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Sea of Swimmers

The sea of swimmers looks like mullet swimming all over each other. The start of the triathlon is hard to guard as waves of over 100 swimmers start every 5 minutes. Beach Patrol lifeguards, Police, Sheriff Deputies, along with other groups in kayaks, Jetskis, and boats watch over the masses, trying to pick out the ones that are tired, get cramps, panic, or have sudden medical issues during the swim. Some 70 or 80 require minor assistance and a handful are brought quickly to shore to be checked out by EMS. The Galveston Police dive team is suited up and ready, just in case.

This Sunday, April 7th is the Memorial Hermann Ironman 70.3 Texas. The event is based at the perfect venue for a triathlon, Moody Gardens. Triathletes typically come with a full entourage of family and friends. They usually have some degree of disposable income and like to visit local attractions before and after the race. Most importantly, they like the logistics to be simple. I remember many times coming into a new town for a race and, on top of the normal pre race jitters, having to navigate large cities to find the swim area, bike and run course, and different transition areas. At Moody Gardens its one stop shopping. On Galveston Island, it’s easy to find your way around, find parking, and enjoy all that our amazing venue has to offer.

We’re looking at around 3,000 athletes, along with all their entourage. Sports tourism is a growing industry and triathlon is one of the fastest growing sports around.

This is a “Half Ironman”, so involves a 1.2-mile swim, 56mile bike, and a 13.1-mile run. Not for those who aren’t really trained up!

The Beach Patrol and the Police Department Marine Division’s dive team work closely to provide water security. We work a sort of zone defense strategy. Lifeguards on rescue boards are placed strategically throughout the course with Lifeguard Supervisors on Jet Skis covering zones. The Police boat protects the race from boat traffic and is ready to dive for someone if the need arises. Using a system of whistles and hand signals rescues are made and tired swimmers are removed from the water. Every racer is tracked by an identifying number and a chip. EMS, Police, and volunteer crews coordinate emergencies, aid, and logistical support through a central dispatch. A whole lot of work goes on behind the scenes to support racers and minimize risk.

There are some inconveniences on the road parts of the race, particularly the bike. Fortunately, our Galveston Police Officers who plan and work the event are pro’s, as are the city crews who handle all the details of making the roads safe for everyone. So, it really minimizes the impact on traffic and the community.

But ultimately this is a great event for the island. When these thousands of sports tourists head home, they will spread the word. Galveston is a fantastic place to visit and has something for everyone.

Memorial Hermann IRONMAN 70.3 Texas

It’s not too late to sign up for our “Wave Watcher’s Academy” which starts next Monday! Info is on our website.

Last week one morning I went for a swim at the amazing new city pool. The water was just right, but as I got through my warm up set I started feeling really slow. Going through the normal checklist of recent meals, sleep, and previous day’s activities didn’t raise a flag. Then I realized I wasn’t swimming slower than normal, I was just getting shamed by a group of swimmers in the adjacent lanes. Turns out it was one of the pro foreign teams that came to the US to compete in the Galveston Ironman event last weekend!

This triathlon has really put Galveston on the map for the national and international triathlon community. With over 3,000 competitors and all their entourage it’s a big event here. Beach Patrol takes the lead on guarding it with a lot of help from our Galveston Marine Response partners. We’re always really busy during this event. After the final swimmer got out of the water and we received the “all clear” from the event organizers, we’d chalked up 112 swim assists, 16 rescues, and 2 rescues with major medical injuries that we passed over the Galveston EMS crew on site.

There are several reasons that Galveston is such a good site in the spring and fall for the Ironman triathlon and other sporting events. A venue like Moody Gardens is a great place for participants to stay with their families. While they’re out training and competing there are plenty of things for their friends and families to do all over the island. Galveston has a lot of amenities packed into a small, easy to navigate community, and between Moody Gardens, the Strand, Schlitterbahn, and all the beach parks, there’s no shortage of entertainment. But maybe the best thing is our proximity to the ocean.

Even if they never make it to the beach, the water makes the climate just perfect for much of the spring and fall. While inland towns have large temperature fluctuations, Galveston remains relatively constant. We typically see less than a 10 degree difference between the day and night. The ocean is like a temperature buffer. It’s particularly noticeable when we get to May and June. While mainland temperatures may spike into the upper 90’s, we see temperatures in the low to mid 80’s. As long as there’s an on-shore wind, the air passing over the cooler spring water is more temperate. In the fall, it’s the opposite. As mainland temperatures drop, the air hitting Galveston passes over warmer water, keeping it nice longer into the year. Of course, no place is perfect. When August rolls around and the air, water, and humidity are all in the 90’s it can be tough. And that moist, coastal breeze is not very welcome in December and January. But all in all, we’re pretty lucky to live here.

Low Profile

One of the most interesting of our 111 guards is Jeff Lewis, who has been with the Beach Patrol for 20 years and works part time as a seasonal Supervisor.

I like having Jeff on staff for many reasons. He’s a very competent, professional, and experienced lifeguard. But he’s also someone who is a great role model for the younger guards. Jeff runs both several Nationwide Insurance offices and several Century 21 offices in the Clear Lake Area.  He is also an extremely good triathlete who competes periodically in full Ironman races where he trains to swim 2 miles, bike over 100 miles, and run a full marathon continuously. But he loves lifeguarding and still manages to find the time to keep up his certifications, and work 2-3 days a week throughout the summer.

Imagine being a 16 year old and working your first job. As you drag yourself in to work and whine about having to do an hour of physical and skills training at the beginning of every shift to keep your competency up, you notice Jeff and a small group who showed up a couple of hours before the shift even started and did a full hour and a half of running, swimming, and paddling a rescue board. Then Jeff, who hit the 40 year mark recently, jumps in with the shift workout and blasts past all of the young high school team swimmers without breaking a sweat. And he rearranged his busy, busy life just so he can come do the same job because despite all the other things he has going on, there’s nothing quite as fulfilling as mentoring younger guards and keeping beach patrons safe for Jeff.

Jeff has an identical twin brother Greg. They worked Beach Patrol while running track at Rice University. They were young back then, but are small and looked (and still look) much younger. Because they were such amazing athletes they qualified to represent Texas in the National Lifeguard Championships in Cape May, New Jersey. “Team Texas” was sitting a diner eating breakfast the day before the competition started. Jeff and Greg were sitting together peering over the top of the table when a cute waitress came by to take our order. The diner was busy so she was in a hurry. Greg decided to lay down his “Mac” vibe and started trying to chat her up. When he inevitably said he was a national competitor she kind of snickered, obviously not believing him saying “REEEALLY?” Greg, without missing a beat, quipped, “We like to keep a low profile in Texas”. To this day Jeff and I while training will toss out that line and almost bust a gut.

But my favorite Jeff story is once while he and I were doing a race he pulled a leg muscle and barely finished. At the finish line Greg called and asked what happened to Jeff’s leg. Greg’s leg had a searing pain in the same spot. Greg lives 4 states away and didn’t even know Jeff was racing that day.

 

Tri Swim Tips

This Sunday the 21st is the big triathlon day at Moody Gardens. The Lone Star Spring and the Ironman are great events 5150 kick off early in the morning. There’s info at http://5150.com/race/5150galveston if you want to register or find out the details. Great event if you’re able to go watch.

The longer race has a swim of 1.5 Kilometers, or just under a mile. The short race has a swim of about 500 meters, which is the equivalent of 10 laps/20 lengths in a 25 meter pool. The Galveston Island Beach Patrol provides the water security for the two races each year and it’s a big undertaking making sure everyone gets through the course safely.

Part of the challenge is how popular the sport of Triathlon has gotten and thus how many people are new to it. This means that a huge percentage of the swimmers are swimming in open water for the first time and don’t know if they can make it all the way through the course. People who can barely complete the distance in a pool, or aren’t even sure if they can make that distance at all, jump in with hundreds of others and go for it. We’ll rescue scores of people, who panic, have cramps, get exhausted, etc. on Sunday. But it’s easy to prevent it with a few simple tips about open water swimming.

First of all, you should be able to swim at least double the distance in a pool that you plan on swimming in open water. Second, if the water is cold enough to wear a wetsuit you should. Not only is it faster, but a layer of neoprene adds a lot of flotation which means you essentially are bringing a lifejacket with you. Third, in open water you don’t usually get to touch bottom so you want to go a little slower than you might try to go in a pool. Conserving a little air and strength gives you a margin for error that makes it easier to recover if you hit some chop or get smacked by someone’s foot by accident. The extra buoyancy of salt water will help as well. Another good trick is that if you’re not a strong swimmer it’s not a bad idea to line up on the side of your swim wave so you don’t get knocked around when everyone is starting off and not yet spread out. You’ll actually do better as a strong swimmer by lining up in the middle of the pack because if you get behind a group of slightly faster swimmers you can benefit from getting sucked along in their draft. Finally a great tip is to look up every few strokes as you breathe (eyes first, breath second). Even if this slows you a little you’ll be faster overall because you’ll swim a straighter course.

Most importantly we have a great bunch of guards. If you get in trouble stay calm and hold up your hand. We’ll be there.

 

 

Special Event Safety

Tomorrow morning we’ll have our second lifeguard tryouts of the season. Candidates that are able to swim 500 meters in 9 minutes or less and pass a drug test and interview will have a shot at being beach lifeguards this summer. Our last tryout is May 10th. All the candidates who pass the initial screening will test their skills in a grueling double run-swim-run event in the surf. Completing this event will qualify them to enter our 100 hour lifeguard academy. Those that make it through this intense course will join the ranks of the Galveston Island Beach Patrol lifeguard staff.

Setting up for the run-swim-run event is quite a production. Two careful head counts take place before and after the event. The guards that work the event have a safety briefing before and a debriefing afterwards. At least one personal water craft (Jet Ski) with an operator and rescuer on board will be in the water overseeing the 8 or so seasoned lifeguards on rescue boards who work a zone formation. All candidates are checked at the finish line.

People in our line of work know how quickly bad things can happen and that eventually they will. It pays to be consistently prepared for any contingency and to put the extra effort in before the crisis. The best you can hope for is that you are over prepared and have safety systems in place that don’t need to be implemented.

This philosophy of risk mitigation is something that communities like ours with lots of tourism, special events, and sporting competitions each year need to embrace fully. With proper preparation and adequate resources we can minimize the number of bad things that happen.

Triathlons are notorious for providing a lot of resources and coverage on the land portions but almost nothing for water safety, where there is arguably greater risk. Minor issues on land that are easily detected and addressed can cause a quick death when they occur in the water.  Organizers will spend thousands of dollars making sure the bike and run legs have plenty of officers and paid staff members to direct traffic and keep the athletes and cars separated. Meanwhile, there may be some pool guards, a couple of boats and/or untrained volunteers in kayaks watching the swimmers, the majority of whom have little or no experience swimming in open water.

A couple of weeks ago the Beach Patrol coordinated a team including Police/Sheriff dive team, Jamaica Beach Fire Rescue, Ironman staff, and a volunteer kayak club. We collectively worked the swim portion of the Memorial Herman Ironman triathlon. Fortunately we were prepared and given adequate resources. The first part of the swim had a strong headwind that caused the swimmers lots of unexpected problems. It could have been catastrophic. But by the end of the event we’d made 36 rescues and 115 swim assists with no drownings or serious injuries.

Whether we’re talking about special events or managing tourism it helps to be imbedded in a community that understands the economic and social value of proper preparation.

 

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.