Open Water Swimming

As the rookie lifeguard ran out into the water, she felt good at first. She lifted her legs up high just as the instructor told her. When she got to thigh deep water, she started “dolphin diving” by pushing off the bottom and doing shallow surface dives, propelling herself into deeper water quickly. She even managed to dive over a couple of waves without having them knock her back. Then she took one final dive and pushed off the bottom. And things started falling apart. A wave hit her and knocked her back. She tried to make forward progress through the whitewater “soup” that trailed the breaking wave. She quickly tired, lost her sense of direction, and had to resort to breaststroke to make forward progress.

This is typical for entry level open water swimmers, even those who are really good in the pool. Open water swimming is its own skill set that only roughly parallels what we learn in the pool. And open water swimming in surf is yet another level. But open water swimming that’s quickly taking off, and triathlon has gotten crazy popular in recent years. If you are one of those who are starting or are interested in starting to swim in the open water here are a few pointers.

First of all, you should be able to swim at least double the distance in a pool that you plan on swimming in open water. Second, if the water is cold enough to wear a wetsuit you should. Not only is it faster, but a layer of neoprene adds a lot of flotation which means you essentially are bringing a lifejacket with you. Third, in open water you don’t usually get to touch bottom so you want to go a little slower than you might try to go in a pool. Conserving a little air and strength gives you a margin for error that makes it easier to recover if you hit some chop or get smacked by someone’s foot by accident. The extra buoyancy of saltwater will help as well. Another good trick is that if you’re not a strong swimmer it’s not a bad idea to line up on the side of your swim wave, so you don’t get knocked around when everyone is starting off and not yet spread out. You’ll actually do better as a strong swimmer by lining up in the middle of the pack because if you get behind a group of slightly faster swimmers you can benefit from getting sucked along in their draft. Finally, a great tip is to look up every few strokes as you breathe (eyes first, breath second). Even if this slows you a little, you’ll be faster overall because you’ll swim a straighter course.

For surf you need to add numerous extra skills like diving under waves, using the complicated ocean currents to your advantage, and looking around you when you hit the top of swells. It’s definitely a challenge for our new guards but is an essential component of being an effective ocean lifesaver.

Busy Labor Day Weekened

Labor Day weekend was interesting. We couldn’t have asked for better conditions, with sunny skies, blue/green water that was pretty flat all but Monday, and almost no seaweed, jellyfish, or sea lice. The concentration of people on Sunday was impressive with moderately good crowds on the other days. Sunday afternoon it took me an hour and a half to patrol from Stewart Beach to 91st and back, and the line to get into Stewart Beach was backed up onto the seawall.

Sunday afternoon, when the crowds were at their peak, we had several water related calls all happen simultaneously. We had several lost kids at Stewart Beach that we were looking for and the normal calls for guards and rescue trucks moving people away from hazardous areas. Then on top of all that we had a call for a boat wreck off of the end of the South Jetty with 5 people unaccounted for in the water. We also had a call of a possible drowning over by Murdoch’s pier where supposedly someone had seen the person go in and may or may not have actually witnessed them going under. And we had a jet ski on the west end that was floating around in the water without a driver. Any of these calls could have been pretty major, and we scrambled our resources around trying to get enough assets to respond to these potentially serious calls while still handling the normal stuff and while continuing to patrol and be proactive in preventing bad things from happening. It was about an hour of chaos and I think our poor dispatchers probably will have nightmares about trying to stay on top of all of it. But the Beach Patrol staff, and all the other responding groups, handled this crisis period really well. And fortunately, at the end of the hour, everyone was accounted for, on shore, and uninjured. We were able to go back to the normal level of holiday weekend chaos until a little after dark.

All told a the end of the weekend the combination of Beach Patrol, Wave Watchers, and the County’s Citizens Emergency Response Team kept 12,562 people from getting in a dangerous position, treated 40 medical calls, reunited 15 lost children with their loved ones, and got all 250-300,000 beach goers back home safely. Not a bad way to end the summer!

Coming up we have an interesting study. Beach Patrol Lifeguard Supervisor and A&M Instructional Associate Professor Amie Hufton is spearheading a research project related to our drowning and rescue statistics. We’re real excited about this because we think it can give us a better idea of who drowns and how we can target those populations. Just as a little teaser we ran 5 years of drowning statistics and came up with some interesting information. Over that period, we’re looking at roughly 70% of those drownings (fatalities and survivals) being Latino, 22% Anglo, and 11% African American. Stay tuned for what Amie and her team come up with.

Labor Day

With Labor Day upon us we’re expecting several hundred thousand people to be on the island this weekend. That’s a lot of chances to have something go wrong.

We’ve had a number of close calls in recent weeks. Most or all of these incidents happened at least partly due to momentary lapses in judgment.

People do things when on vacation or out recreating that they would never do in their normal life. Parents who no doubt are normally very attentive to their children lose them repeatedly at our large beach parks. We can have up to 60 lost kids in a single day at Stewart Beach alone. People who are not generally risk takers swim far from shore and/or pay no attention to warning signs, flags, or lifeguard instructions. Are the parents bad parents? Are the people ignoring safety messages intentionally? Not in my opinion.

All of us get in a different mindset when we’re away from our routine and when we do something fun. We throw caution to the wind and immerse ourselves in the sea and sand and fun. This is good to a point, and that point is sometimes the shoreline. Water is not our natural element. Things can go wrong quickly in the water, so it only takes a momentary lapse of judgment, or seconds of inattention, for things to break bad.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Taking a moment to observe your surroundings at the beach or pool does a lot. Asking someone who is knowledgeable, like a lifeguard, for advice before getting wet means that you greatly reduce your chances of an accident.

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 life jackets. At the beach, you should also avoid swimming in areas where rip currents are likely, like near piers and jetties. These are protected by lifeguards and clearly marked with bilingual, iconic signage. You also want to avoid the water in the Ship Channel and San Luis Pass.

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.

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. See you on the beach!

The Galveston Island Beach Patrol Family

At our National Lifeguarding Championships in Virginia Beach I was suddenly hit with a moment of clarity that was close to a revelation.

Just like is often the case here in Galveston, there were so many things going on all at once. We had athletes from the Junior Guard program, U19, open, and age group competing. In addition to these incredibly talented athletes from 10 to 70+ years of age, we had a sponsor appreciation party, numerous events for the athletes, a celebration of life/ paddle out ceremony for several lifeguard chiefs who have recently passed away, and we had the privilege of giving out an award to a group of brave US Marines who saved a group of kids from drowning.

I was thinking about all of this, and it suddenly hit me what a comprehensive web we all collectively weave, both in Galveston, nationally, and internationally. Locally, we are so much more than a collection of beach lifeguards, and lifeguard support teams. We are a large, comprehensive safety net. And we are a family. The Galveston Beach Patrol Family. That family includes guards, Junior Guards and their parents, Wave Watchers, Survivor Support Network, partner public safety groups, Park Board and City of Galveston departments, the media, the larger Galveston community and many more.

Many enter as very young children in the Junior Guard Program. They learn about the ocean, build an ocean and rescue skill set, and learn how to use it to help others. They may continue as guards, volunteers, athletes, coaches, sponsors, administrators, and more. Hundreds devote uncountable hours and energy to prevent accidents, save lives, educate the public, acknowledge service and heroism inside and outside of the family with our cousin groups, mentor newer and younger members, and to support each other in so many ways. This is way beyond what would or could be done out of a feeling of obligation or devotion to duty. This must be love.

We love the over 7 million people we protect annually. We love the environment we are so privileged to work in. And like a family, no matter how much we may disagree or argue or butt heads, we love each other. We understand the incredibly difficult role we all have in trying to keep people safe in an environment that is foreign to them, but that we thrive in. We know how hard you must work your entire life to maintain the conditioning and skills that allow you to be the rescuer and not the victim. We know how important even the briefest interaction with a tourist or local can be. And we know how much what you do to get people information on how to be safe before they ever get wet matters.

Thank you to each of you that play a part in the shared mission, and for choosing to be in The Galveston Island Beach Patrol Family.

Hardworking Guards

Typically, the month of August sees some calm, hot weather. We’re now in the latter part of summer and things are still not dying down. We continue to have wind and current with some fairly strong rip currents near the rock groins. It has been calming down a bit and we’ve finally started seeing an occasional “green flag” day with calm water. Its been hot, but not overwhelmingly so on the beach since we still have a bit of a breeze.

What all this wind and rough water has done to us has been a mixed blessing. Rough water means the staff stays sharp. The guards move fast and are proactive. They keep people far from dangerous areas like near the rocks and piers. The supervisors stay alert, constantly moving and checking with the guards regularly. Dispatchers are quick to respond and are also proactive, often getting the guards in the field information before they even ask for it. By this time of the summer. But these are long, tense days. We have close calls all the time when guards go out for rescues and those who are not directly involved in backing them up have an agonizing wait until someone gets on the radio telling us “I got the OK sign”, or “Guard and victim are both back on shore”. Guards who work crowded, busy areas spend hours running back and forth from the shoreline or in the water back to the tower. They’re wet constantly. They’re sunburned and dehydrated from so much activity. All of this takes a toll.

Anyone who works in or around public safety organizations know that organizations are like people. Some stress is good. It increases performance, keeps staff involved and engaged, and facilitates teamwork. But too much stress or too long in the “zone” and all those good things go bad quickly. Responders can feel overwhelmed, exhausted, resentful, and/or short-tempered. As an “organizational organism” an entire group can suffer from these symptoms. And for the Beach Patrol, all the close calls, emergencies, tragedies, long days, and environmental challenges can wear us out and cause us to crash if we don’t remember to relax and recharge. Staff will begin to squabble among themselves or start to find fault in their supervisors or managers. Some of this is normal and unavoidable. Our guards work really hard and perform really well, and that comes at a price.

Sometimes the remedy is as simple as a few calm, uneventful days to help us remember how nice it is to go to the beach for work every day. Other times we organize ways for the guards to interact together, relax, and enjoy each other’s company away from the pressures of work. Last week we had our final competition of the summer, which was the “beach flags” event. Picture musical chairs with hose, except with adrenaline charged super athletes wearing costumes. We also had our annual “Lifeguard Banquet” which a committee organized and involved food, awards, and a pinata.

Here’s to our hardworking guards!

Lifeguard Sport Competitions

Years ago, the original inhabitants of this part of the world held periodic gatherings which included athletic competitions that highlighted skills needed to survive and thrive. These were opportunities to share information and new ideas, forge and maintain social connections, and renew commitment to a way of life. As open water lifeguards we continued that tradition.

Last weekend a small group of Galveston competitors traveled to the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA) Gulf Coast Regional Championships in Port Aransas. Representatives from the Cameron County Beach Patrol, the South Padre Island Beach Patrol, the Galveston Island Beach Patrol, and Port Aransas Beach Patrol all participated. Yes, Galveston dominated! But more importantly the next step is during the second week in August, a group of guards from Texas will compete in the United States Lifesaving Association’s National Lifeguard Championships in Virginia Beach, Virginia. For years and years Galveston has been the only group from our region, but now we’ll have four teams which together comprise “Team Texas”.

Open water lifeguarding is unique among the emergency services in that we are able to prevent accidents to a very large extent. So far this year, Galveston lifeguards alone have made over 100,00 preventative actions. That’s 110,000 people moved out of potentially dangerous or life-threatening situations. But there are some things that can’t be prevented. And that’s why our profession also demands the highest level of physical conditioning of all the first responder professions.

When a lifeguard trains he/she is doing much more than staying in shape. Of all the rescues made by Galveston lifeguards last year alone, most were made with minimal equipment. Lifeguards rely heavily on exceptional USLA training, local knowledge, mental and emotional fortitude, and their physical abilities. Every rescue is a race against time, and every guard is an athlete. That’s where competition comes in.

Participating in Lifeguard Sport competitions and daily training sessions hones skills used daily by professional lifeguards and gives lifeguards something to reach for. Lifesaving Sport is also an opportunity to showcase our skills for the public we protect. National competitors are an example for all the guards they work with at their local beach. And the same applies for Junior Lifeguard competitors, many of whom will be the lifeguards and Lifesaving Sport superstars of tomorrow. Locally we have Lifeguard Sport competitions every Sunday for guards and every Friday during the Junior Guard program for JGs throughout the summer, and each guard participates in physical and skills training every day they work before they head out to the towers.

Because of all the prevention, training, lifeguard standards, and public education by USLA and its certified agencies, we boast an impressive statistic. Your chances of drowning in a USLA certified agency’s beach are 1 in 18 million. Galveston faces more challenges than many beaches, but maintaining “Advanced” level certification from USLA means that we are more prepared for the inevitable than many of our counterparts at other beaches.

Park Board Maintenance Department

Whether it’s a cold, rainy day in February or a steamy early morning in July early in the morning figures walk along the beach in front of a pickup’s lights. By 5am the west end crew of the Park Board Coastal Zone Management Department are already out handpicking trash left beachgoers or washed in with the tide. They find some large logs and cut them up and throw them into brush trucks to be removed. Two other crews work other parts of the beach simultaneously, and there will be another crew up on the seawall during the afternoon.

The Park Board Maintenance Department cleans the beaches of 15,000 tons of seaweed and debris each year. Other responsibilities include maintaining access ramps, assisting with special events, maintaining a garage and work area, servicing the beach parks, and helping the Lifeguards with the towers. All of this has to be in compliance with State, Federal, and Local regulations, so it’s a real balancing act.

One thing they deal with that touches a lot of lives is seaweed. Some people want it, some don’t, but everyone has a strong opinion! You’d be surprised how many people flag down the Beach Cleaning crews asking them to push seaweed in front of their property. Unfortunately, the Park Board isn’t allowed to single out individual property owners.

Seaweed can’t be removed from the beach because it has too much sand in it. Generally, the strategy is to run it through special machines that break it down and mix it with the sand. This works pretty well under normal conditions. But special challenges arise when seaweed comes in heavy, as it will do every few years. Every attempt is made to handle this in a way that doesn’t adversely affect residents or tourists.

I love seaweed for a number of reasons. One of these is that it’s a natural material that helps maintain our beaches and prevents or slows down erosion. But my favorite reason goes back to when my daughter was small. We’d take a bucket out to the beach in front of our house and shake seaweed into it to see all the cool animals in there. The coolest ones would make their way into our saltwater aquarium and we’d learn all about them. These seaweed mats form whole biospheres that support all kinds of creatures.

We’ve had a good run of relatively seaweed free years, but we know our luck won’t hold out indefinitely. In fact, it sounds like there may be thick mats of sargassum seaweed out in the Atlantic looking for a landing spot. If this happens here, we’ll be turning towards the already busy Coastal Zone Management Team to come to the rescue.

So much is done under the cover of darkness to make the beach run well, but Ninja like, the Beach Maintenance Crew slips away before we can thank them. They work hard and take a lot of pride in our beaches. Truly some of Galveston’s unsung heroes!

Sunday Race Day

The sun was just peeking over a horizon and the rough, windblown surf showed pink highlights as we lined up. Legs vibrated and hands showed white knuckles on our racing boards as the call came out, “Paddlers take your mark…. GO!”

The current swept from west to east, but I hedged my bets by lining up on the east side, hoping some of less experienced racers would overcompensate by playing it safe. As we punched through the inside break, to my right was Joe Cerdas and Kevin Anderson. We were first through the inside break and had a bit of a jump on the rest of the pack. But I knew there were some fast people in that group.

I edged up and was in first for a bit. Visions of reclaiming the rescue board race title danced through my 53-year-old head. But then we hit the outside break. Joe and I got nailed by 5 or 6 giant piles of whitewater. In the chaos I saw Kevin clear the break, barely skating around the big set waves, and streak around the first buoy. Finally, Joe and I clawed our way through and rounded the buoy. I expected the pack to have pulled ahead, but most of them had troubles of their own. Taylor Stickline was the exception, and he paddled straight through the outside impact zone unscathed.

I tried to take deep strokes and control my breathing as we headed to the second buoy. Taylor hung tough but angled too far out. I focused and ignored burning muscles, pulling a little ahead of Joe. I still had a chance at 2nd, but I knew Joe is exceptional at catching waves and reading currents, so I was far from in the clear. I rounded the buoy and tried to stroke into an outside wave. I caught it but slid sideways, so only got a short ride. As I recovered and straightened out, Joe flew by on the next wave. Looking behind me, a solid 5-foot monster reared up. It broke hard and I was tossed forward. Somehow, I held on to the handles of my racing board, which was completely sideways, while getting bounced around by the whitewater. I saw a blue board floating on the inside to my left. I assumed Joe had lost his board and that I’d caught him. I snagged a small, foamy inside wave and rode it to shore against a small rip current. But, as I stood up in shallow water, Joe ran by from my right, passing me and sailing through the finish gate. The board I saw belonged to one of the competitors that didn’t make it around the course.

We have two races early each Sunday. Surf racing can be anyone’s bet, which is a huge part of the fun. Speed, training, experience, trickery, and luck are all in play. But there is no way to better hone rescue skills than to push and learn from each other in the conditions you might have to save someone in.

Upcoming Events

There have been some crazy conditions lately. Water already hit 88 degrees, multiple high tide and rain events flooding the beaches, tons of rough days with really strong rip currents, and some completely flat still days. It’s hard to know what’s coming next. Our philosophy is that we just plan for every day to be crowded with really rough surf and blue skies. That way we don’t get caught off guard.

All the rain inland has played havoc with the beachfront. It’s interesting when the rivers get bloated and bring all the inland flora and fauna to the beach. We see freshwater plants washing up on the shoreline, and changes in salinity can cause algae blooms. We even see an occasional alligator wash up. These are rare, but typically we just keep them separated from the beach crowds until Texas Parks and Wildlife or Animal Control comes to relocate them.

This week has been crazy with our Junior Guard program starting, Personal Rescue Craft Rescuer Academy, dispatch training, night boat operations training, and all the normal beach drama and wild weather. But our staff has been going full tilt and handling it well. I’m really proud of them and love seeing how they all pull together when things get intense.

We made the decision to have a third lifeguard academy this summer, so if you know anyone that is interested the tryouts will be June 17th at the UTMB pool at 7am. If they are accepted the paid training starts the same day and continues for 9 days. Information and application forms are on our website. Spend your summer on the beach in a fun, challenging, and a responsible position working for the Galveston Island Beach Patrol! And we need the help!

Next Friday, the 14th of June, we will have our annual Beach Patrol BBQ and fundraiser at 24th and Postoffice. If you haven’t been you should definitely check it out. It is the beach party of the summer. You can support your lifeguards while rubbing elbows with area politicians, public safety professionals, beach vendors, Junior Guards, surfers, beach celebrities, and a wide range of Galveston’s most interesting characters. First class musician (and Wave Watcher) Robert Krout will be on from 6-7pm followed by the well-known local DJ Joe Rios. They will keep us entertained, food will be excellent, and we’ll have a silent auction. Proceeds support our program and go for many good things including scholarships for guards, equipment, public education, competition, lifeguard exchange, etc. But most of all it’s a really good time and a chance to connect with those who keep our beaches clean, attractive, and safe. For tickets check with any lifeguard, the Park Board, area surf shops, or come by our headquarters on Stewart Beach. If you need a few you can even call for ticket delivery at (409)763-4769. If you have something you’d like to donate for the silent auction, it’s tax deductible. Just bring it by our headquarters or call our number to make arrangements.

Busy Weekend

Memorial Day Weekend was a big one. Saturday started off like a normal busy weekend, but by Sunday afternoon we were at full throttle. There was a moment later in the day on Sunday that we were working a possible double drowning, a swimmer in distress that was rescued but had to go to the hospital because the victim was submerged briefly, a car wreck, and multiple missing children. We have 6 zones with a rescue truck assigned to each of them. 4 of our six trucks assigned to zones were tied up for quite a while, leaving the rest of us to race around trying to cover all the regular minor issues.

Here is a brief overview of our main statistics categories:

Preventative Actions (moving swimmers from danger but not making physical contact)- 18,027

Rescues- 15 (three of these went to hospital because they were submerged before we got to them- all appeared to be in OK condition)

Medical Responses- 24

Lost Children Reunited with Parents- 16

Enforcement Actions- 64

Beach Water Safety Talk Contacts- 4,235

Drowning Death (body was recovered)- 1

The drowning death at the San Luis Pass was a tough one. The man who drowned in the middle of the night was from a large Salvadorian community up in Houston and by mid-morning there were over 45 friends and family members on the beach. I joined the Galveston Police Department and the Coast Guard to brief the family on the recovery, and then the Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network took over and provided shelter, sustenance, and counseling until it was time for them to transition off the beach. It’s an unimaginable thing for family to deal with, but for me its comforting to work with such compassionate and professional people from the various groups that we work alongside. I think it made a big difference to the family as well in a time they most needed support.

Speaking of which, its impressive watching the Police Department doing so much on the west end with the mounted patrol and regular patrol. We also felt like all the various Park Board and City of Galveston groups that worked the weekend did a fantastic job. Kudos to Park Board Parks, Coastal Zone Management, GPD managed Park Board Security Detail, and Seawall Parking Ambassadors! We also really appreciate the work done by the County CERT Team at the San Luis Pass, Wave Watchers, Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network, Galveston Fire-Police-EMS, Jamaica Beach Fire and Rescue, Coast Guard, and the Gulf Coast Search and Rescue Squad, who found the body.

Moving forward, next Monday is our first day for the Junior Lifeguard Program and its not too late to sign up. We’re also looking at a new Lifeguard Academy to start on June 17th. And, of course please save time in your busy schedule to join us for the Annual Beach Patrol BBQ fundraiser on June 14th.

Summer is definitely underway…

Thanks to everyone! Here’s to a good summer ahead.