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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.

Lifesaver

A lone figure wound his way down the shoreline through the dark night. He picked his way carefully along the uneven surface using a lantern to see. The night was cold and windy as a mix of sleet and rain caused him to readjust his woolen coat. There was no ambient light, and he passed no houses or other buildings. He had been walking for several hours when he spotted a light in the distance.

He approached a very small wooden building and opened the door. Inside, was another man with a similar appearance. Both men wore beards partially covering lean, weather-beaten faces. They sat together for a time, talking about the weather, the surf, and gossip about the people that also inhabited this remote landscape. Then they exchanged small coin tokens and walked back in the direction they’d come from.

In the mid 1800’s and these were “Lifesaver Men” or “Surfmen”, who were employees of the US Lifesaving Service. They spent most of their time in life-saving stations working under the authority of the “Station Master”. During the day they performed tasks involving maintaining the station and at least one surf boat. They also, as first responders do today, practiced their skills regularly. This involved practicing an early form of CPR and maintaining a high level of proficiency in rowing the surf boat with the rest of their squad. At night they took turns walking the beach searching for shipwrecks between their station and the next station if there was one nearby. They would exchange tokens to show the Station Master that they’d actually made the walk, and would often meet in a shack that was a halfway point to take shelter from the horrible weather that they often worked in.

When they would find a shipwreck, they had to get people off of the boat and to shore safely, usually using a rope and pully system. Another option was for the crew to don lifejackets made of cork and to row out to the ship. Almost no one at the time knew how to swim, including the rescue crews. This was very dangerous work and there are many tales of bravery against insurmountable odds.

There was a network of these stations around the country and world. The Texas coast had a number of stations as well by the late 1800s. In fact, the Galveston Island Beach Patrol traces the roots of continued lifesaving on the island back to the station at the San Luis Pass that was established in 1875.

In the 20th century the US Coast Guard took control of many of the lifesaving stations. and, with the advent of the industrial revolution, a leisure class, and resulting recreational swimming, modern beach lifeguarding techniques were developed under the guidance of the United States Lifesaving Association. This is the group that sets training standards and certification for most open water lifeguard agencies in our country, including the Galveston Island Beach Patrol and the men and women that protect todays beachgoers.

Shoulder Season

Driving down the seawall last Monday, I spotted a couple of people right next to the rocks towards the
end of the 53rd street rock groin. They were right in the dangerous area. Thinking I only had seconds, I
flipped on the overheads and made a U turn. Once I was off the wall and rolling down the rocks, I hit the
airhorn and gave instructions on the PA system to come directly to shore. I assumed any second they
would step off into the hole caused by the rip current and be in serious trouble.
I spotted a bag on the groin, so assumed that they’d walked back to shore and gone around the three
signs and under the rope and flags we stretch across them as a reminder. They’d also walked by a rip
current advisory sign at the base of the steps. We maintain these at every access point along the beach,
as well as the ones at the water’s edge.
I called for backup and jumped out, grabbing my rescue tube and fins, then raced to the water…
For good reason, there’s been quite a bit of discussion lately about the time between when our seasonal
lifeguards end their 7-month work period and when it is cold enough to prohibit swimming. We’ve had
three drowning fatalities that happened just after the tower guard season ended. Once it’s cold we can
be pretty effective in preventing drowning fatalities from mobile patrols. During the season we have
guards covering about 9 miles of beach, making proactive preventative actions throughout the day. But
on a busy weekend with guards we make several thousand preventative actions because the guards are
right there on the spot. In the trucks, if we really work, it may be a few hundred. The right weather,
crowd, and water conditions can be a real issue without guards.
This window has become more and more of an issue as: 1. The Houston area population increases,
resulting in a corresponding increase in visitors here in Galveston, 2. The weather seems to stay warm
later into the year, and 3. We add on to our beaches and market ourselves in the fall and spring as a
tourist destination This year, due to the limitations on recreation imposed by Covid, we saw a marked
bump on top of this trend of increased beach use more of the year.
Many coastal communities have faced this issue as tourism expanded. Many worked out a hybrid
system that involved a lifeguard service that was not “seasonal” in nature. We’re exploring options. I’m
sure funding will be an issue if we find something appropriate for Galveston, and that won’t involve the
city’s general fund or property tax dollars. But ultimately and eventually we have to find a way to ensure
our visitors’ safety.
As for the two people we left hanging in the water, they avoided the hole. They got back safely with just
a scare and a story to take home. And hopefully they’ll read the signs and notice the flags next time.

Respect The Water

The young scanned the pool frantically and couldn’t see her toddler anywhere, until she heard the other adults gasp and point up to the high dive. Her son crawled up the ladder, out on the board, and jumped off. He sank directly to the bottom of the deep end. Using superhuman mom power, she beat the guards to him and pulled him to the surface quickly as he coughed up water.

The wood of the dock was rough under the little boy’s feet as he looked down at his bony legs. He felt like he was going to throw up. Somehow, he was cold and hot at the same time. Loose clothes draped on his scrawny body. Being 9 at summer camp is scary enough without having to swim in a “clothes relay race” and be the smallest kid out there.

It was almost a relief when the larger boy splashed up to tag the dock and he finally got to jump in the cold water and start stroking towards the other dock. He had been on a swim team and was a good swimmer, so the first few strokes felt good. But then the clothing started dragging him down and he panicked. He choked on water and went from powering forward to barely maintaining his head above water. Midway between the docks, with all the big kids watching, he started going under.

Suddenly, the strong arm of a teenage councilor grabbed him across the chest firmly. As she stroked both of them to the safety of the dock, she told him he’d be ok, and it could happen to anyone. The only thing more powerful than the shame he felt crawling up on the dock was the relief and gratitude to be alive. He vowed never to let anything like this happen again, but that’s not the way it worked out.

12 years later, a surfer at Oceanside Beach, California was surfing big, meaty, storm swell. It was around 12 feet and he’d caught a number of amazing rides. Paddling back out after an especially good one, he saw the horizon disappear as a monster set approached. Everyone in the lineup scratched for the outside or powered towards shore. He joined the few headed out. He felt those butterflies from long ago as he realized he wouldn’t make it. He tossed his board and dove deep, grabbing the bottom. He made it through and resurfaced with relief, feeling his lungs would burst. But all he saw was the shadow of the next mountain, which looked even bigger. 6 or 7 waves later he somehow crawled back to the surface a final time. He floated on his back for a long time before being able to swim back and crawl up on the beach, vomiting seawater.

I still remember those events like yesterday. The words of my friend and mentor, Ducky Prendergast shortly before he moved on resound in my head.

“Son, you got to respect the water”.

Drownings

We’ve had three drowning fatalities in the past two weeks. For us, it’s hard not to think, or in this case write, about anything else.

The first one was eerily familiar. Many of you recall that last year, just a few days after our seasonal lifeguards ended their 7-month term of employment, two kids died off the end of the 17th street groin in a rip current. This year a man drowned in almost the same spot just a few days after the guards ended the season. Just off the head of the groin on the west side.

The second had similar conditions, but it happened at 53rd. This man was swimming with his two children, and they were able to get to shore. The man drifted near the rocks and was caught in the rip current. A bystander tried to save him and was nearly overcome. Fortunately, the bystander was able to make it to shore.

The third one was a very different scenario. A man walked out on the South Jetty to fish. He was wearing waders. We’ve been in a weather pattern with a consistent southeast wind. When we get this wind direction the wind travels a long distance over the water and there is a tendency for the water to pile up, especially on the east end of the island. It looks like this man walked out on dry rocks and was out there for some time. As the tide came up, it surged higher than normal because of the wind direction. The rocks were almost submerged as he tried to make it back to shore. There are a couple of cuts in the rocks and he was attempting to cross one of them when he went in the water on the east side. His waders filled and he went under as a result.

These are just heart wrenching accounts. They’re especially tragic because, as are the vast majority drowning fatalities, they were preventable. Drowning prevention is all about layers of protection. If the first two men hadn’t gotten near the rocks because they either knew swimming near structures is dangerous or because they’d noticed the signs, its likely they would have been fine. Or if we had a lifeguard in those towers, the lifeguard would have whistled them away from the rocks like we do for several hundred thousand people a year. Or if someone in their group knew to remind them to say in a safer area. If the third man had not worn waders or knew the area would fill up. If any of them would have worn lifejackets. The list of potential layers goes on and on.

My staff is working hard to be that final layer of protection. They’re even currently having a competition of who can log the most patrol miles in a shift. They’re preventing hundreds of accidents a day, but there’s nothing that compares with a stationed lifeguard at each potentially dangerous spot to make that simple, but critical, preventative action.

Seasonal Guards

The first weekend after the clock ran out on our Seasonal Lifeguard coverage was something else. As we say people were “all down up in that beach”. They were in the water, on the sand, driving around in golf carts, trying to swim in the no swimming areas by the rocks and at the ends of the island, and anywhere else you can think of.
It was a challenge keeping everyone safe while working from the 5 scheduled lifeguard trucks. Not having guards stationed at fixed locations watching to make sure people stayed away from the dangerous areas forced to trucks to stay constantly moving. I was proud of how hard our staff worked. But even with that we still had some near misses. By the end of the weekend we’d made 8 rescues and moved over 1,400 people out of areas near the rip currents by the rock groins.
The thing that saved us (and a lot of people) was that the water was calm. Generally, we have fewer problems when the water is calm or very rough. The toughest time to guard is when the water looks pretty safe but isn’t. A prime example would be a day with small surf but with longshore current that pulls people parallel to the beach.
Longshore, or literal, current is dangerous for two reasons. The first one is that if it runs for awhile it digs deeper troughs between the sandbars, which means steeper drop-offs closer to shore. This can be especially hazardous to children; whose parents think because they’re close to shore they’re safe. It also can mean more lost kids who drift down and come out down the beach with no familiar reference points.
The second danger of a longshore current is that, when it comes into contact with a structure like a pier or groin, strong rip currents can be generated. This means that on both sides of a structure people who are in the water near it will be pulled offshore into deeper water. If they try to swim against it, people can tire, choke on water, panic, and go under. 80% of the rescues beach Lifeguards make both locally and nationally are a direct result of rip currents.
We’ve probably got another month before the water temperature drops to the point that it keeps the recreational swimmers out. And lately it seems that the season stretches farther and farther into the winter months and more and more people are using the beaches. So we’ve definitely got some work ahead of us before we can divert attention to our winter tasks of refurbishing all the towers, repairing equipment, training our full time staff for the next season, and lots of other things we’ve put off until the beach is not so pressing.
All that said, please find some time to come to the beach during a time of year that the water and air temperatures are absolutely perfect, without the pressure of summer crowds. Just remember to be safe!