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Understanding Waves

The wind blew across the surface of the smooth surface of the Gulf of Mexico. After awhile little ripples
began to form. Then they combined to form tiny swells. The water molecules themselves didn’t move
far. Instead, they passed the energy from one to the next, and this energy moved through the water
causing these swells. It was like a mouse running under a carpet. The mouse moves, but the carpet itself
doesn’t.
There was a lot of distance, or “fetch” in nautical terms, to travel. The little swells combined to form
larger swells that were farther apart. If you measured from the water’s surface to the top of the swells,
you’d have the “wave height”. If you measure the time it takes between the peak of each swell to pass a
stationary point you have the “wave period”. The more fetch the longer the distance these swells will
travel. The farther they travel, the more they start to organize and combine. They form larger swells that
are farther apart. Surfers look for a long period and a good size wave height. When these conditions
reach shore, you can have those big, clean, rolling swells that make great surfing waves when they
break.
A wave breaks in approximately 1.3 times its height. So, in general a 3 foot wave breaks in 4 foot of
water. Wave height is typically measured from the base of the breaking side of the wave to the top. In
some places surfers measure from the back, but the trend seems to use the measurement of the front.
It may be less macho, but it’s more accurate. This is a great trick for boaters and lifeguards. If you see a
two-foot wave breaking in the middle of the bay or ocean, it’s probably only about 2 ½ feet deep there.
This is one of many techniques water people use to “see” the bottom by looking at the surface of the
water.
By the time this particular wave train arrives in Galveston it has traveled a couple of hundred miles.
Depending on what kind of obstacles it encounters it will behave differently. If it spends its energy on a
sandbar it becomes a “breaking” wave. Depending on how steep the slope is it will break hard or gently.
If it hits a vertical or nearly vertical barrier it can form a “surging” wave. It will bounce up but won’t
actually break. An example would be right against the rock jetties or near a breakwater. If the water
doesn’t pass through it just kind of bounces back. Good to know when making a rescue by a breakwater
or jetty.
Waves are important to understand in our line of work. They can cause or contribute to rip currents,
inshore holes and bottom contour. To understand them means to understand how to use or work
around them during a rescue. Understanding waves is a crucial part of how to save lives for ocean
lifeguards.

Season Recap

Fortunately, we are now in the position to run lifeguard patrols throughout the year. As the temperature cools, we’ll drive the entire beach front and, in addition to our lifesaving responsibilities, be able to devote attention to things like driving in prohibited areas, glass and alcohol enforcement, leash law enforcement, driving in sand dunes, and lots of other beach related issues. Hopefully this will take a little off the burden placed on the Galveston Police Department. Having a rescue truck out there already on patrol will also greatly increase our response time to water and medical emergencies in and around Galveston water.

Other than that we use the “slower” months to concentrate on rebuilding lifeguard towers and repairing/replacing needed signage of the 600 or so signs we maintain all over the island. We also use that slower time for the higher levels of training required of our full-time staff. For example, our new staff members are going to a certification course for “Swift Water Technician” this week and will be taking the Certified Tourism Ambassador course later this month. Additionally, we revise and improve training and administrative materials and try to burn off a bit of that vacation time that is hard to use during the busiest 9 months of the year.

Looking back over the past season, it was a tough one. Very large crowds and an extraordinary amount of rough water days kept us on our toes and sent some of our stats thought the roof. We seemed to be running at breakneck speed all season long and didn’t even get that late summer flat water that gives us some relief.

The big number that shows how busy we were is 175,080 preventative actions. In recent years we’ve traditionally hit somewhere just over 100,000. This year is the highest number we’ve ever recorded. This category measures how many times we advised people about or moved them from dangerous areas. It encompasses everything from the lifeguard swimming out and staying next to someone until they get to shore, to moving groups of people away from rocks on the loudspeaker in the trucks. It doesn’t include times we physically touch someone to bring them to shore, which is considered a rescue. We made 93 rescues this year which includes both rescues of swimmers and people who are boating. If we’re doing a good job of prevention that number will stay low, like it is this year.

Another big success was that we hit around 25,000 water safety talk contacts. This can be our school outreach program, or groups that show up on the beach that we intercept and give a safety talk.

We also made 582 medical responses and 627 enforcements. We often serve to filter out calls for EMS, Police, and Fire by handling minor things on site, so they don’t have to respond.

Finally, we reunited 179 lost children with parents, gave a few thousand tourists information about Galveston, provided 62 people help with vehicles, and a whole lot more.

Year-round Beach Destination

This has been a tough week. Five drownings (4 beach one bay), two of them children, and only three have been recovered. My staff and our partners in Galveston Marine Response, Coast Guard, and the Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network have done an admiral job in very trying circumstances.  

One thing that helped was that the Beach Patrol year-round staff has been increased recently by four. That doesn’t sound like much, but those few extra bodies allowed us to assign a truck to comb the west end or a jet ski to check the rocks along the south jetty or the groins along the seawall without compromising normal operations.  

These incidents really highlight the fact that tourism is increasing during the “off peak” season from September till May. The water is warmer more of the year so they’re going to the beach and swimming. There was a time when we only really had significant amounts of swimmers on the weekends until the middle of October. Those days are long gone, and we often have large crowds on the beach and in the water into December and starting in February.  

We have, like it or not, become a year-round beach destination. This is great for the economy, provided we are able to take care of these additional visitors for these new “shoulder season” times that have become so busy. Additional staff for the lifeguards will be needed to cover more of the year and to cover more and more beaches, like the addition to Babe’s beach coming soon. We also have to consider that the day tripper’s use of the west end beaches has increased dramatically and we don’t receive much for the services we need to provide out there for security, lifesaving, beach cleaning, etc. 

New beaches are good, and experts say for each dollar we put on the beach we get seven in return. Great for tourism and for us as residents since that additional hotel tax fuels our tourist services and the additional sales tax keeps our taxes low. So more people can afford to live here and the city can provide the types of amenities needed to attract and keep them. 

For us on Beach Patrol, the key issues are staffing and infrastructure. Staffing needs are obvious to many people when they see the size of the crowds and the demands that puts on all the emergency services. But infrastructure is a major concern. We will eventually need some type of substation on the west end, hopefully at a park that captures revenue. I was there when they built the Stewart Beach Pavilion in ’84. It housed us as we grew from a staff of 17 to 145 so we could cover new beaches and increased tourism. It was supposed to last 25 years. It’s way past time to replace it for something that generates more revenue, is a landmark that makes Galveston proud of its flagship beach, and can adequately house a state-of-the-art lifeguard service.  

Bitter Sweet

We’re perched on the brink. When the seasons change it all happens pretty quickly in Galveston. Suddenly the beach water is in the low 70s, you’re working to stay warm instead of cool, and the days are much shorter.

This weekend will be the last one for the seasonal employees and tower lifeguards to work. The hardworking Park Board Coastal Zone Management Team will be picking up the towers next week.

It’s a kind of “bitter sweet” feeling. After a long season of hard work it’s a relief for the guards to get out of the “thunder dome”, but they instantly start missing the beach, the work, and the camaraderie. I remember how when I’d finish the season as a tower guard and go to school or wherever, I’d have a sort of let down that bordered on depression. The work was so intense, but so fulfilling. It’s almost like I physically missed the adrenaline of working rescues and medical calls. I also missed all the physical activity and just being on the beach all day every day.

Our fulltime staff is pushing on though. They’ll be patrolling the beaches in mobile vehicles and will continue to do so throughout the entire year, thanks to the four extra positions we’ve been given. They’ll also continue to respond to 911 calls 24 hrs a day throughout the winter.  In addition we also start off season maintenance duties next week, including replacing signage and rebuilding damaged towers. Other duties include website redesign, policy and procedure manual update, maintenance of rescue boards and other equipment, ordering supplies etc. And this year because we have these new positions we’ll be able to hit many more school groups during more of the year. Our target is 20,000 kids, but I feel pretty certain we can get above that. We’ll also be spending a lot of time training the new staff as tourism ambassadors, swift water rescue technicians, dispatchers, personal water craft rescuers, and more. Some of them are in the process of getting EMTs so they’ll have more than we throw at them. The slower months always go fast, and first thing we know we’re back out in force guarding.

But we’re not done yet. October and November are still pretty warm and with lots of people, particularly on the weekends. Remember if you and your family are out there on the beach that, while we’re doing the best we can out of rescue trucks, there are no stationed lifeguards. So be extra careful. If you need anything, we’re part of the 911 system and can be there quickly day or night.

We now enter the absolute best time of the year. Warm weather, gorgeous water, and low crowds make it the perfect time to be on the beach. There are still plenty of beautiful days to come, so hopefully you’ll find time to get out there to enjoy it in the way you love most.

See you on the beach or in the water!

Dust Devil

Lifeguard 3 Michael Lucero was working the early shift at Stewart Beach last Sunday. It was looking to be a slow day with rain in the Houston area and not many people moving around on the beachfront yet. He watched over maybe 50 people on the beach, with 10 or so in the water.

Since Lucero came to work with us I’ve always been impressed with how attentive and responsive he is. He’s always been really good about being proactive when he works in the tower. He trains hard and regularly, and he is consistently very nice and patient with our beach goers. He took the initiative to train as a dispatcher and this summer he did just as good a job coordinating 32 lifeguard towers, 7 rescue trucks, and a couple of mobile units (UTVs) simultaneously.

He did not disappoint when one of the more unexpected things possible happened Sunday. He came on the radio calmly letting his area supervisor know that a funnel cloud was developing behind his tower to the north. He then just as calmly called in that the funnel cloud had touched down in the parking lot of Stewart Beach and that he was going to move people out of the way.

We have dust devils all the time in the late summer. Usually they’re just strong enough to blow sand in people’s eyes and might uproot a couple of umbrellas. This wasn’t that.

When I got on site I could see the swirly tracks in the sand and it looked like the thing had barreled through with a diameter of about 15 yards. Witnesses reported that, as it came through the parking lot, about 10 of those heavy blue beach trashcans were swirling in the air maybe 30 feet off the ground. It blasted through the umbrella line and reportedly the umbrellas were converted to spear like projectiles while about 20 or so spun around and around.

These same witnesses all said basically the same thing. Before they knew they were in danger, Lucero first cleared the people in the water, and then moved the people on the sand out of harm’s way firmly and efficiently. When it was all over and he surmised that there were no injuries he stepped back up into his tower, called “Tower 6 back on location.” and resumed his duties of overseeing the public.

Obviously this could have gone a whole different way. But Michael was the perfect example of how we want our lifeguards to respond to emergencies. If they’re alert and proactive they can prevent injuries or worse before people even realize they’re in danger. He was quick in his thinking and in his actions without a lot of fuss. And it paid off!

As we look at the next few weeks and associated storm potential, let’s try to follow Lucero’s lead. Make sure you’re ahead of the game if the time comes to act. If officials put out warnings that recommend evacuation do so early and efficiently. And stay safe!

Wrapping up Labor Day Weekend

Labor Day weekend was interesting. Despite sketchy forecasts, each day by the afternoon we ended up with really nice conditions, some sunshine, moderate crowds, and nice water. On Monday it was especially nasty in the morning, so we put 18 guards “on call” and just worked the trucks until conditions improved. By the time the guards got out there, it was a pretty decent day and we even finished the official high season with a nice sunset.

Pretty early on Monday morning I heard on the fire channel something about a “water rescue”. Then I heard “Chief 1” saying he was going in for a rescue. Chief 1 is Fire Chief Mike Wisko. Was pretty cool to hear our Galveston Fire Chief up early on a holiday saving lives! Although the beach was quiet at the time, the action was on Broadway and the north side of the island. All the rain caused some pretty significant flooding. As calls started coming in for people stranded in the high water or EMS trying to get to patients, the Fire Department sounded pretty busy. I asked Chief Wisko if they wanted some assistance and we decided to put the Beach Patrol’s high water rescue vehicle in service at Fire Station 1 for the water calls that were deep.

Meanwhile on the beachfront there was a bit of lateral current which kept the lifeguards busy, but not overwhelmed. Although we dealt with very few emergencies, it was steady. By the end of the day Monday we’d done around 2,500 preventative actions where we moved people from, or warned them about, dangerous areas. Not bad for a weekend that looked like it would be completely rained out.

We still have until October 7th to work seasonal lifeguards, but many of them have turned their attention to school even if they will still be able help out on the weekends. After that we’ll do the best we can with those of us that work year round. We had a good crew this year and I’ll be really sorry to see them go. One consolation is that it looks like we’re a go for 4 additional year round positions, which will really take the pressure off on those busy weekends in October, November, and even December when we are struggling to stay on top of things without our tower lifeguards. The increased bodies will also enable us to increase our school water safety outreach program and to provide not only year round call, but year round patrol. Finally!

So as we move into the fall season we will start to see a series of frontal systems move through. Each of these is typically followed by beautiful, clear, dry days with small crowds. And we’ll start seeing the migratory birds moving through. This is the best beach season here, especially in the context of it being sandwiched between hot, crowded summer and cold windy winter days. So get ready to get out there and enjoy the best part of the year soon!

 

Competitions

For beach lifeguards every rescue is a race against time.
Beach guards routinely make rescues of people caught in large surf or rip currents who are 40-100 yards off shore. Sometimes the victims are much farther out. The guards have to swim through currents, waves, and sometimes sea life to reach the people who need them. If the victim submerges before the guard gets to them there is little or no chance of locating them in the small window of time we have to revive them before they suffer brain damage or death.
For beach lifeguards every rescue is a race against time. Of all the public safety groups lifeguards rely the least on equipment and the most on physical conditioning. Because every rescue is a race, every beach lifeguard is an athlete. And not only do we have to recruit athletes but we have to ensure they stay in top physical conditioning throughout the season. To do this every day they work they go through a rigorous training session that includes physical conditioning and skills practice. We also use competition. Competition is as woven throughout the lifeguard culture as reading is though education. We have local competitions weekly. We compete with other groups in Texas. And once a year a select few lifeguards and juniors compete in the United States National Lifeguard Championships. Those that qualify meet hundreds of beach guards and JGs from around the country. They share stories and ideas, learn about techniques, equipment, and how other beaches and agencies are managed. And they bring that knowledge and enthusiasm back.
This year the championships were in Virginia Beach, which is interesting in itself because of the level of support and resources the city puts into its beachfront.
Galveston did well, especially when you consider we competed against the best of the best in the entire country. Our junior guard team crushed it with Nadine Barrera- 8th in swim rescue, Noah Barrera- 8th in 2K beach run, Axel Denner- 6th in 2K beach run and 7th in beach flags, Mac Livanec- 9th in 2K beach run and 8th in beach flags, and Will Brindley getting 7th in beach flags and 8th in the rescue race. Our lifeguard team also did well, particularly in the age group categories, which start at 30 years of age. Top 10th place finishes in age group events included our resident rock star athlete Kevin Anderson, who got 4th places in both run-swim-run and in the American ironman (run-swim-paddle-row). He also got 5th in the international ironman (run-swim-paddle-surfski), and in the surf swim. And in the surf ski race he got 5th. He also got a 14th spot against the young bucks in the open surf ski race! I had a decent year as well with age group finishes of 3rd in surf ski and in American ironman, 4th in run-swim-run and in the beach run, 5th in surf swim and in international ironman, 6th in ironguard (run-swim-paddle), and 7th in the rescue board race.
All in all we did G-town proud!

Personal Water Crafts

This has been one crazy summer. We’re in August and there are still tons of people moving around, the water has been choppy to rough with some pretty strong rip currents, and our call volume has been equivalent to days in May or June. Last weekend we moved a couple thousand people away from rip currents, made a number of rescues, responded to several “possible drowning” calls and made the scene of a few boaters in distress. Our lifeguards have been knocking it out of the park and have both prevented and responded to hundreds of thousands of accidents so far this season. They have few tools to help them, most of this work is done with a simple rescue tube and set of fins. For some of the weird stuff that happens farther off shore or in the bay, we go to what has become a vital piece of equipment in recent history for any state of the art lifeguard service- the Personal Water Craft (PWC).
A PWC is a pretty unique vehicle. Because they use a jet drive to funnel water from the bottom of the craft and shoot it out of the back, they have some real advantages compared to a powerboat. They can run in really shallow water because there’s no prop. They also don’t have the danger inherent in a propeller churning when working or playing near the power source.
The Galveston Beach Patrol was the first lifeguard service in the country, and probably the world, to use the PWC as a rescue device back in 1984. We were given two Yamaha Wave Runners for some kind of promotional deal. We used them for patrolling and shepherding swimmers closer to shore but not so much for rescue. We hosted a meeting for the United States Lifesaving Association that year and let everyone try them out. The next year the Hawaiians figured out that you could attach a rescue sled on the back to pick up victims, and history was made. My buddy Brian Keaulana is justifiably credited with being the pioneer of PWC rescue. He and his team used one to make a crazy rescue in a cave on the north shore of Oahu that was videotaped and helped promote the effectiveness of the PWC as a rescue device all over the world.
Nowadays beach guards can drop a PWC in the water almost anywhere and be to a victim within seconds. We use a rescue sled to bring the victims in or use it as a working platform in the water. We can do anything on that sled from CPR to spinal immobilization. We have them placed all over the island during the day for quick access and every Supervisor is a certified rescue operator.
We still make the vast majority of surf rescues the old fashion way- swimming with a rescue tube and fins, or paddling out on a rescue board. But in many ways the PWC revolutionized longer distance surf rescue, and for better or worse, we’ve all grown very dependent on them.

Jetty Jump

The young woman crouched down on the slippery surface of the rocks. Her heart beat rapidly as she watched the guy in front of her navigate down the steep part. She tried to ignore the cuts on the top of her foot from the last try. “This time I’ll get it right”, she thought to herself determinedly. He jumped and landed with his rescue tube held out in front of him. “NO!” shouted the instructor. “Keep that buoy tight to your body so you hit like a pancake…And remember head up and buoy covering all your important parts when you hit the water!”
When her turn came she walked forward carefully, making sure her bare feet avoided the green patches of algae. The small barnacles were like sandpaper that gave her feet good purchase. As long as she didn’t twist them or step on the parts with big barnacles, she’d have minimal cuts the next day. At least that’s what her instructor told her.
As she came to the steep part she stopped, rehearsing everything her instructor told her. She made sure there was no slack in the rope connecting to her rescue tube and that the heavy buckle was not on the end near her face. She kept her center of gravity low, but made sure she didn’t rest her butt or her rescue tube on the rocks so a passing wave would pass under her instead of sweeping her off her feet and across the barnacle ridden rocks. Most importantly, she reminded herself to watch the water.
As a gap between the sets of waves approached the instructor said, “Now. Ease down. Watch the water”. As she lowered herself down she stood up straight briefly. “FOCUS!” her instructor shouted. “Three point stance, butt down, but not all the way on the rocks” she added. The young woman corrected herself and got in position. She watched the water intently, waiting.
“Here it comes!” shouted the instructor. A large set of waves was rolling in. It was too late to go back up to the relative safety of high ground. The woman’s throat felt dry and she momentarily felt nauseous.
“I can do this”, she said to herself. She focused on the first wave. Time slowed down and her vision narrowed. She couldn’t hear anything. As the wave neared she jumped. She held the buoy to her chest tightly and arched her back as she floated above the water for what seemed like an eternity.
BOOM! She landed on the crest and slid off the back. Time returned to normal as she rolled sideways and put on her fins in one smooth motion. She took a couple of careful strokes and realized she hadn’t hit anything. She surfaced and turned around. Her instructor had a big smile on her face and she shouted, “Perfect! 3 more…”
The woman smiled to herself as she used the rip current to swim around the jetty. When the time came to do it for real, she’d be ready.

61 Rescue

Early on Saturday morning Supervisor Nikki Harclerode was putting the condition flags up at the stations on the seawall. She was placing the flag in the holder at 61st street. She was the only lifeguard out there as even the “A” shift guards were still out doing their pre-work training session. Nikki is a very experienced lifeguard who has worked for us for a number of years. She also is extremely focused and rarely lets anything fall between the cracks. On top of that she’s one of the better athletes in a group full of talent and has several national titles in Lifesaving Sport under her belt.
On this particular morning, something didn’t feel right. In her peripheral vision she noticed three heads where they shouldn’t be near the rocks. She called for backup and went in. A couple of us who were working and training jumped in our trucks at Stewart Beach and headed her way. We respond with a minimum of the same number of guards as people in distress if possible. It’s hard enough dealing with one panicked person in the water, much less three. Someone much smaller can overpower you when they’re afraid and it doesn’t take much to incapacitate you by a kick to the wrong area, a poke to your throat, or simply by accidently choking on water in the heat of struggling with a victim.
As we raced to help her, knowing that we most likely wouldn’t make it in time to help with the actual rescue, time was distorting from Nikki’s perspective. She ran down the rocks and her perception expanded. She saw three teenagers actively struggling about ¾ of the way out to the end of the rock groin. A woman was screaming and running into the water to her side. Nikki surmised this was the mother of at least one of the victims. Without breaking stride, Nikki yelled for the mom to stay where she was and told her she’d take care of them. The mom teetered on the edge of the no swimming area but reluctantly stayed put. This allowed Nikki to focus fully on the rescue.
Nikki high stepped through the shallow water, then began diving repeatedly through waist deep water dolphin style. She took a final dive, rolled over and put on her fins. Trailing her rescue tube she took a few strokes and then looked up. All three heads were still afloat. She yelled for them to stay away from the rocks and that she’d be there soon. She arrived a few seconds later to find they didn’t heed her advice and were banging around on the rocks trying to climb up. She came up behind the first and pushed him up then did the same for the second. The third victim was starting to go under and she struggled briefly with her before shoving her up on the rocks with the others. They were floundering but she climbed up and pushed them all up to dry rocks. Aside from cuts they were fine.