Posts

Why They Come

Early Saturday morning I took my daughter, Kai, to the D’Feet Breast Cancer run at Moody Gardens. She had a great time and did the kids 1K, which was the first race she’d ever entered. Afterwards there was a kids’ party that had a whole lot of sponsorship tables with art projects for the kids. She and a couple of her friends from school were manically jumping from one table where they made stain glass windows to another for pet rocks, to yet a third where they made necklaces. It was a really wonderful event.

My wife was out of town and I really don’t know what to do when I don’t work on the weekends. Kai cooked up some scheme that I went along with. She invited a friend for a sleepover and then we invited a few of her friends and their parents to our place for beach and surf time.

It turned out to be a beautiful day. Kai and her friend Chloe, both 8, went with me to the store to get snacks, which they prepared as if they were top chefs in a fancy restaurant. The mob showed up and we set up umbrellas and chairs and boards and sand toys. I grabbed a 12 foot longboard and took 3 or 4 kids at a time out to chest deep water and pushed them into wave after wave. They squealed and laughed till I thought they’d bust a gut. They switched out and made sand castles, looked for shells, played with hermit crabs, and then came for another round of surfing. I got relieved by another couple of parents and went to hang out under the umbrellas.

Sitting under the umbrella I started to relax a bit. Some parents were chatting quietly and others were just sitting and watching the kids play together. The day was perfect and sunny and neither hot nor cool. And that’s when it hit me:

People do this all the time! And they do it because there’s not much better than sitting on the beach under an umbrella in a comfortable beach chair with friends. And I’ve been missing out. Since I’ve been 16 I’ve always worked on beach holiday weekends and pretty much every weekend that’s warm enough for the beach. I’m not complaining at all, it’s a fantastic job. But when there are 300,000 people on the island there is nothing relaxing about working the beach.

Spending that time made me realize why we have almost 6 million visitors a year. We live in a wonderful place. When they get tired of the beach there are so many great things to do between the strand, Moody Gardens, historical buildings, Schlitterbahn, nature tours, great bars, restaurants, and shopping and more. But mostly they come for the beach.

Sitting under that umbrella and listening to the kids playing, the waves rolling to shore, birds, breeze, and all the sounds that make up the stillness was a real reminder of why they come.

Surf Story

The 10 year old boy lay on his battered surfboard on the west side of the 10th street pier. He had caught a couple of waves by standing besides the board and pushing off the bottom. Now he was a little farther out and was trying to paddle into waves.

He’d had success a couple of times and had caught a couple of rides where he actually stood up, turned and surfed down the wave staying ahead of the white water. He was hooked.

More success increased his confidence and he went farther and farther out after each successful ride. He was about ¾ of the way out to the end when he spotted a pack of surfers just off the edge of the tip of the jetty. He sat up on his board and stared in wonder as one of them caught wave after wave, flowing gracefully. The surfer would take off and make a hard bottom turn that led straight into an off the lip, cutback, or short tube ride. Then he’d meld that seamlessly into another and another maneuver before kicking out right next to the jetty and float effortlessly back out to the end.

The young boy wanted to see more and paddled even further out. As he sat on his board peering over the waves the surfer he’d been watching came screaming down the face of a larger set wave heading right for the boy. Everything happened too fast for the boy to get out of the way and, instead, he ditched his board and dove for the bottom. He grabbed sand and waited to the wave and pointy boards passed over before resurfacing. When he broke through the older man was right in front of him.
“YOU STUPID KOOK!” the man yelled balling up his fist. “I was here first!” he yelled, his little tween voice cracking. The older surfer looked like he was going to hit the boy for a minute, and then seemed to think better of it. Instead he paddled off, a deep gash on his leg trailing blood (which he glued together with crazy glue and kept surfing). He turned, glared at the boy and yelled, “GET OUT OF THE WATER AND GO HOME GROM!”

I learned a lot that day. And now, almost 40 years later, I’m intimately familiar with all the rules I broke. The person on the wave has the right of way. The person closest to the curl has the right of way. The first person to stand up has the right of way. Beginners (“groms”) should stay away from the pier, the rip current, and the pack at the end. And in every surfing pack there’s an “alpha”. That guy or girl gets their choice of waves and should be shown respect at all times.

Nowadays there are more surfers and fewer fights. But the unwritten rules haven’t. Fortunately, it’s a gentler learning process for those versions of the early me out in the water today.

 

Photo Credit: Stan Shebs

Clear Water

The orange ball of the sun balanced on the horizon line, mirrored in the glassy water. The world was silent, except for the faint sound of the surf ski slicing through the water, and occasional gulls as they flew by.

When the water is glass, a surf ski, which is essentially just a skinny fast kayak, really comes into its own as you skim across the water. As I settled into my workout, I fell out of time for awhile until, much later, movement caught my eye. The sun was a bit higher and I was about a mile or so offshore paddling parallel to the island when I noticed shadows passing beneath me. As I looked closer, I realized the water was exceptionally clear and I could see a school of cow-nosed rays passing beneath me. A few minutes later I saw more and then again more. All in all I must have seen 40 or 50 of them.

I like training early on the beach. An empty beach is a really different thing than a crowded midday one. You see things you’d never notice when the press of humanity and the operational needs of the Beach Patrol combine. This past week has been extraordinary because we’ve had some of that rare, super clear water we only get from time to time. While swimming in 10 feet of water you’ve been able to see the ripples of the sand on the bottom. While paddling a board you can see fish below the surface. The only bad part is that for those who spend a bunch of time in the water it’s a bit unnerving to actually see all the animals that you know are there, but don’t have to think about because you rarely see them.

Just the right set of conditions of a gentle east wind causing a slight east to west current with no surf came together to make this happen. The seaweed even stopped coming in, at least temporarily. I’ve noticed the few beachgoers we’ve had the past few days often wade out to shoulder deep water and stop for long periods looking down at their toes and small fish swimming around.

One of the good and bad things about living here is that it’s such a dynamic environment. The bad part is this beautiful water will be gone soon. But the good part is that we’ll be seeing cooler weather, maybe some surf, and soon this mosquito infestation will be over!

The weekends will still be busy for quite some time but the weekdays in the fall are finally here. Locals, this is your chance. Time to go to the beach without all the hubbub and be reminded that one of the best things about living here is the ability to enjoy this incredible environment we all take too much for granted.

Even if you don’t go to the beach it’s now safe to drive down the seawall. At least on the weekdays when drivers stay in their own lanes for a change!

Labor Day Advisory

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.

Over the past couple of weeks there have been several rescues that we’ve had to make by the rock jetties despite our best efforts to keep people far enough away to avoid trouble. There have also been a couple of incidents involving young children in area pools that nearly drowned and two men drowned in the San Luis Pass area while boating from the Brazoria County side. 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 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 is 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, what to watch for 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 minute to be aware of your surroundings and potential risk. You also want to remember the basics like not swimming alone, staying hydrated, protecting yourself from the sun, observing signs and flags, feet first first time, alcohol and water don’t mix, and non-swimmers  and children should wear lifejackets. At the beach, you should also avoid swimming in areas where rip currents are likely, like near piers and jetties. These are protected by lifeguards and clearly marked with bilingual, iconic signage.

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.

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.

Enjoy the Labor Day weekend. You deserve it. See you on the beach!

Late Summer Safety

Late summer brings some real significant changes to the beachfront that can impact what you need to do to stay safe. In spring and Early to mid-summer we are almost overwhelmingly concerned with rip currents and keeping people out of them. As we move into hotter weather and calmer water conditions other concerns come into play as well. With a few safety precautions you can avoid most or all of these.

To be clear, rip currents are the primary safety concern on the beach year round. The current running perpendicular to shore that is generally found near the rock groins is a constant hazard. It pulls offshore and takes sand with it leaving a trough. Even on the calmest of days you want to avoid swimming or wading near structures that stick out into the water, obey warning signs, and swim near a lifeguard that will remind you if you slip up. If caught in a rip, stay calm, call or wave for help, and just float. If you’re a good swimmer, swim parallel to shore until you get out of the rip current and then to shore. If someone else is caught in one don’t go in after them. Call 911 or signal a guard, throw a float or rope and/or extend a reaching object to them.

But now that we’re in a calmer weather pattern and the heat has hit be sure and take precautions for the heat and sun. Wear light colored, loose fitting clothing, apply sunscreen with a high SPF rating, wear protective glasses with a high UVA and UVB protection, drink plenty of fluid, and seek shade periodically. If you feel weak, dizzy, or disoriented and have paler than normal, clammy skin you may be suffering from heat exhaustion. Get cool and out of the sun, drink fluids, and self-monitor. If left unchecked this can lead to heat stroke, which is an extreme emergency. If you stop sweating and have hot, dry skin and a reduced level of consciousness it’s critical that you cool down and get to a hospital as soon as possible.

When the water gets calm lots of critters can move closer to shore unmolested by heavy wave action. We’ve seen a drastic increase in stingray hits the past couple of weeks, including a couple of lifeguards. The barbs are loaded with nastiness and usually break off under the skin causing certain infection. Treatment is lots of heat on the puncture site which alleviates the pain rapidly. You should always seek medical care so they can check if there’s a broken off piece of the barb in there and start you on a course of antibiotics. The good thing about stingrays is that they’re easily avoided. Shuffling your feet when in shallow water lets sting rays and a bunch of other critters know you’re in the area so they can make a quick getaway. After all, if some giant, weird looking creature tried to step on you, wouldn’t you fight back however you could?

South Padre Island Competition

The drive to South Padre is long. After 5 hours or so we pulled into a truck stop to get some gas. It was over 100 degrees and the wind was blasting at nearly 30mph. Cowboys gawked as we got out of our lifeguard truck piled high with boards, buoys, flags and other competition equipment.

The next morning we arrived at Isla Blanca County Park just after 6am to a beautiful day. We were greeted by a bunch of enthusiastic young lifeguards who were really helpful as we set up a water course with 10 flags that corresponded to the 10 flags on PVC posts along the shoreline.

The Gulf Coast Regional Championships started off with a run, followed by a run-swim-run, rescue board race, 4X100 meter beach relay, swim rescue, rescue board rescue, and a game of beach flags. Three teams were represented: Galveston Beach Patrol, South Padre Island Beach Patrol, and Cameron County Beach Patrol. There was a 15 minute break between each race and the marshaling for the next one. As the day wore on, more and more people crowded around to see what was going on. This was the first time an event like this has been held on SPI and everyone wanted to know all about it. Isla Blanca was the perfect venue with several thousand people already at the park on this busy Sunday.

Because we couldn’t spare many guards we only went down there with three people. Along with me were Kevin Anderson and Amie Hufton who are both good athletes and experienced competitors. Despite this, Kevin and I were surprised to see two of the younger guards blast off during the swim and beat us to the finish line by a few seconds. We got our game face on but still had some little dude beat us in the paddle. Meanwhile Amie won the women’s run, got 2nd in the swim, and won the paddle. Kevin and I finally got it together and won both the swim rescue and the rescue board rescue by a big margin. By 1pm we wrapped everything up with Team Galveston winning 5 firsts, 3 seconds, 4 thirds, and 2 fourths.

From there we caught a quick lunch and then joined the city lifeguards in a 3 kilometer paddle that ended in a fundraising party. I’d spend quite a bit of time down there a few years back helping both groups set up lifeguard services and it was good to catch up with friends and acquaintances  from that time that are involved with city and county government, lifesaving, and surfing. But we were all definitely glad to crawl into our beds in the hotel and I think we were all sound asleep by 10pm!

5 years ago there were no lifeguards in South Padre island. Now the county has 45 guards and the city has 25 and they have joined the United States Lifesaving Association. Many lives have been saved and will be saved.

4th of July Tips

If you’re like several hundred thousand others, you’ll be heading to the beaches on or near Galveston and Bolivar Peninsula this weekend. For many, the beach is a perfect place to spend time with your friends and family while you enjoy some Texas or Tejano style BBQ, surf, and sand. Some 3-500 thousand people will likely be on the island this weekend and we would all really like to see all of them get home safely. There are several ways to do that.

The main thing is to swim near a lifeguard. You chances of drowning in an area protected by guards trained to the minimum standards set by the United States Lifesaving Association are 1 in 18 million. The Galveston Island Beach Patrol is certified as an “Advanced” agency by this group, which is their highest level. You are responsible for your own safety but guards provide a valuable additional layer of protection.

Rip currents are the cause of 80% of rescues made in the surf. In Texas the strongest rip currents are found near structures like rock groins and piers. That’s why on the seawall the guard towers are near the groin and why we put signs and ropes in the area. Stay away from the rocks and while swimming check the shoreline to make sure you’re not drifting near them without realizing it.

The ends of the island are very dangerous with strong periodic tidal flows. You should not swim or wade in the areas of the San Luis Pass and the Houston Ship Channel. Both ends of the island have a long history of drownings. Both ends are now heavily patrolled but it only takes a few seconds for tragedy to strike.

Now that the Texas heat is on us be sure and take extra precautions for the heat and sun. Use sunscreen with a high SPF, wear protective clothing and sunglasses, and stay hydrated. If you start feeling nauseous, weak, or dizzy you could be feeling the effects of the sun and should rehydrate and seek shade.

Be sure you keep your kids in sight and get in the water with small kids or kids that are poor swimmers. Stay close to shore. Strong currents all week mean there are deep troughs near the shore so be extra careful.

In case you haven’t heard, most of the Caribbean and Gulf has been heavily impacted by Sargassum. The Park Board maintenance department has been working unbelievable hours to keep the beaches looking nice. Stewart Beach, East Beach, and the Seawall are the most clear. Over the weekend the Galveston Park Board is sponsoring beach “Bucket Brigades” where kids can join a tour led by marine biologists to learn about the environmental benefits of seaweed and how it is a habitat for marine life.   Look for our beach volunteers wearing bright orange t-shirts while out on the beach or visit www.galvestonbeachinfo.com.

Well be out in force, so check with the guard when you arrive for specific information and have fun!

Memorial Magic

Somehow it all came together for Memorial Weekend.

The beach cleaning crews worked from midnight until people started crowding the beaches in the morning to remove the Sargassum from the shoreline. By first light the beaches looked pretty good. We finished the last little part of the new lifeguard training Friday night and the rookie lifeguards hit the beaches early Saturday morning for their first shift. They were joined half way through by the returning guards who used their experience to take the more difficult afternoon and evening shift. The beach security detail was heavily staffed and did an admirable job of dealing with the thousands that visited the parks. Lost child details were at designated sites, dispatchers trained and in place, beach vendors had all their equipment out, and park staff was hired, trained, and ready to go. EMS, Fire, and Police were fully staffed and out in force. All the pieces were in place and we needed every one of them.

From the time we started on Saturday morning until we crawled home late Monday night it was non-stop. Sunday was the peak and there seemed to be so many people on the island that their combined weight would make it sink. On Sunday alone we had over 40 lost children. Over the weekend we made almost 3,000 preventative actions where people were moved from dangerous areas. The Park Board park security detail did an admirable job of clearing well over 20,000 people from the two largest beach parks at the end of the day before they left. This kept us from getting called back in for drownings, fights, or other problems throughout the night.

The San Luis Pass was a hot spot. The police department worked hard to keep all the 4 wheelers and motorbikes under control while we struggled to get hundreds of would be swimmers to stay out of the dangerous waters that claimed four lives this time last year. Our new detail worked really, really hard and removed just short of a thousand people from the waters of the pass over the three day holiday. The also spoke with around 1,500 tourists about the dangers of the area, where it is safe to swim out there, and offered information about the island attractions.

Elbow grease wasn’t the only thing that caused things to go well. Fate smiled on our island by somehow halting the seemingly relentless flow of seaweed we’ve gotten lately during the weekend. The sun shown, the rain went elsewhere, and we had a refreshing breeze. We had few serious problems and, despite the half million visitors, no drownings.

As I drove the beach smelling the familiar BBQ, suntan lotion, and saltwater combination so unique to Galveston this time of year, I saw kids and parents, lovers, friends, and people seeking solitude. All enjoying a place that enables them take time away from their daily stresses and focus on more important things for a little while. It’s a magic place.

Easter, Menard, and Burgers

Sunday was a good day.

Finally! We finally got the weather we all love. And it actually happened on Easter Weekend. It was perfect with sunny conditions, mild temperatures, flat blue/green water, and heaps of people out enjoying themselves. The crowds were well behaved and everyone seemed to be really thankful for finally getting the chance to hang out on the beach.

I enjoyed the entire weekend. It was great to drive the beaches and finally see so many local and tourist families making sandcastles, swimming, laying out, cooking BBQ, and getting to spend quality time with each other. It was one of those times that makes you thankful for the life choices you’ve made to put you where you are. We had a good turnout Saturday morning for lifeguard requalification and tryouts as well.

Sunday I started my normal high season weekend routine. I like the weekends because I get to do what I originally joined Beach Patrol to do- spend time helping people on the beach. I got up early and checked the entire beach and then had a good long surf-ski (a long, skinny kayak) workout in the ocean. Next I checked the beaches again and got to our headquarters to meet with the second shift guards before they went out to their towers.

After a few administrative duties I had my Sunday indulgence that I look forward to all week- a Whataburger! Generally, I try to eat fairly healthy but this is different. My Grandma and I were close and, after an injury, she relocated from her apartment into an assisted living space. She was kept on a strict diet, but on Sundays, she’d give me a call and say, “Are you bringing my package?” So I’d sneak in two Whataburgers in a backpack, we’d barricade her door to keep out potential snitches, and get to business!

As I went through the drive through the food took a while, so I chatted with the woman working. She was telling me about a reunion she’d been to the day before up on the beach at 29th. She grew up in the neighborhood around Menard Park and many of the old crew have moved out. They all still get together each year for Easter for a friends and family reunion.

Back when I started working as a tower guard I was assigned to 29th most of the summer. There were huge neighborhood parties across the street every Sunday and all the kids came down to my beach to play. I never had to bring lunch as someone always showed up at my tower with a huge plate of food to thank me for watching the kids. When I got off-duty a group of guys around my age would move over to the beach side of the seawall. I’d tell them the trouble spots and they’d keep the kids safe well into the night. Talking about those days brought back some good memories.

Like I said, Sunday was a good day.

 

Oil, Tri, and Jesse Tree

Very early one day last week I was about 150 yards from shore directly in front of the 37th street pier. I’ve been working quite a bit lately helping to coordinate resources due to the oil spill and it felt good to switch gears for a couple of hours. It was barely light and really foggy and these big rolling swells were coming in. As I paddled I looked back and saw three bottle nosed dolphins in the wave. Taking off I cut right and saw a big shape half submerged from which a very human looking eye looked at me. The dolphin and I made eye contact for what felt like several seconds before it submerged. I sent a silent greeting and felt gratitude that so little of our local wildlife was affected by the spill, at least compared to what could have happened.

We really dodged a bullet. The beaches look great and were barely impacted. It’s been an amazing experience working with the dedicated people that have been toiling around the clock to make things right.  When we wrap things up I’ll write more about this, but the weather is warming and its beach time! Lots of beach and Beach Patrol related events are coming, but there are a couple that I wanted to share.

Sunday is the Memorial Herman Ironman triathlon at Moody Gardens. This race has gotten huge and there will be several thousand athletes out there. We’re providing water security for the swim along with the Sheriff and Police Department dive teams. Come support this amazing event that brings so many people and so much good PR to Galveston.

In my column, I have shared many stories about how effective The Survivor’s Support Network is when a drowning occurs on Galveston Island. Since The Jesse Tree sold its building on Market Street, many people are unaware that their services not only have continued, but in fact expanded on the island.

The Jesse Tree uses compassionate, common sense in all of its projects and touches thousands of lives across the county and the region. Many of the families of drowning victims come from miles away.  They are so impressed with The Beach Patrol’s ability to connect them with The Jesse Tree and all the resources they bring to bear in their time of need.  It’s been a huge help to us and I encourage you to lend your support to this organization.

In fact, The Empty Bowl Event is coming up on Friday, April 11th at 6 PM at The Garten Verein. It’s a great event and generates funds to support The Jesse Tree.  This year you can sponsor an entire table of ten and invite family, friends or co-workers to turn out to show their support for the organization.  The event is sponsored by The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Galveston. Tickets can be purchased online at www.jesset ree.net. You can also call (409) 599 4847 or mail contributions to P.O. Box 575, Galveston, TX  77553.