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Personal Water Crafts

This has been one crazy summer. We’re in August and there are still tons of people moving around, the water has been choppy to rough with some pretty strong rip currents, and our call volume has been equivalent to days in May or June. Last weekend we moved a couple thousand people away from rip currents, made a number of rescues, responded to several “possible drowning” calls and made the scene of a few boaters in distress. Our lifeguards have been knocking it out of the park and have both prevented and responded to hundreds of thousands of accidents so far this season. They have few tools to help them, most of this work is done with a simple rescue tube and set of fins. For some of the weird stuff that happens farther off shore or in the bay, we go to what has become a vital piece of equipment in recent history for any state of the art lifeguard service- the Personal Water Craft (PWC).
A PWC is a pretty unique vehicle. Because they use a jet drive to funnel water from the bottom of the craft and shoot it out of the back, they have some real advantages compared to a powerboat. They can run in really shallow water because there’s no prop. They also don’t have the danger inherent in a propeller churning when working or playing near the power source.
The Galveston Beach Patrol was the first lifeguard service in the country, and probably the world, to use the PWC as a rescue device back in 1984. We were given two Yamaha Wave Runners for some kind of promotional deal. We used them for patrolling and shepherding swimmers closer to shore but not so much for rescue. We hosted a meeting for the United States Lifesaving Association that year and let everyone try them out. The next year the Hawaiians figured out that you could attach a rescue sled on the back to pick up victims, and history was made. My buddy Brian Keaulana is justifiably credited with being the pioneer of PWC rescue. He and his team used one to make a crazy rescue in a cave on the north shore of Oahu that was videotaped and helped promote the effectiveness of the PWC as a rescue device all over the world.
Nowadays beach guards can drop a PWC in the water almost anywhere and be to a victim within seconds. We use a rescue sled to bring the victims in or use it as a working platform in the water. We can do anything on that sled from CPR to spinal immobilization. We have them placed all over the island during the day for quick access and every Supervisor is a certified rescue operator.
We still make the vast majority of surf rescues the old fashion way- swimming with a rescue tube and fins, or paddling out on a rescue board. But in many ways the PWC revolutionized longer distance surf rescue, and for better or worse, we’ve all grown very dependent on them.

Jetty Jump

The young woman crouched down on the slippery surface of the rocks. Her heart beat rapidly as she watched the guy in front of her navigate down the steep part. She tried to ignore the cuts on the top of her foot from the last try. “This time I’ll get it right”, she thought to herself determinedly. He jumped and landed with his rescue tube held out in front of him. “NO!” shouted the instructor. “Keep that buoy tight to your body so you hit like a pancake…And remember head up and buoy covering all your important parts when you hit the water!”
When her turn came she walked forward carefully, making sure her bare feet avoided the green patches of algae. The small barnacles were like sandpaper that gave her feet good purchase. As long as she didn’t twist them or step on the parts with big barnacles, she’d have minimal cuts the next day. At least that’s what her instructor told her.
As she came to the steep part she stopped, rehearsing everything her instructor told her. She made sure there was no slack in the rope connecting to her rescue tube and that the heavy buckle was not on the end near her face. She kept her center of gravity low, but made sure she didn’t rest her butt or her rescue tube on the rocks so a passing wave would pass under her instead of sweeping her off her feet and across the barnacle ridden rocks. Most importantly, she reminded herself to watch the water.
As a gap between the sets of waves approached the instructor said, “Now. Ease down. Watch the water”. As she lowered herself down she stood up straight briefly. “FOCUS!” her instructor shouted. “Three point stance, butt down, but not all the way on the rocks” she added. The young woman corrected herself and got in position. She watched the water intently, waiting.
“Here it comes!” shouted the instructor. A large set of waves was rolling in. It was too late to go back up to the relative safety of high ground. The woman’s throat felt dry and she momentarily felt nauseous.
“I can do this”, she said to herself. She focused on the first wave. Time slowed down and her vision narrowed. She couldn’t hear anything. As the wave neared she jumped. She held the buoy to her chest tightly and arched her back as she floated above the water for what seemed like an eternity.
BOOM! She landed on the crest and slid off the back. Time returned to normal as she rolled sideways and put on her fins in one smooth motion. She took a couple of careful strokes and realized she hadn’t hit anything. She surfaced and turned around. Her instructor had a big smile on her face and she shouted, “Perfect! 3 more…”
The woman smiled to herself as she used the rip current to swim around the jetty. When the time came to do it for real, she’d be ready.

61 Rescue

Early on Saturday morning Supervisor Nikki Harclerode was putting the condition flags up at the stations on the seawall. She was placing the flag in the holder at 61st street. She was the only lifeguard out there as even the “A” shift guards were still out doing their pre-work training session. Nikki is a very experienced lifeguard who has worked for us for a number of years. She also is extremely focused and rarely lets anything fall between the cracks. On top of that she’s one of the better athletes in a group full of talent and has several national titles in Lifesaving Sport under her belt.
On this particular morning, something didn’t feel right. In her peripheral vision she noticed three heads where they shouldn’t be near the rocks. She called for backup and went in. A couple of us who were working and training jumped in our trucks at Stewart Beach and headed her way. We respond with a minimum of the same number of guards as people in distress if possible. It’s hard enough dealing with one panicked person in the water, much less three. Someone much smaller can overpower you when they’re afraid and it doesn’t take much to incapacitate you by a kick to the wrong area, a poke to your throat, or simply by accidently choking on water in the heat of struggling with a victim.
As we raced to help her, knowing that we most likely wouldn’t make it in time to help with the actual rescue, time was distorting from Nikki’s perspective. She ran down the rocks and her perception expanded. She saw three teenagers actively struggling about ¾ of the way out to the end of the rock groin. A woman was screaming and running into the water to her side. Nikki surmised this was the mother of at least one of the victims. Without breaking stride, Nikki yelled for the mom to stay where she was and told her she’d take care of them. The mom teetered on the edge of the no swimming area but reluctantly stayed put. This allowed Nikki to focus fully on the rescue.
Nikki high stepped through the shallow water, then began diving repeatedly through waist deep water dolphin style. She took a final dive, rolled over and put on her fins. Trailing her rescue tube she took a few strokes and then looked up. All three heads were still afloat. She yelled for them to stay away from the rocks and that she’d be there soon. She arrived a few seconds later to find they didn’t heed her advice and were banging around on the rocks trying to climb up. She came up behind the first and pushed him up then did the same for the second. The third victim was starting to go under and she struggled briefly with her before shoving her up on the rocks with the others. They were floundering but she climbed up and pushed them all up to dry rocks. Aside from cuts they were fine.

Junior Guard

A group of kids stand in a row in front of their rescue boards along the shoreline wearing yellow tank jerseys and carrying their rescue tubes on one hand. Some of them are vibrating slightly as they get ready to go into action. They then grab their boards and stand on the line. The instructor yells for them to start and they spring for the water. As they get into shallows they bunny hop and then a few hop on their knees and power through the inside break while the rest drop to their bellies. Sports day for the Junior Guards!
The Beach Patrol Junior Lifeguard Day Camp is well structured and economically priced. We offer a number of scholarships as well. We started it in the late 80’s to be a feeder program for lifeguards.
Participants undergo one and a half hours of classroom instruction in each four-hour day, studying topics as diverse as beach lifeguard principles, first aid, CPR, marine biology and ecology, and sports fitness topics.
Junior Guards are exposed to a wide range of activities. They learn about the lifeguards workday by assisting real lifeguards as they perform their regular duties. They play games that are relevant to the lecture and classroom topics. And they participate in several educational field trips.
Our objectives are to show the participants the values of mental and physical discipline and to teach them to respect themselves, others, authority, and the natural environment. Our primary purpose is to provide a fun, safe place for youths to grow and learn about themselves and the diverse environments of the Texas Gulf Coast. Our hope is that many of them will become the lifeguards of the future.
The Junior Life Guard Program starts in June and continues for six weeks. Sessions are held three times a week with Fridays as an optional sports training day. “Sports day” will offer more intensive physical training and Lifeguard Sport competition practice. Most of our full time staff and about 40 percent of our total staff were Junior Guards.
Today at Stewart Beach is the final day of the program. The guards have “Beachfest” from 8am to 2pm. They’ll have friendly competitions, food, and awards and time to socialize and share memories with all their beach friends, parents, supporters, and the lifeguard staff.
You are welcome to come hang out and see what these amazing guards of the future can do!

San Luis Pass

At the San Luis Pass, the tide change flows through a gap only about a mile across. It bottlenecks and accelerates the tidal current tremendously. So roughly every 6 hours it changes directions and builds up to full strength. The entire pass is very dangerous, but there are two spots that catch the brunt of the current and are exceptionally so. On the Brazoria side, just on the north side of the bridge there is a little beach park. A point of sand extends into the pass, maybe 200 yards north of the bridge, that diverts the current, which results in a deep area right were the current pulls away from shore. On the Galveston side, the worst part is on the south side, where the beach makes the turn into the channel. There’s a point there where the current runs very close to shore, causing unbelievably strong currents and deep, deep areas. All that current and bottom change is a recipe for death for swimmers, but it makes for phenomenal fishing.
On the weekends in the summer we have a designated “San Luis Pass Patrol” who has the tough job of patrolling the Galveston side of the pass, keeping people out of the water where we’ve posted signs. Since we started the program, drowning deaths have dropped dramatically in that area.
One of our guards who worked out there last weekend was telling me an all too familiar story. He was at that dangerous point, trying to move some people wade fishing. He asked one man to stay out of the water and fish from the shoreline instead. He gave the usual information- “This is a really dangerous area because…. we’ve had a number of drownings in this exact location because….There’s a city ordinance that prohibits being in the water here….Fishing is fine but can you cast from the dry sand?…”. The man refused repeatedly saying basically that, “I’m a BOI…I’ve fished out here for years before the law was in place.. You get [insert important Galvestonian] out here to tell me …..Even though it’s dangerous for them it’s not dangerous for me because….”
This is a collective issue in our society. It’s like the guy that I asked to put his dog on a leash on a busy holiday at Stewart Beach. His response was, “But this is the friendliest dog you’ll ever meet.” That could be true, and the dog was really cute, but what about the rabid beast nearby? The fisherman may know what he’s doing. The dog may actually be on a “verbal leash”. But if we make exceptions for “special cases” where does it end?
If we each think that we can do what works best for us at the time- text while driving, park in the red zone, cut the line, drive where others can’t, swim in the rip current, or ignore any of the rules in place for our collective good and safety, where does that leave everyone else? Where does that leave our society?

Tower 47 Rescue

Mark Porretto was helping out with the beach service umbrellas early in the morning one day last weekend at 47th. You may recall that the water was extremely rough, and on this day the current was running from west to east with big surf. Mark and I grew up together on the beach. He’s a long time surfer, has worked countless hours on his family’s beach, and even in his 50’s is an incredible athlete who routinely competes in stand up paddle events. I mention this because it’s a very important part of the story.
The Beach Patrol has three shifts of lifeguards. The main one is later in the day when crowds are highest. The early one starts at 7:45am and, after the mandatory skills training session every guard does every day they work, they arrive at the towers before 9:15. The morning shift staffs towers that traditionally have early morning crowds that last all day and into the night. Places like a tower at Stewart Beach and East Beach, 61st, 59th, 53rd, 51st, 37th, and 29th get the early shift on the weekends. Then, when the other guard arrives at midday, these early guards do lunch breaks for 3 towers and rejoin the other guard in their original tower for the busiest part of the afternoon. After 5pm one guard takes care of each tower until dark.
When Mark arrived at 47th there was no lifeguard on duty. He spotted two heads very near the rock groin on the west side. Because of his experience he quickly figured out that they were caught in a rip current. He was quick thinking enough to know to grab something that floats, in this case his surfboard, and quickly paddled out to the two people. Keeping the board between himself and the victims, he got them stabilized on the board. Once they were calm enough he paddled them out past the end of the groin and let the long shore current take them around the end, past the rip current on the other side. He brought them to shore and made sure they were OK before continuing to set up the umbrellas. A little while later he saw another person drifting towards the rocks and did it all again a second time. Three people that very likely could have drowned if Mark had not been quick to spot the problem and had the skill set to effect the rescue.
Mark is a hero and this is not the first time he’s rescued people in the water. But for those who encounter this type of problem but don’t have the skill set or the physical ability to do this there is another, much safer option. We recommend strongly that you don’t enter the water to help someone drowning. Better to throw or extend something. At the end of each groin there is a rescue box that contains a ring buoy and throw bag. Grab the rope and throw the ring and call 911. We’ll be there quickly.

Annual BBQ Fundraiser!

Wow! Hard to believe how fast summer is moving. Tonight is our annual BBQ fundraiser. Come down to the Press Box at 24th and Post Office from 6 till 10pm. You can get a ticket at the door for fifteen bucks. You’ll have great food cooked by people who understand great BBQ- the Galveston Rugby Team. The music by Los Mighty Hooks, who have strong lifeguard ties, will be spectacular. But most importantly, you’ll have all the beach people of the island in one place. Surfers, sailors, beach vendors, fisher folk, lifeguards, Wave Watchers, Survivor Support Network members, junior guards, first responders, park staff, beach maintenance crew, park board and city staff, and locals who love the beach will all be there. It’s a great chance to let all the people that make our beaches work know how important they are to Galveston. And for 22 years it’s been the beach party of the year!
We have been extraordinarily busy this season so far. Weekends have been incredibly full. The beaches are packed from the East Beach Park all the way to the tip of the San Luis Pass. We’ve been barely staying on top of things with our whole staff stretched to the limit. I’m so proud of our lifeguards who show up early to train before work, work a full day, then some of them are out in the middle of the night responding to boating accidents, lost people, possible drownings, and all kinds of summer madness. Thanks to the safety net of the Beach Patrol, Fire Departments, Police, Sheriff Office, and EMS we’ve collectively been able to stay on top of it. But it’s clear that there are more people using our beaches, bays, and waterways than ever before. And they’re using them more of the year.
We have enough staff to stay on top of all that we’re covering, but just barely. We still have positions to fill, and as summer wears on we don’t want to burn out the good lifeguards we have now. So starting Monday, June 18th, we’ll be holding an unprecedented third academy of the year. If you know anyone that is interested, we’ll hold tryouts at 7am at the A&M pool and will launch right into a nine day academy that same day. We’ll pay for all the training candidates receive as they go through the course. Join our family!
We’re keeping an eye on the tropical wave as it moves into the gulf. This is a good reminder that its hurricane season, so don’t forget to make your plan and be ready to evacuate if something looks like it’s coming this way. If you’re like my family, they plan on taking a couple trips a year to visit friends and family around Texas, but just wait till the inevitable storm scare to take the trip. That way they get out early without any problems even if nothing happens. Good excuse for a mini vacation.
Hope to see you tonight or soon on the beach!

Big Crowds

The Beach Patrol has had a rough season so far. Much of this has been covered in the news and I’ll cover some of this in a future column. But last weekend we saw what is probably the busiest weekend we’ve had in a few years. Many have attributed this to the news stories that happened during and after Memorial Weekend. Others say it’s because we had such a cold spring and everyone was chomping at the bit to get out to the beach. Whatever the reason or combination of reasons, the combination of crowds and rough weather stretched us to our absolute limits.
At one point of the day we had 4 major calls going on simultaneously including two “possible drowning” calls, a boating emergency, and a CPR in progress call. Threaded through all the big calls was a continual backdrop of lost children (35 or so each day), minor medical calls, swimmers being moved from danger, calls for assistance because people wouldn’t follow lifeguards’ direction, trash can fires, disputes, complaints about music/parking/other people, dogs off their leashes, and a million other things. I was so incredibly proud of how hard our staff worked to take care of their respective parts of the 32 miles of coast line.
The water was no longer blue and clear, although it was still a nice sandy green. But lots of people were asking why we didn’t make the water more blue. I still think some people don’t realize the beach isn’t a water park! But it did get me to thinking about water color and clarity.
There are lots of theories about this but what I’ve seen over the years is that the water follows two basic rules. The first is very obvious. If there are waves the sand gets churned up in the water. So it’s a little less clear than it would be without the wave energy in the water.
The other, and more significant rule, is that if the wind blows from the southwest or west, the current comes from down the coast (from west to east). When that happens, the water gets more brown in color and less clear. There is a very simple reason for that. Just below us the Brazos River empties into the Gulf. The Brazos River is very silty and brown. When it empties into the gulf and the current pushes it up to Galveston.
If the water comes from above us, with a wind from an easterly direction, the water defaults to its normal color of green or even blue. If there is not much surf activity for a couple of days the silt settles out of it and it can get very clear. This happens about half the time, but is typical of the second half of the summer.
So, over Memorial Weekend, with big crowds, media coverage, and beautiful clear water our local secret got out and people know it can get clear and beautiful. I hope they forget before we can’t afford to live here anymore!

Memorial Day for the Books

It’s rare that all the elements come together for a perfect weekend on a holiday. This year’s Memorial Weekend did. Three perfect days in a row. The sun was out, the winds were light. It was warm but not hot. And the water ranged from all the way flat to a very slight groundswell rolling in from the storm that hit Florida. On top of all that, the water was a beautiful emerald green and the fish were biting.
Even the crowds were near perfect. There were a lot of people here, but there wasn’t so many as to cause gridlock. Traffic moved, albeit slowly, on the seawall all three days. And, typical of the early season, everyone seemed to be in a pretty good mood. Everyone just seemed to be happy to be hanging out with friends and family, enjoying the amazing weather, and doing activities that they love.
I don’t mean to imply that things were perfect from the public safety side. You don’t get several hundred thousand people in one place without some mishaps. Some of the west end beaches had some issues later in the day, which were handled admirably as usual by the Galveston Police Department. As is the procedure on holidays, we clear the east end parks at the end of the day according to state guidelines. The process was mostly handled by the Park Board Security Detail, which is run by the Galveston Police Department. Beach Patrol helped as well. It went pretty smoothly considering that several thousand people had to get all their stuff together and get their vehicles out of the park. We also had a lightning storm blast through the east side of the island at peak crowd time on the peak day. Sunday at 3pm was a tough time to clear around 10,000 from the water when their having a good time! But we got through it and everyone got to get back to the party after about half an hour. We also had a tough time keeping swimmers out of the water at the ends of the island.
There were 5 calls of a “possible drowning” that we responded to. Two were false alarms and one was in a pool and was transported by EMS in stable condition. One was of a 3 year old girl at Hershey Beach on Saturday evening. A bystander reportedly pulled her in and started CPR. When we arrived she was alert and conscious. We put her on oxygen and EMS transported her. The tragic call dropped on Saturday morning early. An elderly man was out fishing at Pirates Beach in about waist deep water. A bystander noticed him face down and two men pulled him in. Multiple responders were there quickly but unfortunately, he did not survive. There were no signs of unusual currents or drop offs.
To give a feel for how busy we were over the weekend some stats are: 48,847 preventative actions, 25 lost children reunited, 36 medical responses, and about 200 enforcement actions.
Whew!

Memorial Day Weekend!

All the preparation is done. The equipment is ready, the planning is over, and the time for preparation transitions to the time for action. This week had a great drill to help sharpen our communication strategies and rescue techniques among our group and between our emergency response partners. We finalized plans and schedules and met with our various partners to make sure we’re all on the same page. And our “Night Swim”, when our entire staff goes through a grueling two hour test of skill and stamina, went off without a hitch.
This weekend will see between 250 and 500 thousand visitors to the island. The saving grace is that we are now almost at full strength. We’ll be ready for whatever madness the hundreds of thousands of visitors this weekend bring, as will our partners in the Police, Fire, EMS, Beach Parks, Coastal Zone Management, and Parking teams. We all provide an extra layer of protection, support, and response, but ultimately our visitors are primarily responsible for their safety and well being.
So, this weekend if you’re going to the beach or anywhere near the water, remember it’s easy to let down your guard when you’re recreating. Here are a few of the more important safety tips:
Swim near a lifeguard- almost every tower will be staffed every day for a double shift. We’ll be out there from early morning till dark, so shouldn’t be hard to find. The guard is an added layer of protection although you are still responsible for your own safety.
Stay away from the rocks- where there is a chance you could be caught in a dangerous rip current.
Avoid swimming or wading at the ends of the island- The San Luis Pass and the Ship Channel have very strong tidal flow. The water there is not only very dangerous, but they are illegal areas for swimming.
Don’t swim alone- your buddy can call or wave for help if you can’t.
Don’t dive in head first- to avoid the chance of a head or neck injury.
Observe warning signs and flags- ours are all bilingual and use icons.
Non-swimmers and children should use lifejackets when in our around the water
Alcohol and water don’t mix- most of the beaches here are alcohol free, but if you choose to drink, try to remember that, even though you feel invincible, you’re not.
Take precautions from the heat and sun- such as loose fitting clothing and a hat, sunscreen with a high SPF, good sunglasses, and drinking plenty of non-alcoholic, non-caffeinated beverages.
Remember the beach isn’t a pool or pond. There are currents, marine life, and the bottom is uneven with troughs and drop-offs. You should be much more careful and be sure to not exceed your ability.
Above all, remember the beach is a wonderful place. Go, have fun, and focus on family, friends, recreation, and making memories. Take a well earned break from your routine with friends and family. Just do it safely!