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Open Water Swimming

As the rookie lifeguard ran out into the water, she felt good at first. She lifted her legs up high just as the instructor told her. When she got to thigh deep water, she started “dolphin diving” by pushing off the bottom and doing shallow surface dives, propelling herself into deeper water quickly. She even managed to dive over a couple of waves without having them knock her back. Then she took one final dive and pushed off the bottom. And things started falling apart. A wave hit her and knocked her back. She tried to make forward progress through the whitewater “soup” that trailed the breaking wave. She quickly tired, lost her sense of direction, and had to resort to breaststroke to make forward progress.

This is typical for entry level open water swimmers, even those who are really good in the pool. Open water swimming is its own skill set that only roughly parallels what we learn in the pool. And open water swimming in surf is yet another level. But open water swimming that’s quickly taking off, and triathlon has gotten crazy popular in recent years. If you are one of those who are starting or are interested in starting to swim in the open water here are a few pointers.

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 saltwater 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.

For surf you need to add numerous extra skills like diving under waves, using the complicated ocean currents to your advantage, and looking around you when you hit the top of swells. It’s definitely a challenge for our new guards but is an essential component of being an effective ocean lifesaver.

Busy Labor Day Weekened

Labor Day weekend was interesting. We couldn’t have asked for better conditions, with sunny skies, blue/green water that was pretty flat all but Monday, and almost no seaweed, jellyfish, or sea lice. The concentration of people on Sunday was impressive with moderately good crowds on the other days. Sunday afternoon it took me an hour and a half to patrol from Stewart Beach to 91st and back, and the line to get into Stewart Beach was backed up onto the seawall.

Sunday afternoon, when the crowds were at their peak, we had several water related calls all happen simultaneously. We had several lost kids at Stewart Beach that we were looking for and the normal calls for guards and rescue trucks moving people away from hazardous areas. Then on top of all that we had a call for a boat wreck off of the end of the South Jetty with 5 people unaccounted for in the water. We also had a call of a possible drowning over by Murdoch’s pier where supposedly someone had seen the person go in and may or may not have actually witnessed them going under. And we had a jet ski on the west end that was floating around in the water without a driver. Any of these calls could have been pretty major, and we scrambled our resources around trying to get enough assets to respond to these potentially serious calls while still handling the normal stuff and while continuing to patrol and be proactive in preventing bad things from happening. It was about an hour of chaos and I think our poor dispatchers probably will have nightmares about trying to stay on top of all of it. But the Beach Patrol staff, and all the other responding groups, handled this crisis period really well. And fortunately, at the end of the hour, everyone was accounted for, on shore, and uninjured. We were able to go back to the normal level of holiday weekend chaos until a little after dark.

All told a the end of the weekend the combination of Beach Patrol, Wave Watchers, and the County’s Citizens Emergency Response Team kept 12,562 people from getting in a dangerous position, treated 40 medical calls, reunited 15 lost children with their loved ones, and got all 250-300,000 beach goers back home safely. Not a bad way to end the summer!

Coming up we have an interesting study. Beach Patrol Lifeguard Supervisor and A&M Instructional Associate Professor Amie Hufton is spearheading a research project related to our drowning and rescue statistics. We’re real excited about this because we think it can give us a better idea of who drowns and how we can target those populations. Just as a little teaser we ran 5 years of drowning statistics and came up with some interesting information. Over that period, we’re looking at roughly 70% of those drownings (fatalities and survivals) being Latino, 22% Anglo, and 11% African American. Stay tuned for what Amie and her team come up with.

Labor Day

With Labor Day upon us we’re expecting several hundred thousand people to be on the island this weekend. That’s a lot of chances to have something go wrong.

We’ve had a number of close calls in recent weeks. Most or all of these incidents happened at least partly due to momentary lapses in judgment.

People do things when on vacation or out recreating that they would never do in their normal life. Parents who no doubt are normally very attentive to their children lose them repeatedly at our large beach parks. We can have up to 60 lost kids in a single day at Stewart Beach alone. People who are not generally risk takers swim far from shore and/or pay no attention to warning signs, flags, or lifeguard instructions. Are the parents bad parents? Are the people ignoring safety messages intentionally? Not in my opinion.

All of us get in a different mindset when we’re away from our routine and when we do something fun. We throw caution to the wind and immerse ourselves in the sea and sand and fun. This is good to a point, and that point is sometimes the shoreline. Water is not our natural element. Things can go wrong quickly in the water, so it only takes a momentary lapse of judgment, or seconds of inattention, for things to break bad.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Taking a moment to observe your surroundings at the beach or pool does a lot. Asking someone who is knowledgeable, like a lifeguard, for advice before getting wet means that you greatly reduce your chances of an accident.

When you go out this weekend to enjoy any type of water, remember to take a moment to be aware of your surroundings and potential risks. You also want to remember the basics, such as not swimming alone, staying hydrated, protecting yourself from the sun, observing signs and flags, feet first first time, alcohol and water don’t mix, and non-swimmers and children should wear life jackets. At the beach, you should also avoid swimming in areas where rip currents are likely, like near piers and jetties. These are protected by lifeguards and clearly marked with bilingual, iconic signage. You also want to avoid the water in the Ship Channel and San Luis Pass.

Choose to swim in areas protected by lifeguards. In beaches guarded by United States Lifesaving Association lifeguards, like Galveston, your chances of drowning are 1 in 18 million. In fact, we are certified as an “Advanced Level” lifeguard agency.

But above all, YOU are responsible for the safety of both yourself and your family. Lifeguards provide an extra layer of protection in case your safety net lapses temporarily. We will be out in force, along with our partners in public safety. Additionally, the County’s Citizens Emergency Response Team (CERT) will be at the Pass, Beach Patrol Wave Watchers up and down the beach, and the Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network will be on standby.

Enjoy the Labor Day weekend. See you on the beach!

Lost Friends

As we move through this life there are some people who really make a difference. People we feel privileged to walk in tandem with, at least for a time. The hard thing for me is the feeling of loss when that time ends. There are two people that I really respect and appreciate that I will not have the privilege to work along side of anymore.

Chief Mike Wisko, who has been with the Galveston Fire Department has announced his retirement this week. In the early ‘80’s Mike worked with the Beach Patrol. I think he was about 15 at the time, and as lifeguards do, he caught a little teasing because he was the son of the fire chief, Willy Wisko. So, Mike got the name “Wee Willy Wisko”. But he took it in stride and was a huge help as he did first aids on Stewart Beach.

Mike worked his way up the ranks in the Fire Department and was and is a true “Firefighter’s Firefighter”. He has been an incredible visionary and team builder. Always ready to combine resources, provide support, and figure out ways to better serve the city and citizens. After hurricane Ike then mayor Lyda Ann Thomas asked us to figure out how to better respond to natural disasters. Mike was a very key component to the formation of the Galveston Marine Response. As busy as he was with his other duties, he always made it a point to attend our meetings himself to make sure this important collaboration got off on the right track and stayed on course. On top of all he has done here, he also is a very key player in our state’s response team, and somehow still manages to serve as the president of the state fire association. I will always appreciate the time working with him and deeply appreciate all he did to make sure the Fire Department and Beach Patrol worked seamlessly together and provided mutual support. But at least Mike is still around and accessible.

The big loss for me this week was hearing that Melvin Williams passed away. Melvin did three full terms with the Park Board and was such a huge support to the Beach Patrol during his time. He was always there to listen, bounce ideas off of, and was such a strong advocate while remaining so tactful. He never burned bridges or let things get emotional while providing guidance through some pretty trying times. He was a quiet warrior who always treated everyone with so much respect. I literally begged him to do one more stint with the Park Board the last time he came on board. Literally. But when he saw value and true need he seems to have always managed to find the time and energy, whether or not he got any recognition for it. The light shines a little dimmer without Melvin being here, and we will miss him. But I feel so fortunate to have had the privilege to call him both mentor and friend.

The Galveston Island Beach Patrol Family

At our National Lifeguarding Championships in Virginia Beach I was suddenly hit with a moment of clarity that was close to a revelation.

Just like is often the case here in Galveston, there were so many things going on all at once. We had athletes from the Junior Guard program, U19, open, and age group competing. In addition to these incredibly talented athletes from 10 to 70+ years of age, we had a sponsor appreciation party, numerous events for the athletes, a celebration of life/ paddle out ceremony for several lifeguard chiefs who have recently passed away, and we had the privilege of giving out an award to a group of brave US Marines who saved a group of kids from drowning.

I was thinking about all of this, and it suddenly hit me what a comprehensive web we all collectively weave, both in Galveston, nationally, and internationally. Locally, we are so much more than a collection of beach lifeguards, and lifeguard support teams. We are a large, comprehensive safety net. And we are a family. The Galveston Beach Patrol Family. That family includes guards, Junior Guards and their parents, Wave Watchers, Survivor Support Network, partner public safety groups, Park Board and City of Galveston departments, the media, the larger Galveston community and many more.

Many enter as very young children in the Junior Guard Program. They learn about the ocean, build an ocean and rescue skill set, and learn how to use it to help others. They may continue as guards, volunteers, athletes, coaches, sponsors, administrators, and more. Hundreds devote uncountable hours and energy to prevent accidents, save lives, educate the public, acknowledge service and heroism inside and outside of the family with our cousin groups, mentor newer and younger members, and to support each other in so many ways. This is way beyond what would or could be done out of a feeling of obligation or devotion to duty. This must be love.

We love the over 7 million people we protect annually. We love the environment we are so privileged to work in. And like a family, no matter how much we may disagree or argue or butt heads, we love each other. We understand the incredibly difficult role we all have in trying to keep people safe in an environment that is foreign to them, but that we thrive in. We know how hard you must work your entire life to maintain the conditioning and skills that allow you to be the rescuer and not the victim. We know how important even the briefest interaction with a tourist or local can be. And we know how much what you do to get people information on how to be safe before they ever get wet matters.

Thank you to each of you that play a part in the shared mission, and for choosing to be in The Galveston Island Beach Patrol Family.

Hardworking Guards

Typically, the month of August sees some calm, hot weather. We’re now in the latter part of summer and things are still not dying down. We continue to have wind and current with some fairly strong rip currents near the rock groins. It has been calming down a bit and we’ve finally started seeing an occasional “green flag” day with calm water. Its been hot, but not overwhelmingly so on the beach since we still have a bit of a breeze.

What all this wind and rough water has done to us has been a mixed blessing. Rough water means the staff stays sharp. The guards move fast and are proactive. They keep people far from dangerous areas like near the rocks and piers. The supervisors stay alert, constantly moving and checking with the guards regularly. Dispatchers are quick to respond and are also proactive, often getting the guards in the field information before they even ask for it. By this time of the summer. But these are long, tense days. We have close calls all the time when guards go out for rescues and those who are not directly involved in backing them up have an agonizing wait until someone gets on the radio telling us “I got the OK sign”, or “Guard and victim are both back on shore”. Guards who work crowded, busy areas spend hours running back and forth from the shoreline or in the water back to the tower. They’re wet constantly. They’re sunburned and dehydrated from so much activity. All of this takes a toll.

Anyone who works in or around public safety organizations know that organizations are like people. Some stress is good. It increases performance, keeps staff involved and engaged, and facilitates teamwork. But too much stress or too long in the “zone” and all those good things go bad quickly. Responders can feel overwhelmed, exhausted, resentful, and/or short-tempered. As an “organizational organism” an entire group can suffer from these symptoms. And for the Beach Patrol, all the close calls, emergencies, tragedies, long days, and environmental challenges can wear us out and cause us to crash if we don’t remember to relax and recharge. Staff will begin to squabble among themselves or start to find fault in their supervisors or managers. Some of this is normal and unavoidable. Our guards work really hard and perform really well, and that comes at a price.

Sometimes the remedy is as simple as a few calm, uneventful days to help us remember how nice it is to go to the beach for work every day. Other times we organize ways for the guards to interact together, relax, and enjoy each other’s company away from the pressures of work. Last week we had our final competition of the summer, which was the “beach flags” event. Picture musical chairs with hose, except with adrenaline charged super athletes wearing costumes. We also had our annual “Lifeguard Banquet” which a committee organized and involved food, awards, and a pinata.

Here’s to our hardworking guards!

Lifeguard Sport Competitions

Years ago, the original inhabitants of this part of the world held periodic gatherings which included athletic competitions that highlighted skills needed to survive and thrive. These were opportunities to share information and new ideas, forge and maintain social connections, and renew commitment to a way of life. As open water lifeguards we continued that tradition.

Last weekend a small group of Galveston competitors traveled to the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA) Gulf Coast Regional Championships in Port Aransas. Representatives from the Cameron County Beach Patrol, the South Padre Island Beach Patrol, the Galveston Island Beach Patrol, and Port Aransas Beach Patrol all participated. Yes, Galveston dominated! But more importantly the next step is during the second week in August, a group of guards from Texas will compete in the United States Lifesaving Association’s National Lifeguard Championships in Virginia Beach, Virginia. For years and years Galveston has been the only group from our region, but now we’ll have four teams which together comprise “Team Texas”.

Open water lifeguarding is unique among the emergency services in that we are able to prevent accidents to a very large extent. So far this year, Galveston lifeguards alone have made over 100,00 preventative actions. That’s 110,000 people moved out of potentially dangerous or life-threatening situations. But there are some things that can’t be prevented. And that’s why our profession also demands the highest level of physical conditioning of all the first responder professions.

When a lifeguard trains he/she is doing much more than staying in shape. Of all the rescues made by Galveston lifeguards last year alone, most were made with minimal equipment. Lifeguards rely heavily on exceptional USLA training, local knowledge, mental and emotional fortitude, and their physical abilities. Every rescue is a race against time, and every guard is an athlete. That’s where competition comes in.

Participating in Lifeguard Sport competitions and daily training sessions hones skills used daily by professional lifeguards and gives lifeguards something to reach for. Lifesaving Sport is also an opportunity to showcase our skills for the public we protect. National competitors are an example for all the guards they work with at their local beach. And the same applies for Junior Lifeguard competitors, many of whom will be the lifeguards and Lifesaving Sport superstars of tomorrow. Locally we have Lifeguard Sport competitions every Sunday for guards and every Friday during the Junior Guard program for JGs throughout the summer, and each guard participates in physical and skills training every day they work before they head out to the towers.

Because of all the prevention, training, lifeguard standards, and public education by USLA and its certified agencies, we boast an impressive statistic. Your chances of drowning in a USLA certified agency’s beach are 1 in 18 million. Galveston faces more challenges than many beaches, but maintaining “Advanced” level certification from USLA means that we are more prepared for the inevitable than many of our counterparts at other beaches.

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.

Have a Safe 4th of July!

Hard to believe we’re already to the 4th of July holiday! Summer is flying by. We’re fully staffed, as are the other emergency services. But with up to 500 thousand visitors on the island this weekend, make sure you think of us as an added layer of protection and take protective measures to ensure your personal safety and that of your family. If you or yours are headed to the beach, remember not to check your brain at home or on the other side of the causeway!

Finally, we’re seeing normal summer water conditions as opposed to the constant wind, surf and currents that have plagued us since early May. We’re also starting to see a slight increase in critters like jellyfish and stingray, but so far it hasn’t been above our threshold to fly the purple flag that warns of high levels of marine pests though. Just as a reminder, the treatment for a jellyfish sting is rinsing with saline solution (or saltwater if that’s the nearest thing). This gets the tentacles off and keeps the sting from getting worse. Then do something for the pain like rub ice on it or treat with a topical anesthetic. Most stings are a pretty short-term event and it’s extremely rare to see any kind of allergic reaction to them. For stingrays, they’re easily prevented if you shuffle your feet while in the water. If you are unfortunate enough to catch a barb in your foot or ankle you want to soak it in hot water immediately- but not so hot you burn your skin. The pain goes away very quickly. Then you need to seek medical attention because they have a 100% infection rate.

Stay far away from groins and piers to avoid rip currents. Also remember to keep a close eye on your kids and wear a lifejacket if you’re a poor swimmer/child, on boats, or wade fishing. One thing to keep in mind is that we typically see a lot of heat related injuries (heat exhaustion and heat stroke) on this particular weekend. I’m not sure what it is about the combination of 10 hours of sun, BBQ, and beer that brings this on? Don’t forget to hydrate the non-alcoholic way, wear protective clothes and use sunscreen, seek shade periodically, and use decent sunglasses. And of course, avoid swimming on the ends of the island at the San Luis Pass or the Houston Ship Channel.

Forecast looks great. Should make for a great holiday weekend, so come on out to the beach. Just remember to swim near a lifeguard. We’ll have guards at all the towers from early morning until dark. So, stop by the tower and chat with the guard for the latest local beach info when you get there.

We really hope this holiday is a chance for you to spend quality time with family and friends and to remember how lucky we are to live here. Be safe and have a great 4th!

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.