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Taekwondo

Front kick-punch-punch, roundhouse-punch-punch, punch-punch-hook, back leg high roundhouse, punch-punch-hook-uppercut, back leg roundhouse. Raspy breath … sweat in my eye blurs vision…. “Four!”, Rick yells. Oh man I have so many more of these… focus… focus…. Try to control breathing…. “Retract those kicks!”, yells Grand Master Robles from the other side of the room. I grunt what I hope sounds like an acknowledgement. The voice in my head says, “Remember the order of the combination… chamber the kicks… rotate your body with the punches…. don’t let your movements fall apart because your lungs burn, you feel dizzy and are losing focus. “Five- keep it up”! Rick yells.

Living near the ocean, its hard not to notice the interconnectedness of the environment. Rain and calm conditions cause algae blooms, which in turn can reduce oxygen levels in the water and causes fish kill. Volunteers come out for Clean Galveston and clean the beaches and beach goers notice the difference. Wind leads to current and waves which in turn cause long shore and rip currents. A story about blue water doubles our weekend visitor count. A story about bacteria caused by rain runoff has the opposite effect. Light wind and hot weather increase umbrella rental revenue. Excessive heat leads to not only potential medical emergencies, but to crowd problems. Economic and other types of community support plus lots of proactive work by lifeguards can reduce drowning rates. Or the reverse.

For people who spend years on the beach observing connections between the environment, economy, and social trends, noticing connections becomes almost second nature. If people are observant, age can do the same. Glad it’s good for something!

A few years ago, I followed my daughter’s lead and joined a Taekwondo class. Then I started kickbox training in addition to that with Grand Master Ismael Robles and his best friend, and Galveston Ex Police Chief, Rick Boyle. My intent was to do something to hang out more with my daughter, get some cross training in for lifeguard sport, and to get better at self defense for my job. What I gained in addition to all of that was surprising.

Last weekend I tested for black belt. The test involved all the forms and combinations from all the belts, count kicks, specialty kicks, and sparring. The sparring involved 8 rounds against different experienced black belts, a two on one round, and a 5 on one round. I made some mistakes, but I was surprised by how much of the complicated curriculum I was able to get through because I’d repeated it so many times that it was committed to muscle memory. And there was a moment in the sparring when I was completely anaerobic, had tunnel vision, and my legs were not working well. But I was somehow able to do what I’d trained for. And the connection to public safety hit me at that moment.

First responders train and repeat over and over so that when they’re scared, exhausted, or overwhelmed they still do what they’re trained to do.

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!

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!

San Luis Pass Rescue

Daniel Gutierrez and Cameron Larson eased the jet ski up to Bird Island, which sits in the bay very near the San Luis Pass cut. A couple of people were stranded on the island because their jet ski had been caught by a falling tide and was stuck on the island. They found out about the people just as they were about to leave after a long day on the “Pass Patrol”, so fortunately were out there after regularly scheduled patrol times. Suddenly they received a call on the radio about swimmers in distress on the ocean side of the pass.

As they raced under the bridge and towards the beach front, they scanned for signs of people offshore. On their headset they heard that the west end patrol unit was headed out there as well “code 3” (using lights and sirens to get there as quickly as possible). As they came around the bend onto the beach front, they spotted two swimmers who were swimming out from shore. As they came into range, they realized that these swimmers were headed even farther offshore in an attempt to rescue two swimmers that were starting to go under. They also noticed a beach patrol truck pulling up and a rescuer running into the water with fins and a rescue tube. From there things happened quickly.

Daniel drove the jet ski close to the first victim, doing a quick practiced turn maneuver which launched Cameron towards the man, using the wake wave to push him the rest of the distance. He saw out of the corner of his eye that Cameron successfully made contact with the man, who they guessed was between 250 and 300 pounds. But he wasn’t able to do much to help Cameron since he had an issue of his own to deal with. A distance away, the man’s son was starting to go under water. He sped towards the kid and grabbed him in the nick of time, swinging him up onto the rescue sled. Once he made sure the child was OK for the moment he checked to see if Cameron was OK, which Cameron verified by the universal lifeguard hand signal of forming an “O” by putting your hand on your head. He returned the signal, and brought the child to Karina Villamil, who was swimming out to assist. Next he raced to check the first two swimmers, but Mary Stewart had been able to use the PA system in the rescue truck to get them to swim back to shore. Once they were all safe on shore Daniel and Cameron realized the father and son that they rescued were two of the several hundred people they’d already removed from the water in the prohibited swimming area.

By the time the dust cleared late Sunday night, over the 4th of July holiday the Beach Patrol moved 22,430 people from danger, responded to 60 medical calls, rescued 8 people, and responded to one drowning fatality.

Have a Safe 4th of July!

Hard to believe we’re already to the 4th of July holiday! Summer is flying by. We’re fully staffed, as are the other emergency services. But with up to 500 thousand visitors on the island this weekend, make sure you think of us as an added layer of protection and take protective measures to ensure your personal safety and that of your family. If you or yours are headed to the beach, remember not to check your brain at home or on the other side of the causeway!

Finally, we’re seeing normal summer water conditions as opposed to the constant wind, surf and currents that have plagued us since early May. We’re also starting to see a slight increase in critters like jellyfish and stingray, but so far it hasn’t been above our threshold to fly the purple flag that warns of high levels of marine pests though. Just as a reminder, the treatment for a jellyfish sting is rinsing with saline solution (or saltwater if that’s the nearest thing). This gets the tentacles off and keeps the sting from getting worse. Then do something for the pain like rub ice on it or treat with a topical anesthetic. Most stings are a pretty short-term event and it’s extremely rare to see any kind of allergic reaction to them. For stingrays, they’re easily prevented if you shuffle your feet while in the water. If you are unfortunate enough to catch a barb in your foot or ankle you want to soak it in hot water immediately- but not so hot you burn your skin. The pain goes away very quickly. Then you need to seek medical attention because they have a 100% infection rate.

Stay far away from groins and piers to avoid rip currents. Also remember to keep a close eye on your kids and wear a lifejacket if you’re a poor swimmer/child, on boats, or wade fishing. One thing to keep in mind is that we typically see a lot of heat related injuries (heat exhaustion and heat stroke) on this particular weekend. I’m not sure what it is about the combination of 10 hours of sun, BBQ, and beer that brings this on? Don’t forget to hydrate the non-alcoholic way, wear protective clothes and use sunscreen, seek shade periodically, and use decent sunglasses. And of course, avoid swimming on the ends of the island at the San Luis Pass or the Houston Ship Channel.

Forecast looks great. Should make for a great holiday weekend, so come on out to the beach. Just remember to swim near a lifeguard. We’ll have guards at all the towers from early morning until dark. So, stop by the tower and chat with the guard for the latest local beach info when you get there.

We really hope this holiday is a chance for you to spend quality time with family and friends and to remember how lucky we are to live here. Be safe and have a great 4th!

San Luis Pass Patrol

Halaen Betancourt was working our San Luis Pass Patrol last weekend and rolled up on a large group of adults and kids swimming in the ship channel. Most of them were in shallow water, with a few of them farther out. There was an area which was pretty shallow which was semi protected by an underwater curving peninsula that protected them from the worst of the strong tidal current that was flowing. Only the ones farther out in chest to neck deep water were in immediate danger of being swept into the deeper water. Haelen’s partner stayed in the vehicle and she walked over to talk to the adults in the group. The conversation went something like this:

“Hey how are you all? I just wanted to let you know that where you are swimming is really dangerous because of the strong tidal current. That’s why we post the signs that say not to swim and why there’s a city ordinance that prohibits swimming. Would you mind either not entering the water here, or moving to the beach front past the signs where it’s safer to swim?”

“That’s ridiculous! Were fine here. There’s hardly any current and we’re all good swimmers. We’re not moving.”

“I know it feels like it’s not dangerous and believe that you’re good swimmers but things change quickly here with currents and water depth changing with the tide. We’ve had several drownings over the past years so it’s now against the law to swim in these waters here. Would you please move to the beach front where you’ll be safer?”

Now, Haelen is a pro. She’s the daughter of Rudy Betancourt, who was a Beach Patrol Supervisor forever and was my riding partner for ten years. She also swam for the Galveston Island Swim Team under Beach Patrol Captain Tony Pryor for years, helped her dad with his umbrella business as a young kid, was in Junior Guards for 5 years, and has worked as a lifeguard for a long time. She doesn’t ruffle, knows the beach, and is great at conflict resolution. But even she had to threaten involving law enforcement so these people wouldn’t drown. But eventually she got them to stay out of the water, after much back and forth and enduring a lot of accusations and profanity.

That group was not atypical. It’s hard to convince some people to not do things that endanger themselves in general, but especially at the San Luis Pass. We have, up to this point this year, moved well over 7,000 people out of the water at The Pass. Not all of them cause as much of a problem as this group caused Haelen, but a significant number do.

But the extra headache and resources we, and our partner public safety and volunteer groups, spend down on the west end are very much worth the effort. Drownings have dropped very significantly despite increased usage. One has to wonder how many of those 7,000 people wouldn’t have made it back to shore if Haelen and her fellow guards weren’t there.

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.

22nd Annual BBQ Fundraiser!

Party Time!

The Galveston Island Beach Patrol will hold its 22nd Annual BBQ Fundraiser and Silent Auction today, Friday, June 14, 2019 from 6 pm – 10 pm on 24th Street between Church and Post Office. This location is in front of the Press Box restaurant and will be a lot of fun. BBQ dinner tickets are only $15 per plate and the food is prepared by our Galveston Rugby Team. Those guys can cook! Master Ukulele player Robert Krout and DJ Joe Rios will provide music entertainment, and we’ve got some really nice silent auction items. New this year is a presentation regarding #TourismPays and a demonstration of some equipment used by our Coastal Zone Management team. Bring the family and have some good food and good times at the BBQ Beach Party of the year. If you haven’t already bought tickets, just come on down and buy them at the event.

So far, this summer has been a really busy one for us. Even the weekdays are crazy, and it seems like we are called out every night for an aquatic emergency. We’ve also been cranking out the training courses for our staff and for other groups. The other day I was a little overwhelmed when I got back from helping Grandmaster Ismael Robles, our local martial arts and self defense legend, teach a self-defense/de-escalation course for the Park Board Coast Zone Management group. When I walked into our complex there was a lifeguard shift completing their daily training before hitting the towers, a CPR course my staff was teaching to the Park Board Parks Department, a huge group of Junior Guards out on the beach working through some rescue techniques, and a team in our Office Coordinator’s office working on some type of administrative deadline. And somehow in there we’re preparing to put on this giant BBQ fundraiser. A couple of hours later the beach really heated up and we had a couple of emergencies working at the same time during the normal busy afternoon workload of moving swimmers, finding lost kids, treating first aids, etc. Many of the same people were working the beach who had been instructing, teaching, and doing administrative work earlier, and they transitioned seamlessly to focus on the beach when it was needed. When I slow down enough to register this, I’m so proud and feel so much admiration for our staff. They have so much heart and show so much dedication. They truly care and put in so much energy day after day.

Monday, we start another lifeguard academy which means none of us will take a breath until after the 4th of July holiday. Send anyone interested our way! But after that the massive load of training up all our seasonal staff members will be over, and we can relax a little and focus on our main responsibility of protecting the people who visit our beaches.

Looking forward to seeing many of you tonight!

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.

Memorial Weekend!

It’s hard to believe that we’re already to Memorial Weekend! Looks like sunny skies, some surf and high tides, but overall really nice weather.

If you’re one of the several hundred thousand we’ll see on the beach this weekend remember to be safe while you’re out having fun. Specifically, swim near a lifeguard, stay far from the rocks, don’t swim alone, obey warning signs and flags, take precautions for the heat and sun, remember alcohol and water don’t mix, watch your kids closely, and for non- swimmers and children especially- wear a lifejacket when in or around the water. Our friends at the Houston/Galveston National Weather Service office are predicting some rough water and strong rip currents over the weekend so be extra careful. If you’re not sure about anything check with the lifeguard. All hands will be on deck so we’ll have really good coverage at all the parks, groins, and even on the west end including the San Luis Pass. We’re also getting some help from the County EOC’s Community Emergency Response Team in the form of extra patrols at the San Luis Pass. We have a new crew of lifeguards that just complete their over 100 hours of training that will be out working with the more experienced guards. And we’ll have yet another lifeguard academy start on June 15th so are on the lookout for some new guards.

The past couple of weeks have been a whirlwind of activity with the Lifeguard Academy going on, all the re-training of recurrent seasonal lifeguards, dispatch training, jet ski rescue recertification, taking care of all the last minute details on the beach, bringing water safety material to the hotels, final checks on equipment, and making sure all our personnel are good to go. We also got a very generous gift from the Moody Foundation in the form of some bicycle lights for our staff, and that of the Coastal Zone Management and Beach Parks departments. Since lots of our staff rely on bikes for transportation this is a real nice way to keep them safe.

The final physical exercise for our lifeguard academy was last Wednesday, May 22nd, where our entire staff, minus the ones that guarded and facilitated, competed in the dreaded “Night Swim”. This includes all kinds of challenges including runs, swims, rescue board paddles, calisthenics, a wall climb, knowledge checks, and other torture stations. Once our rookie lifeguards finish this they know they are able to face any kind of physical challenge, which translates to a more effective lifeguard force. Plus the returning staff can measure themselves against the rookies while re-orientating themselves to rescue work in rough surf.

Happy holidays from all of us here at the Beach Patrol and hope you and yours get a chance to take some time over the holiday to celebrate in whatever way that’s best for you. If you join the other hundreds of thousands on the beach, please swim safe and swim near a lifeguard!