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A Dynamic Environment

If you’ve been on the beach anytime in the past couple of weeks, you’ve probably noticed that we’ve had day after day of wind running parallel down the beach. And then, on top of that, we had extreme conditions over the weekend. This does some pretty interesting things to the bottom, which affect the safety of people that swim or wade in the water for quite a while.

The bottom within the surf zone has a memory. When current runs it picks up sand and moves it, causing a trench or trough, which is also known in “Galvestonese” as a “hole”. These are found consistently near structures like groins or piers and between the sand bars along the beachfront. These troughs can last hours to days, even after the conditions change significantly.

An example would be when wind blows parallel with the shoreline, causing a “littoral” or “longshore” current. This cuts deeper spots that run parallel to shore, forming our sandbar and trough system. This system is always there, but after a few days of strong current the difference between the sandbars and troughs is more pronounced. Deep troughs can be scoured out pretty close to shore. So, in extreme cases you can find water 5-6 feet deep only 15 yards from shore. Imagine the dangers for small children on these days. To make matters worse, when this is coupled with high surf, water from the waves can be pushed up to the shoreline and will have to find a way back out. If it breaks through a sandbar on the way out, more water follows, and it causes a trench perpendicular to shore that is a conduit for even more water to head back offshore. This causes a type of rip current called a “fixed rip”, which can last several hours.

Another example is that the groins and piers cause the water flowing parallel to head out away from the shore. This causes rip currents (not rip tides!) which are always there, called “permanent rips”. The deep spots near the rocks caused by all that water flowing out are responsible for water flowing out, maintaining the troughs, and causing danger, even on calm days. Water is lazy. It always seeks the path of least resistance.

A final danger imprinted in the “memory” of the bottom is “inshore holes” formed when larger/stronger waves break close enough to shore that they spill over, cut through the water, and smash into the bottom. These holes can be fairly deep. My daughter and I body surf a lot in the evenings lately and we were laughing because I was up to my neck and she, while standing right next to me, was about waist deep.

As conditions calm, we’ll start seeing more normal bottom conditions after the sand jiggles back into place. For now, be extra careful.

The beach is a dynamic environment. This is why the guards are required to physically get in twice a day to check their area. That way they’re better able to spot trouble before it actually happens.

Photograph by Mabry Campbell

May School Graduates

We are having another tryout and lifeguard academy that will start at 7am on June 15th. Information is on our website. Spread the word!

Last weekend we had a big turnout for our lifeguard tryouts. Typically, less than half of the people that show up make it through the process and are admitted into our two week lifeguard academy. The 21 people that made it in may get whittled down more, but it looks like we have a really good crew. Unfortunately, we need more then this group to be fully staffed this summer, so we’ll try for more.

Our goal in the Beach Patrol Academy is to take a diverse bunch of people and make them into a seamless team. It’s always interesting to watch how people very different from each other become fast, lifelong friends in the process of this training and working together for a shared goal. We have one candidate that will make an unusual, but excellent addition to Galveston’s lifeguard service.

I’d like to introduce you to Bill Bower. As you’d imagine the average age in a typical academy is in the high teens or lower 20’s. Bill joined us a few weeks ago by volunteering to go through our Wave Watcher training program, which trains citizens how to spot trouble on the beach, be a tourist ambassador, and helps us expand our footprint. After getting to know a bit about our program as a volunteer, he decided to tryout. And tryout he did!

Bill holds the fastest qualifying time of all our candidates. At 62, this is impressive, but not surprising. He has an extensive background in aquatics. His father was a swim coach. Bill is a three time All American Swimming Champion. His senior year in high school he even broke the national record and went on a swimming scholarship to Tulane University. He worked for years as a swim coach and math teacher and has coached over 50 All Americans. But even more interesting is that while he coached and taught, he also traveled all over the world as a consultant for TSI.

At 60 this Renaissance Man started swimming competitively again and swims about 2 miles a day. He moved from Michigan to Galveston “for love” and is engaged to someone from Houston.

He said he was worried that he wouldn’t be accepted by the group. The first day a young woman sat next to him and said something about him being “brave”. But then they saw him swim.

Bill says, “It’s been a real challenge keeping up with the gifted athletes participating in lifeguard academy. They are an outstanding group and I’m proud to be part of the group. They have welcomed me despite my age…”

From my point of view we are very lucky to have Bill join the team. We’re excited to incorporate his experience and obvious skill in the water into our ranks. But even more, he is an impressive person who will represent Galveston well.

 

Easter Tragedy

Easter was a beautiful day on the beach. It was sunny and warm with a light breeze with moderate surf. All the beaches were packed and the guards were busy moving them away from the rock groins and other dangerous areas.

A 31 year old man and his 12 year old son walked down to the beach on 35th street. They waded into the cool water and went out to the first sandbar, which is about 20 yards from shore.

I heard a call on the radio from the lifeguard at 37th street that there was a possible drowning. Two of our trucks beat me there during the 5 minutes it took me to reach the area. When I arrived, Beach Patrol Captain Tony Pryor had assumed the role of “Incident Commander”. We had a jet ski team in the water and several guards were diving in the last seen point. A fire fighter had assumed the role of “Safety Officer” and was keeping track of all the people assigned to the various roles, especially the ones in the water. Other firefighters were on the adjacent groins and scanning. Police officers were controlling access to the area and taking information from witnesses and family members. We called the Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network team to provide support for the family while we searched.

As I pulled up to the scene and started getting the details from Captain Pryor he spotted something that looked like a shirt in the water. I saw it as well and, upon closer inspection, you could tell it was a body. I ran into the water as Captain Pryor called the Jet Ski team and waved to the swimmers in the area. We converged on it and the crew had the body on the back of the rescue sled and was starting CPR before they even hit the beach. The man was transferred to the back of the Beach Patrol truck as CPR was continued seamlessly. He was again transferred to the waiting EMS unit on the seawall and taken to John Sealy Emergency Room. Jesse Tree re-routed to John Sealy and provided support to the family as they were informed that the man could not be saved. They stayed with them for three full hours counseling, translating, and just being there.

Back on the beach the story that unfolded from witnesses was both heroic and unbearably tragic. The 12 year old son watched his father slip under the water, but survived because a young man that was renting umbrellas in the area spotted him having trouble and rushed out to him, risking his own life so that this 12 year old boy could live. The boy had barely remained afloat after he and his dad separated. The young man got to him just in time and was able to make the rescue.

7 busy hours later, at the end of the day, the Jesse Tree crew met the affected guards at our office for a critical incident stress diffusion.