportunity in March. Bill joined us first as a Wave Watcher volunteer, then decided that after a lifetime of swimming he’d have no problem qualifying as a lifeguard. In his mid-60’s, Bill sets a great example for our staff in all kinds of areas including commitment, discipline, tourist relations, and enjoyment of a great job with a great bunch of people. He’s been posted up in the 61st street area all spring working one of our busiest areas with ease. He can often be seen watching his water while chatting with all kinds of people enjoying his beach. That’s why its not unusual that he approached an elderly woman walking on the beach and, with his trademark big smile, said, “I notice you walking out here all the time. You should join Wave Watchers.” He said she looked at him with a blank expression. She then replied, “Sir, I walk and do Zumba every day.” He said he took a minute to absorb before the light bulb went on. He asked her how she kept from getting angry and slapping him. He went on to explain that he didn’t say “Weight Watchers” and told her that “Wave Watchers” is a volunteer group that assists the Beach Patrol with a number of things, but it a great fit for people that walk, fish, or even drive around the beach regularly. As the Chief Lifeguard for the Beach Patrol I have to say I really appreciate Bill’s good-natured approach. Instead of dealing with a PR nightmare we’re potentially looking at a new member to our Wave Watcher cadre!

So, buckle up! Its beach season again and looks to be a busy, busy year. Not telling what adventures and challenges lay in store for all of us who work or recreate on the beach. But Bill’s example of patience, humor, and respect will point us in the right direction.

Team Work!

Easter Weekend brought it all together. Beautiful sunny weather with highs in the low 70s, water close to 70 degrees, and north winds that pushed the water out making lots and lots of beach. After so many rainy and cold spring weekend days people were chomping at the bit. And they came in droves.

Traveling from west to east there were people at all the beach access points, and it looked like lots of the beach houses were full, with people out in front of them. The seawall stayed busy with lots of people on the sand, hanging out on the wall, and out in the water. Then Stewart Beach had an almost full parking lot with masses of people out having fun on the beach and in the water. East Beach slightly less, but still a respectable crowd. The cool thing was that we were full but not overwhelmed. Traffic was slow on the seawall, but never quite got to be where it was bumper to bumper the whole way down. The parks were full as well, but not to the point where things got out of hand.

Saturday the water was flat the entire day and even looked like sheet glass for parts of the morning. Sunday was another story with strong winds and lateral currents that carried people towards the rock jetties where the dangerous rip currents are. But despite these challenging conditions the lifeguards, park staff, and security did an incredible job of staying on top of things.

Some of our rookie lifeguards had a few stumbles getting into the swing of things but they did a great job at what matters- keeping the public far from the rocks. The Park Board Security Detail, which is run by the Galveston Police Department and uses off duty officers from multiple agencies, stayed on top of things and prevented problems before they developed. They also did a great job of working with the lifeguard staff to reunite a number of lost kids with their families. The Tourism Ambassadors and enforcement officers kept the seawall safe and happy, the park staff worked a solid 12-14 hours to make everything run smoothly, and the Coastal Zone Management crew was up and on the beach at 3am Sunday morning so that when the rest of the world got to the beach it was already completely litter free. And our new and returning Wave Watcher Volunteer Corps patrolled beaches from the east end all the way to the San Luis Pass.

When the dust cleared on Sunday evening and the last tourist left the island safely, we’d chalked up over 2,400 swimmers moved from danger, 12 medical responses, 9 lost children reunited, 2 rescues, and 19 enforcement actions. The Wave Watchers along handled 18 preventative actions, 35 water safety talks, and 8 enforcement actions for litter or code violations. There were also a couple of water emergencies handled by the Galveston Marine Response on the west end during the night involving rescues.

What a safety net and what a team!

Easter Weekend

We’re already to Easter, which for many is the real kickoff for beach time.

We know its Easter because John’s Beach Service is about to roll out hundreds of umbrella and chair set ups for the first time of the year at Stewart Beach. Max Wilson, with help from his brother, Walter, has run this business for decades and has been gradually transferring it to his nephew, Matt Wilson. This is an old style, first class business, and they do it well. They don’t set up before Easter because for such a large operation the weather is too fickle. If 20 canvas get wet its not such a big deal to lay them out to dry. But for John’s Beach service, finding a time and place to lay out 3-500 umbrellas is another story. When you’ve been in business for 50 years you learn to treat customers right, so they come back year after year. So, we’ve come to see the umbrellas up at Stewart beach as the official start to busy beach time.

Easter Weekend is usually a huge holiday, sometimes it’s the equivalent of Labor Day Weekend. But unlike Labor Day, we have additional challenges like higher wind and waves, colder water, and higher “Spring Tides”. So be sure and pick an area near a lifeguard and stay far away from any structures like groins and piers. Also be alert for both hypothermia in the water and heat exhaustion on the land. Don’t swim at the ends of the island, remember drinking and swimming is a bad combination, and don’t swim alone. We’ve got all 300 of our signs up on the beach with additional info on each tower, so be sure and look around for danger warnings. Of course, talk to the guard if in doubt.

Helping us out with be our 14 new “Wave Watchers”, who graduated from their academy a week ago. After 20 hours of content related to Beach Patrol operations, Wave Watcher procedures, currents and structures, search and recovery, and common marine life injuries, they’re loaded with information. And that doesn’t count the certifications they all earned as Certified Tourism Ambassadors and CPR/AED. You’ll spot them with their signature navy blue shirts, ID tags, bush hats, and whistles up and down the beach. Our seasoned Wave Watchers have already been out there giving us extra eyes, moving swimmers, treating minor first aids, and letting people know what the hazards are. Now we’ll double the number of WW force multipliers out there keeping us informed and safe.

There is a vote coming up to renew the parking fees on the seawall, so be sure and get out there to vote your conscious. The city has done a good job of making sure that money is set aside to maintain the beach amenities. For my part, I’ve been impressed how the improvements on the seawall look, and I’m hoping we can renew that vote in order to maintain all the good things happening on the beach front and keep the momentum going.

Paint by Numbers

Despite all the crazy weather, the swim part of the Triathlon went off pretty well. The team of the Beach Patrol, Galveston Police Department Marine Division Dive Team, Jamaica Beach Fire Rescue, Ironman crew, Coast Guard Auxiliary, and the Kayak club, collectively got nearly 3,000 athletes safely back to shore. All told there were 47 rescues, 87 swim assists, and two medial interventions for respiratory issues.

Obviously, there are a lot of moving parts to this and a great deal of coordination is required. Special kudos go to Lieutenant Mike Reardon, who was our incident commander for the whole three ringed circus. It’s a stressful job, but with his over 40 years working with the Beach Patrol, and a previous life as the head nurse for the John Sealy Emergency Room, he is more than up for the task.

On another topic, someone with a special connection to the Galveston beach passed last week at 93 years of age. Dan Robbins, the father of “paint by numbers” found something special in Galveston. He came up with the idea in the 50’s while working at Palmer Paints on kids’ painting sets. He heard that Leonardo Da Vinci used numbered background patterns in his work, used this idea to put together kits for adults. This idea met fertile ground at the time of the “do it yourself generation” where “everyman” could fix a house, repair a car, or even paint a painting.

In the late 90’s Dan and his son were working on a book called “What Ever Happened to Paint by Numbers?”. They had it pretty much finished but were looking for a way to wrap it up. They needed a final chapter. But they heard about something going on in Galveston that sounded intriguing.

After a couple of years working in New York as the Art Director for a nonprofit, I moved back to Galveston to try to do a large public art project. Working with my Mom who was with the school district, artists Jane Young and Mike Janota, Sid Steffens (educator), Vic Maceo, Rhonda Greg as Project Coordinator, Maureen Patton and the Commission on the Arts, and 14,000 kids, artists, and volunteers, we’d just completed a 2 ½ mile long paint by numbers project on the seawall.

Dan was floored when he and his son arrived. I met he and his son at a restaurant and then we drove the entire mural from 25th to 61st street. He loved seeing his original idea on such a grand scale. He also instantly loved Galveston and all the people he met while here.

Here in Galveston was a community that embraced a project that was a larger than life manifestation of his life’s work. If he hadn’t done what he did in the 50’s, the paint by numbers concept wouldn’t be woven into our collective consciousness. It would never have occurred to me or countless other artists to use paint by numbers as a way to allow easy access to large art projects.

Sea of Swimmers

The sea of swimmers looks like mullet swimming all over each other. The start of the triathlon is hard to guard as waves of over 100 swimmers start every 5 minutes. Beach Patrol lifeguards, Police, Sheriff Deputies, along with other groups in kayaks, Jetskis, and boats watch over the masses, trying to pick out the ones that are tired, get cramps, panic, or have sudden medical issues during the swim. Some 70 or 80 require minor assistance and a handful are brought quickly to shore to be checked out by EMS. The Galveston Police dive team is suited up and ready, just in case.

This Sunday, April 7th is the Memorial Hermann Ironman 70.3 Texas. The event is based at the perfect venue for a triathlon, Moody Gardens. Triathletes typically come with a full entourage of family and friends. They usually have some degree of disposable income and like to visit local attractions before and after the race. Most importantly, they like the logistics to be simple. I remember many times coming into a new town for a race and, on top of the normal pre race jitters, having to navigate large cities to find the swim area, bike and run course, and different transition areas. At Moody Gardens its one stop shopping. On Galveston Island, it’s easy to find your way around, find parking, and enjoy all that our amazing venue has to offer.

We’re looking at around 3,000 athletes, along with all their entourage. Sports tourism is a growing industry and triathlon is one of the fastest growing sports around.

This is a “Half Ironman”, so involves a 1.2-mile swim, 56mile bike, and a 13.1-mile run. Not for those who aren’t really trained up!

The Beach Patrol and the Police Department Marine Division’s dive team work closely to provide water security. We work a sort of zone defense strategy. Lifeguards on rescue boards are placed strategically throughout the course with Lifeguard Supervisors on Jet Skis covering zones. The Police boat protects the race from boat traffic and is ready to dive for someone if the need arises. Using a system of whistles and hand signals rescues are made and tired swimmers are removed from the water. Every racer is tracked by an identifying number and a chip. EMS, Police, and volunteer crews coordinate emergencies, aid, and logistical support through a central dispatch. A whole lot of work goes on behind the scenes to support racers and minimize risk.

There are some inconveniences on the road parts of the race, particularly the bike. Fortunately, our Galveston Police Officers who plan and work the event are pro’s, as are the city crews who handle all the details of making the roads safe for everyone. So, it really minimizes the impact on traffic and the community.

But ultimately this is a great event for the island. When these thousands of sports tourists head home, they will spread the word. Galveston is a fantastic place to visit and has something for everyone.

Wave Watchers

The lifeguard at tower 61 was getting a little overwhelmed.  She was moving as fast as she could but the current kept moving swimmers towards the dangerous area by the rocks. She barely had time to move swimmers and get back to her tower before jumping back down. As she climbed up to her tower, she heard a whistle. She looked down and was relieved to see a man wearing a blue shirt blowing a whistle to remind swimmers to stay out of danger.

The dispatcher checked the Beach Patrol cell phone and saw that the special app had a couple of new notifications on it. One of the Wave Watchers had been on the way to fish at the San Luis Pass and noticed a bunch of people in the water. Another was riding his bike along the seawall and saw a bus full of small children in swimming gear pull up at an area without a lifeguard. The dispatcher called the area supervisors for the west end and the seawall and let them know.

On the 4th of July weekend, the frantic parents of a lost 3-year-old child ran down the beach yelling for assistance. The tower lifeguard in the area asked them what was wrong, and they said they had lost sight of their child. After a quick check on the radio the lifeguard referred them to the big tent behind the next tower, which was the designated place for the “Lost Child Detail”. When the parents approached, they found a woman in the distinctive blue “Wave Watchers” shirt sitting with a lifeguard. Both were using beach toys to play with several children, including the lost 3-year-old.

The Galveston Island Beach Patrol Wave Watcher Volunteer Program is a way for ordinary citizens to join our team. It’s a mini lifeguard academy which is free of charge. The Wave Watcher team serves as a force multiplier in our effort to prevent drowning deaths and aquatic accidents.

The Academy is free of charge and will cover topics related to Beach Patrol history and operations, as well as beach safety. Attendees will receive certifications in both CPR and as Certified Tourist Ambassadors.

Once through the Academy, Wave Watchers will form a cadre of informed beachgoers who have “the eye”. They can spot trouble developing before it happens and notify us, or other emergency service groups, so we are able to prevent the situation from escalating. This could happen in the course of their normal daily lives when they drive, walk, fish, surf, etc. along the beachfront. Or it could take place with a more organized activity. The level of commitment and involvement is completely up to the graduates.

If you or someone you know is interested in joining the crew, contact us at beachpatrol@galvestonparkboard.org. There are no restrictions on who can participate and no physical requirement (like swimming, running, etc.). Everyone is welcome.

We have an academy starting April 8-12 from 8-12am. We need you to join our team and our lifesaving family!

Athletes Committee

IT was a hot, humid early morning in June. Kevin Anderson looked like he was about to bust. He was sweating and red, his breath came in raspy gasps, and he was on the verge of collapse. We slowed the pace until he was able to get back to a baseline, then picked it up again.

Every Friday a few of us would do a 6-mile sand run with wind sprints. We’d run to the South Jetty, stretch and then do the sprints and recovery jogs between each of the trash cans on the beach. A long time Beach Patrol employee and athlete, Kevin had been active in lifesaving when he was younger, then barely worked enough to stay on the roster for a few years. Like many of us, after he and his wife, Alana, had children, Kevin went through a period where he gained weight and stopped working out regularly. He was working as a project manager for a large marine engineering firm by day, taking care of his kids, and playing music. There wasn’t much time for fitness.

Beach lifeguarding affects some people for the long term. Lots of our guards are really fit and are young when they work for us, but then life happens. They come back not looking as, shall we say “svelte”. But a small percentage of them turn it around. Kevin did much more than that. He started training with us on a regular basis and got really into all the Lifesaving Sport events. Having a really good swimming background, he took to it like a ….. fish to water (sorry!). He started training with me regularly on the surf ski and paddleboard, hitting the pool, running, and competing locally, regionally, and nationally. He now has a whole bunch of national medals under his belt and is the current reigning Lifesaving Sport athlete for the Beach Patrol. Oh, and did I mention he’s beating all these young athletes around here at a ripe old 40 years of age?

Kevin didn’t stop at just getting back in really good shape and excelling in sport. After deliberating for a couple of years, he decided to change his career as well. He stopped working as a project manager and applied for a full-time job with us. You will see him now out working a lifeguard tower, patrolling on a jet ski, or riding in a rescue truck. And he’s become something of our unofficial in-house Lifesaving Sport trainer.

Recently, Kevin was chosen to represent the Gulf Coast Region of the United States Lifesaving Association on a newly formed Athletes Committee. His duties will include being a conduit of information between Texas Lifeguard Sport athletes and the national Lifesaving Sport Committee and representing the interests of the athletes to the officials and organizers at a national level.

Join me in congratulating Kevin for his appointment. But also, and more importantly for the discipline and courage to make this significant life change, and the choice to spend his considerable talents protecting Galveston’s beach population!

Spring Break

Mardi Gras is the official kick off of the tourist season, but Spring break is definitely the sign that the beach season is underway.

We have lifeguard tryouts tomorrow. There is information on our website. We will have the first annual Lifeguard Academy running during Spring Break. We also have many of our returning seasonal employees coming back to requalify and start working, so there will be tower guards out from here on. We’ve scheduled a full complement of rescue trucks on patrol covering much of the island as well as continuing the on-call service we provide year-round. All the other emergency service groups are similarly prepared.

But even with all those extra layers of protection, you and your family’s safety rests primarily in your hands. So please get everyone you know to swim near a lifeguard and stay far from the rock groins. Tell them not to swim at the ends of the island, don’t drink and swim or drive, enter the water with their kids, pay attention to signs and flags, don’t swim alone, and don’t dive in headfirst. And remind them to stay hydrated and protect themselves from the sun.

The three areas you should be especially aware of when it comes to safety over Spring Break are rip currents, the danger of hypothermia, and the ends of the island:

Rip Currents are narrow currents that pull away from shore. Typically, here they occur near the rock groins and piers and don’t go much past those structures. They pull out but not under. They pull sand with them so the areas near these structures can be deep. It can be dangerous for most people to swim in that area so we have signs warning people away and post our lifeguard towers in those areas to the guards can help remind swimmers to stay far from the area. If for some reason you are caught in one, you should relax and float and don’t try to fight or swim against the current. If you can swim well, try swimming out of the current by swimming parallel to the shore one way or the other. If you see someone in the rip, don’t go in after them. Instead throw a line or float, like the ones in the rescue boxes on each groin.

Another big danger right now is that the water is VERY cold. You don’t want to stay in long before coming to shore and warming up. If you feel sluggish and weak, or start shivering, leave the water immediately and get warm.

The third thing you really want to watch for is on both ends of the island. The tidal flow bottlenecks at both the ship channel and the San Luis Pass. It’d dangerous to swim or wade in either place.

All that said, this is definitely the time to get out and enjoy some nice beach time. If you take a few reasonable precautions it will be worth the effort.

And say hi to the lifeguards while out there!

Do You Have What It Takes?

At 7am in the morning a group of swimmers stand near the pool getting a briefing. In groups of 10 they enter their assigned lanes and swim 10 laps, which is 500 meters. About half of them make it under the required time. These are interviewed and take a drug test. Those that make it through all three phases qualify for the Galveston Island Beach Patrol Lifeguard Academy.

When I started as a lifeguard back in 1983, there was no formal training and no special first aid course other than what I got when I took the Red Cross pool lifesaving course. I was just given a radio and sent to work. We’ve come a long way since then and now have a comprehensive training course that is over 90 hours long. And we pay those who qualify to attend!

Next Saturday, March 9th, is the first of two tryouts for the Beach Patrol at 7am at the UTMB pool. We will have an academy over Spring Break and another in May. If you know anyone that wants to work on the Beach Patrol spread the word. Details are on our website. Candidates who want to start working right away can go through the first lifeguard academy over spring break. They are certified in CPR, First Aid, and beach lifeguarding. They also go through training in tourist relations, city codes pertaining to Galveston’s beaches, Gulf Coast ecology and marine life, and near shore topography and hydrology. Coupled with all the classroom work is hands on training in how to swim and make rescues in surf, search and recovery, and the basics of lifesaving sport. It’s a busy week and we’ll do it all over again the second week in May.

In addition to training for new lifeguards we are starting our annual training session for dispatchers, supervisors, and personal water craft rescue operations. By the time Memorial Weekend hits, we’ll be up to speed. Despite the huge amount of effort all this requires of our permanent staff members, who are all medical and lifesaving instructors, there’s a big payoff for both our staff and the public. The inconsistent training that once took a whole summer is taught in a uniform manner. Each employee is taught the same material and instilled with similar core values. Any one of our guards can handle whatever is thrown at them when they complete the training.

So, for those that would like to try being a beach guard, I hope you’ll give it a shot. I’m so happy I tried out all those years ago. For me it was a life changer. Not many people get to go home at the end of the day with the knowledge that they prevented people from getting hurt or worse. Not many people have the privilege of reuniting lost family members or treating people who are hurt. Not many people can say that they saved a life as part of their job.

Lifeguards for Life

With its tin roof the small house looked unassuming. It was precariously perched on the side of a steep hill with other houses. Vegetables grew in small plots interspaced with clothing lines and chickens clucked, scratched and pecked. I paid the Taxista and walked up the manicured path to the door. As I raised my hand to knock, the door sprang open and Juan limped over to me and grabbed me in a giant bear hug. Juan’s sister came up behind him and pulled me inside. Rosa can’t see very well, and Juan has a hard time hearing, but we somehow managed a lively conversation. Rosa served tacos that were so spicy that Juan and I were pouring sweat. After 20 years of working with the guards in Veracruz, Mexico, this had become our tradition, and is one of the things I look forward to the most each time I visit. Juan was the first lifeguard I met back then and was, at the time, already a veteran. Now he still works the beach, and despite a bad leg and being almost deaf, he still mentors the youngsters, swims like a fish, makes several rescues, and prevents thousands of drownings each year.

The snow came down so hard we could hardly make out the door of the house on the side of the mountain in Utah, just a few miles from one of the least publicized and best ski areas in the country. As we stepped out into the bone chilling cold, we were ushered in. Bob Burnside, now in his upper 80’s, led our small group in to be greeted by an assortment of working and retired lifeguards from various beaches. Bob dove into a fierce political discussion with another octogenarian that escalated almost to blows as the night wore on. Apparently, this is a regular thing according to the other lifeguards. Bob is the first president and current unofficial spiritual guide for those of us who are involved with the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA). He skis every day and seems to have attracted a small, hard core group of surfers and lifeguards to switch their focus from riding waves and saving lives to carving frozen water. But every conversation eventually comes around to their years and years of saving lives or current issues in the lifesaving community.

The United States Lifesaving Association is America’s nonprofit professional association of beach lifeguards and open water rescuers. The USLA works to reduce the incidence of death and injury in the aquatic environment through public education, national lifeguard standards, training programs, promotion of high levels of lifeguard readiness, and other means. Our motto is “Lifeguards for Life”.

I don’t think I fully understood the meaning of the motto until recently. Whether you’re with a group of guards in houses in Veracruz or Utah, a surf club in Australia, or anywhere else lifeguards gather, there is a common understanding of the unique risks, sacrifices, joys, and challenges open water guards experience and face. And wherever you are you have family and a shared mission.

Lifeguards for Life