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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.

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.

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.

Beach Safety Week

We’re in the middle of a lifeguard academy and lots more. We ended up with about 20 candidates out of the almost 40 that attempted the tryouts. But these 20 have some pretty serious challenges ahead of them in their 100-hour course that they have to complete before being able to work the beaches.

Next week is national “Beach Safety Week” and is arguably the most exciting week for us of the year. And we want you to participate!

Tuesday the 21st will be the annual Mass Aquatic Casualty Emergency Operation (M.A.C.E.O.) event. This is a huge drill held at 5pm at Stewart Beach. It’s designed to be a final practical test for our lifeguard academy, but has turned into something much larger through the years. The Lifeguard Candidates play the part of rescuers and medical responders as they rescue and triage “victims”, who are played by the more experienced guards. As they do this, they interface with emergency responders from a myriad of other agencies. So, they may rescue someone in conjunction with the Police Department Marine Division, bring them to shore where other candidates work with EMS and Fire to triage and treat injuries. Or they may assist peace officers in gathering information or blocking off an area. Wave Watcher volunteers will play the role of distraught family members as other volunteers from the Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network practice crisis intervention techniques. So far it looks like agencies participating include the US Coast Guard, Galveston Police and Fire Departments, Jamaica Beach Fire and Rescue, Sheriff Office Marine Division, Galveston EMS, Wave Watchers, Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network, Galveston PD Dispatch operations, and of course the Galveston Island Beach Patrol. After we finish, we’ll all work together to look for lessons learned and ways we can improve performance. This is a real good way to shake off the cobwebs and improve communication and operational procedures as we all head into the height of the tourist season.

In conjunction with this, the Park Board is hosting a first-time event called “Tourism Pays”. On Stewart Beach we’ll have equipment and personnel from the Park Board and Emergency Response groups from the area. Kind of a show and tell. Around 6:30 will be the presentation of a new award given in honor of Galveston lifesaving legend and Guinness Book of World Records record holder, Leroy Colombo. Following all of this will be hot dogs, hamburgers, and fellowship for participants and the community.

The following day, on Wednesday, May 22nd, is the final physical challenge for our academy. Candidates and returning guards will undergo a grueling course that includes running, swimming, special exercises (torture), skills, and lifesaving knowledge tests for an approximately two-hour challenge called the “night swim” We’ll start about 5:30 and end around 7:30 or 8. We’d love to see you at both events!

Following all this will be Memorial Weekend, so start making your plan and be sure you think about having fun, spending time with friends and family, and being safe!

Upcoming Events!

Game time!

Tomorrow morning (Saturday, May 11th) at 7am Lifeguard Candidates will line up to attempt to become Galveston Island Beach Patrol lifeguards. Those that complete the swim will be interviewed, submit to a drug screening, and join our Spring graduates in a run-swim-run challenge. If they get through all these obstacles, they’ll start the 100 hours of training needed to “ride the pine” and work as a tower lifeguard. It’s not too late to tryout. Info is at www.galvestonislandbeachpatrol.com/lifeguard . While all this is going on, returning guards who didn’t come back in the spring will be swimming, doing paper work, and taking the drug screening test. Many of them will then head out to work for their first day this season. We’re expecting 40-50 candidates to qualify for our lifeguard academy. These new guards will be a welcome addition. Not only have the crowds been unusually large for the past few weekends, but the busiest part of the year is almost on us and we need every trained and able-bodied lifeguard we can get out there to help keep the millions who visit the beaches safe.

Weather permitting there will be a lot going on this weekend with a paddle out ceremony for legendary G-town surfer Chris Hill, La Izquiera Surf Contest and Music Festival at the 91st street Fishing Pier, Bring Your Mom to the Beach Day Volleyball Tournament hosted by the Gulf Coast Volleyball Association at East Beach, Historic Homes Tour, and the Yagas wild Game Cook off. Next week is the annual Beach Review, and we’re only two weeks out from what is usually the busiest beach weekend of the year, Memorial Day Weekend.

The amount of preparation and training that has to happen each year to get all the seasonal staff, partner groups, and auxiliary staff members trained and re-trained is staggering. In addition to the Lifeguard Academy and Supervisor Training Academy within the next three weeks we’re also looking at a Dispatch Training Academy, Public Safety Responders Basic Water Rescue Course, Surf Camp Instructors Water Rescue Course, Park Board Police Firearms Requalification, and a Self Defense/De-Escalation class for our Wave Watchers. Additionally, on May 21st several first responder groups will join us for the annual “Mass Aquatic Critical Emergency Operation” (M.A.C.E.O.) at Stewart Beach. Joining us will be the Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network, who will use the event as a training scenario. Additionally, the new “Tourism Pays” event will be done in conjunction with MACEO. Once the Beach Patrol and the entire beach safety net gets through all this training, we’ll be sharp for Memorial Weekend and the summer. And as anyone who visits the beach knows, we’ll need it!

One thing to watch for is our annual BBQ fundraiser which will be at the Press Box this year on Friday, June 14th. This has, for over 20 years, been the beach party of the summer, so block off your calendar. We need silent auction items, so if you’re in the giving mood contact Tricia at tlimon@galvestonparkboard.org .

Cinco De Mayo

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

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

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

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

Team Work!

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

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

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

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

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

What a safety net and what a team!

Easter Weekend

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

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

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

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

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