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Easter Wrap Up

A young boy and girl lay on a small sand dune. They were 3-4 years old and looked to be brother and sister. Although the day was not hot, the sand was nice and warm once the sun peeked out. They jabbered at each other while they piled the sand up and rolled around. A man who looked to be their dad looked on from just the right distance. Close enough to make sure they were safe, but far enough to give them the space to explore and discover.

As part of my routine, I often get tacos and eat them on the beach somewhere on the west seawall. When we get busy, we end up going from crisis to crisis. When we’re not so strapped, there’s always work waiting for me in my office or in my mobile office (truck). I like eating on the beach and watching people that are just out there enjoying themselves, like these two kids. Taking a few minutes to remind myself what an important space the beach provides for so many people helps to keep perspective. So much of our lives as coastal dwellers are punctuated by moments on the beach. People come for solace, to commune with nature, for exercise and sport, to share moments together, to have some time alone, or just to enjoy being out there on a beautiful day. I couldn’t help but think how I could be witnessing a moment for this particular family that they’d remember for the rest of their lives. For that matter, any number of the thousands of people that visited the beach over Easter Weekend (or any day on the beach) could be having that kind of moment.

Looking back, Easter has at times been a huge event for us with loads of rescues, lost children, medical emergencies, etc. But not this past weekend. Not to say that there weren’t lots of people here. The entire island was full of people and there were plenty of people on the beach. We were steady but not slammed. All told we made over 3,000 preventative actions, 5 medical responses, 118 enforcement actions, 2 lost kids reunited with parents, and one rescue. Comparing this to previous years and looking at the crowd, there was one factor that made the difference.

With the water temperature being in the mid 60’s it was just cold enough to keep people from staying in the water for long periods of time. They would get in, swim around for a bit, then get out and warm up. This took the burden of the guards. 3,000 people moved from rocks is a lot of work for our staff, but nothing like the 5-7,000 people we’d have moved if the water was just a few degrees warmer. This little “buffer” wont last long as we’re quickly approaching the magic number for water temp- 70 degrees. Once we hit 70, any time there’s people on the beach and warm air we’ll get real busy real fast.

OTB: Pre-Easter

The Easter holiday has been a big beach day for many years but has grown to be one of our major holidays. The seawall, beach parks, and west end have been packed on this weekend in recent history. For many people, particularly for families, going to the beach on Easter Weekend is a tradition.

For the Beach Patrol, it’s an especially busy holiday because normally, waves, currents, and people create equal work for lifeguards. Historically, the numbers support that. Looking back and picking a weekend just a few years ago, we had a total of 36 missing children reunited, 63 medical treatments, 7 rescues, 2 near-drownings, and 1,529 people moved from dangerous areas like those with rip currents. We could see numbers like that or even more with the increase in beach tourism we’ve had lately. Over Spring Break alone, we made over 5,200 preventative actions.

Part of the reason our “preventative actions”, of which the vast majority are moving people away from groins and piers where there are always rip currents, are so important is that each of these could potentially be life threatening. Its also especially impressive to see these numbers this time of year because the bulk of our workforce are students who are in school. We have very few available guards in the spring compared to the summer months. A lot of the work falls on the shoulders of mobile patrols which are largely staffed by our 12 full time Lifeguard Supervisors, including one Sergeant, Lieutenant, and Captain. Mobile patrols are great for emergency response, much the same as EMS and the Fire Department operate. They are also critical in covering large swaths of beachfront and looking for situations that could potentially develop into something life threatening. But nothing compares to a trained lifeguard who is stationed in a tower and watching a section of beach. In the summer months we are able to staff most, or all of our 32 lifeguard towers each day. In the Spring we strategically place available guards in our highest risk and most populated areas. Statistics and experience help us figure out where these spots are. This is why our most important safety tip is to swim near a lifeguard.

After reading a glimpse into our inner workings, I’m sure you understand how important our Wave Watcher Program is, which involves volunteers who are trained to have a practiced eye, patrolling sections of the beach and letting us or other emergency response groups know if they see anything developing. If you or anyone you know is interested in joining this group and our Beach Patrol family, there is a free training course starting April 12th and information on our website.

The weather looks to be favorable for a big holiday event. The water is in the mid to high 60’s and is a little cold, but if the past few weekends are any indicator that won’t slow a lot of people down. Come to the beach and swim near a lifeguard!

OTB – Beach Safety Information

There’s nothing better than Galveston beaches for getting toes in the sand, sun on the face, and your daily dose of salt! We’re here to help you do it safely.

The Galveston Island Beach Patrol www.galvestonislandbeachpatrol.com  is certified as an “advanced” level agency of the United States Lifesaving Association www.usla.org , and is the designated lifeguard service for the City of Galveston. It is a Texas Department of Health certified first response agency employing over 140 people when at full strength, comprised of lifeguards, senior guards, supervisors, peace officers, and dispatchers. The mission of GIBP is to protect the over 7 million people who visit the Galveston beaches each year, respond to aquatic emergencies 24/7/365, educate the public about beach safety, and be a good community partner. Our highest priority is to get each beach visitor home safely.

Here are a few of the more important safety tips:

Swim Near a Lifeguard– Galveston boasts an “Advanced Level” Lifeguard service certified by the United States Lifesaving Association (www.usla.org). We’re out there from early morning till dark throughout the summer at the large beach parks and along the seawall, so shouldn’t be hard to find the right place. The guard is an added layer of protection, although you are still responsible for you and your family’s safety. They are there not only to protect you, but to serve as ambassadors for all the island has to offer.

Avoid Rip Currents– Specifically stay away from the rocks and structures- where there is a chance you could be caught in a dangerous rip current that will pull you out. If caught in a rip current, relax and float until the currents and waves return you to shore. If you’re a good swimmer, swim parallel to shore towards breaking waves where the water is shallow and then go to shore. Never enter a rip to help someone. Instead throw a floating object like the ring buoys and ropes in the rescue boxes on the groins.

Avoid Swimming at the Ends of the Island– the San Luis Pass and the Ship Channel have strong tidal currents and changing bottom contours. Fish from shore in these areas!

Don’t Swim Alone– your buddy can call or wave for help if you can’t.

Don’t Dive in Headfirst– to avoid the chance of a head or neck injury.

Observe Warning Signs and Flags– all 600 of ours are all bilingual and use icons

Lifejackets– Non-swimmers and children should use properly fitted lifejackets when in our around the water.

Alcohol and Water Don’t Mix– many of the beaches here are alcohol free

Take Precautions from the Heat and Sun– such as loose fitting clothing and a hat, sunscreen with a high SPF, good sunglasses, and drinking plenty of non-alcoholic, non-caffeinated beverages.

Remember the beach isn’t a pool or pond. There are currents, marine life, and the bottom is uneven with troughs and drop-offs. You should be much more careful and be sure to not exceed your ability. And most importantly maintain good situational awareness and….

Don’t Check Your Brain at the Causeway!

OTB: African American Beaches

Seeing two heads near the rocks on the west side of the groin at 27th, I flipped on the overheads, pulled a U turn, radioed for backup, parked, grabbed fins and a rescue tube, and sprinted towards the beach. Subtleties in the way the heads moved, the location they were in the rip current, and the time I estimated it would take me to get to them, left me with a sinking feeling in my gut.

After an eternity, I hit the bottom of the stairs and sprinted hard across the rocks. Glancing up, something was wrong. Well actually, something was very right. The two heads were now distinguishable as a couple and were farther from the pier, out of the rip and hole, and were standing in chest deep water. They were waving appreciatively at a tall, strong, older African American man on the pier, who was blowing a whistle and motioning them even farther away.

The man introduced himself as O.C. Brown, who had worked this same stretch of beach for many years. It was the early 90’s, and he was in his 70’s but was, as the United States Lifesaving Association’s slogan says, a “Lifeguard for Life”.

10 years before that, as a second and third-year guard, I had enough experience to work the groins. I moved from my tower at Stewart Beach, and cut my lifesaving teeth as the permanent guard at 29th street. I learned a lot about lifesaving and more about a lot of other stuff. Most of the families that frequented the beach were locals, although on the weekends there were Houston visitors as well. It was a busy beach, but I had tons of help. I rarely ate the lunch I packed each day as the regulars brought me plates of food. At the end of the day, the seawall and Menard Park filled up with teens and young adults. A group of guys around my age became the self-appointed evening guards. I’d sit up on the bench with them when my shift ended and point out areas or people that needed attention. They’d take it from there, sitting, talking, having a few beers, and jumping down when kids veered too close to the rocks, or someone started doing something that would get them in trouble. Sometimes one or two would swing by my tower the next day with a report from the night before. It was definitely a team effort. Galveston had a lot of drownings in those years after hours, but I don’t remember anything bad happening at that stretch of beach.

I didn’t realize till later that that stretch of beach had been an African American beach since the 30’s. It was called “Brown Beach” and was at one time officially designated for black people during segregation. Another African American Beach called Sunset Camps existed on the west end. Early African American pioneers Waverly Guidry, James Helton, and others heroically faced both environmental and cultural challenges to protect people of all colors.

-to be continued….

 

 

photo courtesy of: hippostcard.com

OTB Fog

Warm air and cold water these days. Spring weather. This combination brings in one of the best and worst phenomena along the beachfront. Sea fog. It can be totally clear, and a big bank of fog can roll in unexpectedly. And since the whole coastal plains area is full of water, this fog can extend well inland.

From a lifeguarding and marine rescue standpoint sea fog is a disaster. Along the beachfront we have to go into a “special operation mode” involving walking out on each groin to see if anyone is getting near the rocks. Boat operations are a nightmare even with the use of GPS, sonar, and radar. Fog affects almost all aspects of water rescue and search and recovery work.

I like all kinds of training on the water, but one of my favorites is the surf ski. The “lifeguard spec” ski is basically a 17-foot-long ocean kayak but is extremely narrow. Think sculling but facing forward with a fancy double bladed kayak paddle. Once you have the hang of it, they are very fast and efficient. Paddling at a decent distance pace you can make about 5-6 miles in an hour. I love to paddle straight out into the chop for about three miles then head back. On the way back you can catch little runners on offshore swells, and it’s like taking a long downhill ski run. While getting a great workout you see dolphins and all kinds of other wildlife and get far enough offshore that you feel like you get some perspective.

A younger guard who has taken up the surf ski recently asked me for advice. The first thing I told him was to get a watch with a compass and never go without it, especially in the spring. With so many Spring days having cold water and warm air the fog can roll in unexpectedly at any time. I’ve had numerous experiences when the day looked clear and I got caught offshore. It’s incredibly easy to lose your orientation if there are no reference points. After one close call years ago where I had to use the position of the bright area where the sun was as a reference point in order to find my way back, I never went on the water again without a compass.

Like much of life on the beach, and life in general, things come with a good and a bad side. With all the danger sea fog brings, there is good. Earlier this week at dusk I was catching some nice glassy waves out in front of my house, lying on my board in a toasty wetsuit and feeling connected and in the moment. The fog was so thick I couldn’t see anything more than 30 yards away. The moisture in the air amplified all sounds to the point where I could hear every seagull or sound on the beach for a mile away. The fog seemed to insulate from every negative thing out there while locking in all the good.

OTB Winter Conditions

Now that winter is fully here water activities take on a new dimension. Whether you’re out there surfing, kite boarding, swimming, kayaking, fishing, or any number of other activities there is a greater possibility that a small over site could turn into a major emergency.

Hypothermia, or reduced body temperature, is the major threat. Once your core temperature drops, mental and physical acuity is diminished. It becomes easy to make serious judgment errors. Bad decisions that you normally have the physical endurance and vitality to compensate for can become life threatening. The classic example is the inexperienced surfer that doesn’t come into shore before he/she starts to freeze up. Then when something happens, the surfer is unable to respond as normal. I remember one time when I was young that I stayed out too long and couldn’t remember my bicycle combination and no longer had the dexterity to work the lock with my numb fingers.

With the water in the lower 60’s, and dipping into the 50’s, proper equipment is a serious issue. Most surfers in Texas have one full length wetsuit that is 3mm, with sections that are 2mm. Each person is different but generally, with a decent quality wetsuit, this works well down to about 58 degrees. It can be used for short periods in colder water, but you need to know when to get out. For water lower than that, you’d need something that’s around 4mm to stay out for any prolonged period of time. Experienced water people generally have a range of wetsuits and associated booties, gloves, and hoods to allow for a variety of conditions.

Another factor along the beachfront is the recurrent north winds that blow through with frontal systems. Because for us this means the wind blows offshore it can cause its own hazard. When the wind blows offshore, the water near the shoreline is really calm, since there’s not enough fetch, or distance of water, for it to build up little choppy waves. Also, because there are structures near the water the wind is partially blocked. People can enter the water expecting a certain set of conditions and, after getting blown off a couple hundred yards that can change quickly. Each year we make scores of rescues where someone drifts off on a float or surfboard and can’t paddle back in against the chop and wind. These situations are very dangerous because it’s really hard to find someone once you can’t see them from shore. Combine this with winter conditions and hypothermia and it’s easy to get overwhelmed.

All that said, there is a lot our water offers in the winter months. For those with the proper experience level and equipment, the surf and un-crowded conditions have a lot to offer.  Just make sure someone knows where you’re going and how long you plan on being out. Most importantly, stay in tune with your environment, your body conditions, and weather patterns. And, of course, know when to say when!

Cold Winter Months

Cold water is no joke. But lifeguards have to respond regardless of the conditions, so we train in and for cold water rescues. Even when we’re building towers, working on signage, or even working in the office we have to be ready at a moment’s notice to enter the water, potentially for prolonged periods, if an emergency drops.

The water is sitting in the 50s right now but can drop into the 40’s here in the winter. This can kill you pretty quickly if you are not prepared and don’t know what you’re doing. For this reason, we buy our full time staff good wetsuits that they keep handy at all times. Few people could function for more than a few minutes water this cold without a decent wetsuit.

There’s a misconception that all you have to do is pop on a wetsuit and you’re good in any temperature of water. This isn’t at all true and there are several variables that go into effect when you’re doing rescue work in cold water, such as body mass, how accustomed you are to the cold, etc. Even so, probably the most important thing is having the right wetsuit for the air/water temperature, duration, and for the activity. But even with the right suit, the first thing that happens when you jump in is freezing cold water slips into the suit, taking your breath away. If you don’t know what happens next you may panic. Fortunately, after just a few minutes that water in your suit is heated by your body and forms a thin layer of insulative water between your skin and the suit. This layer of water acts as actually keeps you warm despite the cold water outside the suit, and to a more limited extent against cold wind above the water.

For example, if you’re going scuba diving in 50 degree water you will need a very thick wetsuit, maybe 6 millimeters, with boots, gloves, and a hood. In that same water temperature, for a strenuous rescue or swim session taking 45 minutes or less you’d want more flexibility in your suit and you’d be generating a great deal more body heat, so you might be happy with something that is only 3 millimeters thick. Some suits are designed for swimming with flexible areas around the shoulders and others are better for surfing with areas around the hips that are more flexible. But all are way better than just jumping in!

Originally wetsuits were made of rubber and designed by a west coast aerospace engineer (who was a surfer) for the military. But soon after, the use of neoprene with its flexibility and closed cells trapping air inside the material made it affordable and practical for surfers and lifeguards and later for all types of water sports enthusiasts.

As we continue to see more beach use during the cold months we’d be lost without wetsuits to help us protect increasing numbers of people recreating out in the cold.

 

 

Photo: Ellis

Waves

It was a bad idea.
Archie Kalepa led the group as we swam towards the cliff face. Archie is the former Chief of Lifeguards in
Maui, world renowned big wave surfer and Hawaiian living legend. The problem with being Archie’s
friend is that he is a giving soul and is real comfortable in big water. He wants to share the things he
loves selflessly. And he loves putting himself in situations that normal people should not be in.
Not that our group was green. Among them was Rob Williams- chief of lifeguards in Newport Beach and
former national water polo champion. Also Jay Butki- SoCal legendary Baywatch boat aptain who has
won more national lifeguard championship titles than I can count. All were people who grew up in and
around lifesaving and the ocean. But none of us were Archie, and he was in his backyard.
“I promise you, the waves (probably) won’t smash you against the rocks”, Archie was saying as I started
to get a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. There nothing worse than a bunch of grown up, midlife
crisis having, lifeguard/athletes trying to show off for each other. And this looked like a prime example.
So, these big- I mean really big- ocean waves were smashing up against the cliff face. And we were going
to swim right up there into that maelstrom. As we got close, a big set was just hitting. It lifted us up
maybe 30 feet. You could see the rock face flying by underwater because the water was so clear. We
reached the peak, and then plunged back down, stomach dropping out with the weightlessness of the
descent. I broke the surface to the sound of Archie howling with laughter and pointing to our faces
which varied from bloodless to green to the embodiment of sheer terror. But, true to his word, no one
had a scratch on them. By the time we’d done it a few times we all were howling with laughter, giddy
with adrenaline. And Archie looked like a proud papa showing off his baby to a roomful of visitors.
That wave was an extreme example of a surging wave. A wave that pushes up against some type of
surface and falls back without breaking. We have them next to the groins and against the south jetty.
They aren’t 30 or40 feet, but it’s the same thing. We know if we have a victim up against the rocks we
can get in there and them without getting smashed.
Surging waves are one of 3 types of waves that exist. Rolling waves are deep water swells. Spilling waves
break in water because its shallow enough to break. Surfers ride them and they’re the ones we associate
with our Galveston beach. Plunging waves break onto a dry or near dry surface. A hard beach break or
waves breaking onto a rocky surface would be examples.
Knowing and understanding waves is critical to lifeguarding. So is putting yourself in uncomfortable
situations so you expand the types of conditions you’re comfortable making rescues in.

Sharks

Nat Geo was in town this week to talk sharks and along with a couple of people who were bitten back in
2004, interviewed me about beach dangers.
Back then we had three documented shark bites in one summer. Our average comes to about a bite
every two years. Like anything that doesn’t mean a bite every two years, we’ve had some stretches of 5
or more years without incident.
Generally, bites in our area are just that. Bites. Sort of a case of mistaken identity where a shark is
feeding on schooling fish and the person is in the middle of the school. The shark bites the person by
accident, lets go, and swims away. One of the cameramen for the shoot put it really well. He said,
“Sharks don’t have thumbs”. So, to check something to see what its like can cause damage.
Other beaches where sharks routinely feed on large mammals are a different thing. A surfer can look a
lot like a seal from the bottom. I felt really differently about sharks when I lived in northern California.
Understanding how water animals think is an important way to reduce your chances of bad things
happening. Those of us who are in the water all the time routinely shuffle our feet to chase away small
animals including sharks, avoid swimming near schooling fish, don’t go in the water if we’re leaking
blood, and don’t swim where a river or bay empties in the gulf to stay away from all the bait fish. People
that wade fish a lot don’t sit in the water with a bunch of bloody fish on a short stringer. Commercial
divers paint the silver on their regulators black so there’s no shiny object to attract sharks or barracuda.
All that said, the chances of getting bit by a shark are tiny. We see 7 million people a year at our beach
and only have a bite every couple of years on the beachfront. A lightning strike is much more dangerous.
Rip currents are much more of a threat to human life in the ocean. And what about that drive to the
beach? Deaths in car accidents is way more likely, but we’re desensitized to that, so hardly think about
it.
The ocean is not our natural habitat and we’re guests when we enter it. But if we’re respectful of the
full-time inhabitants and put ourselves in their position, it helps us understand how to reduce our
chances of injury. And its so worth the risk.
Lifeguards have to train in the conditions they rescue people in, so we’re in the ocean almost daily all
year. We view the risk the same way normal people look at driving to work. But for most people, the
choice to enter the ocean is a chance to experience not being in control and to get closer to the natural
environment. Knowing how to reduce chances of injury is important, but when balanced out, It’s worth
the risk.

Galveston Island Beach Patrol History

In the 1800s, Galveston Island was one of the largest cities in Texas and one of the more important ones in the country. Much of this was due to it being a great natural port for the shallow draft boats of the time.

Before that time, the United States Life Saving Service was created in response to humanitarian efforts to save the lives of shipwrecked mariners. Today’s Beach Patrol traces its roots back to the lifesaving station at San Luis Pass which was established in 1875. Galveston has had continual lifesaving protection since that time.

Through the late 1800s, the lifesaving stations on Galveston Island continued to rescue shipwrecked mariners, but the problems of shipwrecks began to fade with the new steamboat technology. In the early twentieth century, the lifesaving stations eventually transitioned into part of the U.S. Coast Guard. Meanwhile, with the advent of the industrial revolution and a leisure class, recreational swimming began to emerge as a popular pastime, and the need to rescue distressed swimmers became apparent.

The three large storms that hit the island in the late 1800s culminated with the big one of 1900. After the 1900 Storm, Mr. George Murdoch, proprietor of the Murdoch Bathing Pavilion, announced that he was building a new pavilion on the site of the old bathhouse to accommodate the increase in tourism.

George Murdoch also provided ropes by which bathers could hold onto since most people did not know how to swim. He also kept beach patrol and lifesaving crews on duty. In 1910, bathhouse records showed more than 150,000 people came to Galveston’s beaches.

With the number of the beachgoers growing, the city realized the demand was beyond the volunteer level. By 1935, Galveston had hired a handful of lifeguards, stationing them at 3 main points of the island in addition to the then-called “Negro Beach.” Galveston and its beaches were booming.

By the 1940s, the island added a “lifesaving beach patrol system,” and their first emergency response vehicle. In August 1941, the Galveston Island Beach Patrol boasted 20 guards. That number remained more or less constant until the late 80’s.

By the 1950s, lifeguards were given police authority and provided aid to the increasing number of beachgoers.

By the late 1970s, the Galveston Beach Patrol had been switched multiple times between municipal departments, with no real commitment for funding or ownership. Increased tourism meant drowning rates soared. In stepped Senator Babe Schwartz, Dr. Jim McCloy, Sheriff Joe Max Taylor, and the Moody family, all of whom contributed significantly.

In 1981 The Sheriff’s department took over management of the Beach Patrol, 1 penny was dedicated by state law from the hotel tax through the effort of Senator Schwartz, and beach-user-fee monies were funneled through the Park Board of Trustees to modernize and expand the Beach Patrol. The United States Lifesaving Association was formalized at a meeting facilitated by Jim McCloy at Texas A&M Galveston.

The USLA and a Moody grant assisted in the professionalization and modernization of the Galveston Beach Patrol.