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Memorial Day Weekend!

All the preparation is done. The equipment is ready, the planning is over, and the time for preparation transitions to the time for action. This week had a great drill to help sharpen our communication strategies and rescue techniques among our group and between our emergency response partners. We finalized plans and schedules and met with our various partners to make sure we’re all on the same page. And our “Night Swim”, when our entire staff goes through a grueling two hour test of skill and stamina, went off without a hitch.
This weekend will see between 250 and 500 thousand visitors to the island. The saving grace is that we are now almost at full strength. We’ll be ready for whatever madness the hundreds of thousands of visitors this weekend bring, as will our partners in the Police, Fire, EMS, Beach Parks, Coastal Zone Management, and Parking teams. We all provide an extra layer of protection, support, and response, but ultimately our visitors are primarily responsible for their safety and well being.
So, this weekend if you’re going to the beach or anywhere near the water, remember it’s easy to let down your guard when you’re recreating. Here are a few of the more important safety tips:
Swim near a lifeguard- almost every tower will be staffed every day for a double shift. We’ll be out there from early morning till dark, so shouldn’t be hard to find. The guard is an added layer of protection although you are still responsible for your own safety.
Stay away from the rocks- where there is a chance you could be caught in a dangerous rip current.
Avoid swimming or wading at the ends of the island- The San Luis Pass and the Ship Channel have very strong tidal flow. The water there is not only very dangerous, but they are illegal areas for swimming.
Don’t swim alone- your buddy can call or wave for help if you can’t.
Don’t dive in head first- to avoid the chance of a head or neck injury.
Observe warning signs and flags- ours are all bilingual and use icons.
Non-swimmers and children should use lifejackets when in our around the water
Alcohol and water don’t mix- most of the beaches here are alcohol free, but if you choose to drink, try to remember that, even though you feel invincible, you’re not.
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.
Above all, remember the beach is a wonderful place. Go, have fun, and focus on family, friends, recreation, and making memories. Take a well earned break from your routine with friends and family. Just do it safely!

Sailboat Rescue

It was an absolutely beautiful evening with clear skies and a stiff wind. The elderly couple and their neighbor sailed around the south jetty and prepared to watch a beautiful sunset. Unfortunately, things went horribly wrong when their boat began having problems and they started drifting uncontrollably towards the rocks.
At 02:13am our “On Call” supervisor, Nikki Harclerode, received a call from the Coast Guard. Apparently there was a 32 foot sail boat with three passengers that was in distress and not able to sail their boat away from the south jetty. The Coast Guard was nearby in a boat, but was not able to get close enough to effect a rescue. The three passengers were not in distress at the moment but were quickly drifting towards the South Jetty and were being tossed around by the waves. Two of the tree passengers were in their 80’s.
Joe Cerdas rubbed the sleep out of his eyes, grabbed his equipment, and quickly jumped in the rescue truck, as did Micah Fowler. They both knew that a call like this would quickly overwhelm any one person. Nikki Harclerode was the on-call supervisor and breathed a sigh of relief as she heard them on the radio. These are experienced lifeguards and they quickly devised a plan. Joe and Nikki grabbed the boat from our headquarters at Stewart Beach and Micah headed out to the scene to try to locate the boat in distress. Joe and Nikki launched the boat at the Yacht Basin and made it around the tip of the South Jetty at around 03:10. Meanwhile Micah located the boat getting pounded by waves, a little less than 100 yards offshore on the west (beach) side of the jetty, and only about 15 yards off of the rocks. The sail boat was in about 4-5 feet of water and was being tossed around by the waves.
Micah figured out that he could drive the whole way out on the east side of the jetty because sand has accumulated over there. He lit up the boat and surrounding area and called directions to Nikki and Joe as they rounded the tip of the south jetty and made the 2 mile run back to the boat.
When they arrived Joe and Nikki easily found the boat following Micah’s lights. The waves were beating on the boat, and it was very difficult to figure out how to get the people off safely. After making a couple of loops around the sailboat they decided to approach from the leeward side and use the pontoon of our boat to wedge against the sailboat. Joe is a very skilled operator and he was able to gently maintain contact while Nikki carefully brought the elder couple across and assessed their condition. By 3:40 the three people were carefully transferred to the Beach Patrol boat. The passengers were exhausted and beat up, but OK overall.
Joe and Nikki drove them back to the Yacht Basin where a friend picked them up.

Wave Watchers

A group of people stood near the end of the rock groin at 37th street. They took turns removing the ring buoy and attached throw bag from the rescue box and throwing it to an imaginary victim in the water. The trick is to make sure the loop on the outside of the bag is secure by holding it in your hand or stepping on it with your foot while you toss the ring. The ring should be tossed over the head of the victim and gently pulled back to where the person’s head is. You can walk up side to side when you pull to make sure the ring contacts the person. If you miss, you don’t take the time to stuff the rope back in the bag, but coil it on one hand while stepping on the “bag end” of the rope. Your coils should go from the body out, so when you throw they don’t cross over the other ropes and tangle. When you re-stuff the bag with the rope, make sure it’s not coiled. You just feed the rope directly in the bag. It’s all about not letting the rope tangle. As in much of rescue work, the simplest thing gets complicated if not done the same way each time. It’s all about eliminating variables, so when things inevitably go wrong, you have less on your plate. Even professional rescuers don’t always think clearly under duress, so the more you can prepare equipment and practice before hand, the less you have to figure out on the fly.
This was just one activity that our recently graduated class of “Wave Watchers” undertook. Much of the course was in the classroom. They were certified in CPR and became official “Tourist Ambassadors”. We talked about beach topography and near shore bathymetry, rip and long shore currents, lost children protocols, beach rules and ordinances, drowning events, dangerous marine life and treatments, and Galveston areas that are hazardous to swimmers. On the final day they toured the beach, were issued uniform shirts and hats, received an official ID card, and we finished up with a celebratory lunch together.
This was the second class of Wave Watchers to graduate. We were joined at times by most of the Park Board Tourist Ambassadors that work the parking area of the seawall. Former Wave Watcher’s gave lectures and joined the class as a refresher. A wonderful group of 14 graduated.
The Wave Watchers have two running conversations on an app. One is for “Beach Operations” and includes reporting situations that need intervention by Beach Patrol staff or other groups. Their stats are entered into our data base so we can keep track of preventative or enforcement actions. That thread also includes daily beach information, warning flag colors, etc. The other thread is for general communication.
The Wave Watcher program has been a great force multiplier for the Beach Patrol and has become an integral part of our family. Let us know on our website if you would like to join the next class!

Summer Time is Almost Here

With this cold weather it’s hard to believe that we’re on the verge of starting beach season. We’ve started our daily patrols and it’s only a month till our first lifeguard tryouts and academy, which will happen over Spring Break. Our full time crew has been working hard to get everything ready for the season. They just finished refurbishing all 32 of the lifeguard towers, we’re going live with a new and improved website, updated and revised the Hurricane and Tidal Threat Response Plan for the Park Board, and more. The next big project is to get all the missing and damaged signage up before people start swimming again in a few weeks. We’ve also started our Water Safety Outreach Program in the schools and are preparing to ramp up a number of community programs including Junior Lifeguards, The Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network, Wave Watchers, At Risk Kids Camp, Lifeguard Scholarship Program, etc.

The Jesse Tree/Beach Patrol Survivor Support Network (SSN) is in its 15th year and has helped around 50 families through the early stages of the coping and grieving process. They have done such a wonderful job though the years of working with hotels, restaurants, consulates, and volunteer clergy, translators, mental health workers, to provide and invaluable service when tragedy strikes. This week was a big step in taking this program to the next level.

I joined Lieutenant Kara Harrison from the Beach Patrol, David Mitchell from the Jesse Tree, and Iris Guererra who is a volunteer for Jesse Tree, Survivor Support Network, and the Beach Patrol Wave Watchers Program. The four of us attended a 3 day certification course for individual and group crisis intervention, which is provided by the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation. The course covers the basics on how to diffuse and debrief people who have been through traumatic events. It is designed to provide care for individuals and groups. It works for a range of people including everything from normal citizens to public safety professionals. There is, of course, quite a bit of current theory, but also a lot of practice sessions and role playing. That way when you get in the field you can more smoothly apply the principles of the class to normal life.

Another benefit of the course is that this is the same training foundation that our county critical response team has and will be a way to link with this great bunch of people. Having the Jesse Tree involved, along with other groups from the county, means we’re all talking the same language and can support each other when needed. A big part of the idea of critical stress intervention for public safety groups is that you try to have people outside of your normal rank structure conduct the sessions.

Of course Beach Patrol, with its 140 or so lifeguards has its own special needs since we deal with so many serious incidents annually. Building capacity for support of these brave men and women is invaluable in avoiding burnout and in keeping the workforce mentally healthy.

Mind Over Matter

I guess it’s all in how you look at it.

I hate the cold. I’d be happy if it never dipped below 80 degrees year round. I have a lot of friends through the International Lifesaving Federation from all over and I mentioned how cold it’s been here to  the head of the lifesaving federation of Norway and to the Executive Director of the Danish Lifesaving Federation. Big mistake. Telling northern Europeans it’s cold in Galveston, Texas is a little like telling someone from Cairo that the Strand is “really old”.

The reply from Norway was a picture showing a road dusted with snow with what looks like a couple of inches on the sides. It says, “In the USA- Close all the schools there’s no way we can go to school in this weather!” Then it’s followed by another picture of a snow covered road between what looks like huge ice cliffs on both sides. The caption for this one reads, “In Norway- Kids if you do well on this test I promise we can take a bath in the lake, your dad will break the ice for us.”

As if I wasn’t already feeling like a whiner, I then got my buddy’s reply from Denmark. Erik told me how they’d gotten to feeling pretty cooped up since the days only had about 7 hours of daylight and it had been snowing several feet, so they hadn’t seen the sun in a number of days. He and his fellow lifeguards decided to go out for some “training”. They went to a nearby lake, cut a hole in the ice with a chainsaw, then put on really thick wetsuits and dive gear. Dropping into the water with a soccer ball, they inflated their buoyancy compensators so they floated up like corks. Standing upside down on the bottom of the ice they played underwater soccer. He didn’t mention alcohol, but I can only imagine those big Vikings coming up periodically to down goblets of ale between points.

It’s all relative. Those replies remind me how good we have it here where we whine about weather that drops a little below freezing. But there’s a deeper level. A lot of things we experience as discomfort or as an inconvenience can be pretty enjoyable once you shift your mindset. With the right clothes almost any cold is comfortable. Or if you shift your mind further you can redefine what “comfortable” is. An older gentleman that many of you know runs every day on the seawall early in the morning. He is always wearing shorts no matter what the temperature. I passed him early one of those cold mornings. As I passed I thought to myself that he must be suffering. They he gave his usual smile and wave and continued his slow, steady pace down the wall looking the farthest thing from cold or uncomfortable as possible.

I guess it’s all in how you look at it.

Cold Winter Days

I had a suggestion from a friend this week to write about how we deal with the cold water and air while working in the beach environment. It’s an interesting topic since 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 last week dropped into the 40’s, which is no joke. Water in the 40’s 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 in 48 degree water 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 both 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 water between your skin and the suit. This layer of water acts as insulation and 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 thick 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 beach users.

Botswana

Since 1983 I’ve missed one summer of lifeguarding in Galveston. That summer I missed was because after college I took a job teaching on a one year contract in Botswana, Africa and traveled at the end of my contract for about 9 months.

My teaching job was in a small mining community on the edge of the Kalahari Desert. Even living in the desert I thought a lot about when I’d get to return to Galveston and work on the beach and tried to stay in shape. At first I’d run on the cattle trails through the hilly rocky terrain. I ended up not doing too much of that for two reasons. One was that it was rude to pass an older person without running through some rather lengthy introductions including asking how they woke up in the morning and telling them how you woke up (“I woke up nicely”). The second was that there were a number of dangerous animals once you got out in the country including lions, elephants, black and green mambas, and several kinds of cobras. I resorted to jumping rope or running on my laundry in the bathtub to wash clothes.

Finally I realized that my school , which was on the edge of the village, was near a sports club that had a weird small round swimming pool. The pool wasn’t very big, but I made friends with a man called Lux who would let me in when no one was in the pool so I could swim laps. I think I figured out that it took 100 laps to make a mile, but it was better than having to stop every 5 minutes to chat or running into something life threatening. The only scary thing was this group of baboons would come down from a nearby hill and watch me and point at me like I was crazy.

Sometimes I’d go for the weekend to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, which was the nearest big city. It was a tough trip involving a money exchange with some women of the Shona ethnic group under this tree, a border crossing, and about 4 hours of hitchhiking. But a bunch of Peace Corps volunteers from the states would go to this campsite and I’d get my fill of American culture. There was also a really beautiful 50 meter public swimming pools near the campsite. That was pretty amazing.

Once at that pool a guy was swimming laps in the lane next to me. Ocean lifeguards can spot each other in various ways, but I knew he was a guard by the way he swam. He was looking up every few strokes and had a really distinctive open water stroke. He also stopped periodically and checked on this group of unaccompanied kids playing across the pool. Before I could say anything he stopped me and said, “Where do you guard?”.

Turned out he was a guard in Florida who was traveling during his off time. Go figure!

Cold Foggy Days

The water temperature on the beachfront dropped 12 degrees in 3 days last week. This is a pretty dramatic shift as only a degree or two makes a significant difference when you’re swimming. Because the water is so shallow here on the upper Texas coast the water temperature is constantly changing during the fall and spring. A few warm or cold days can have a big impact. Another factor is when fronts blow through and take the warm water, which sits close to the surface, out to sea which allows the deeper, cooler water to well up.

With recent water temps in the 50’s, getting out on the water requires more foresight and preparation than during warmer months. A quick dip in the water when you’re a couple miles from shore can become a serious thing without proper gear. Kayakers, surfers, kite-boarders, stand-up paddlers, etc. should not only wear a wetsuit, but should have the appropriate wetsuit for the activity and conditions. When at all appropriate it’s a really good idea to not just bring a lifejacket, but to wear it. That way when the unexpected happens you’re able to float and wait for help long after the cold water prevents swimming.

When the air is warm but the water is cold the conditions are ripe for sea fog. This fog can appear all at once or as a white bank that rolls in. Our Houston/Galveston National Weather Service office, one of the best in the country, is very tuned in to the aquatic environment and puts out all kinds of relevant marine warnings. Last week there was a fog advisory, but localized fog can happen without warning. Rescue workers from all agencies associated with the “Galveston Marine Response” coalition as well as the Coast Guard are kept busy when kayakers and boaters get lost in fog in West Bay and the San Luis Pass areas. Some can be really close to shore, but have no idea where they are.

Aside from proper attire and a Coast Guard approved lifejacket there are a few other things you should do before getting on the water. First, be sure someone has very specific and accurate information about where you’re going and what times you’ll be out. Having participated in hundreds of searches for people, I can tell you the better starting point a rescuer has, the more likely he/she is to locate the missing person. Make sure your cell phone is charged and in a waterproof case. If you have a smart phone, there are apps that can help you find your way around, but don’t rely on electronics! A small watch compass has gotten me out of a jam more than once when I was training on my surf ski a couple miles from shore and a fog bank rolled in.

Most importantly, take a moment to think of all the things that could go wrong before getting out there, and then plan accordingly. Remember that “Murphy’s Law” is twice as likely to apply when on the water!

Tarzan of the Amazon

In 1976, at the age of 28, Kapax swam the length of the Magdalena River, a distance of over 1,000 miles. It took him about 5 weeks to do this. The Magdalena is a tributary of the Amazon River and Kapax, whose real name is Alberto Lesmes Rojas, was ahead of his time.

We are now accustomed to athletes doing extraordinary things to “raise awareness” for different causes. But Kapax isn’t from an area or a time where this type of thing was commonplace. In a tiny town in the Colombian Amazon in the mid 70’s it was unheard of.

Kapax had a European father and an indigenous mother. His father left when he was young and he was not able to attend school from that point on. He spent a lot of time watching black and white Tarzan movies at the small theater in Puerto Leguizamo, a small town along the banks of the river. He began going out into the jungle and practicing the moves he saw Tarzan do. As he grew, so did his notoriety. He felt a connection to the jungle and to the Amazonian river which grew stronger with time. Eventually he became known as the “Tarzan of the Amazon”. He became more and more concerned with the deforestation of the trees and the polluting of the river. This became an obsession which eventually drove him to do the swim which made him famous throughout the Amazon and surrounding countries.

Years ago, I traveled through part of the Amazon for a few days in a dugout with a couple of indigenous guys. Other than some rice they brought along, we caught and ate our food. I saw a way of life that was connected to water that I’d not even imagined. I’ve hoped to share a part of that with my daughter and wife for years- although maybe without the cloud of mosquitoes and the anaconda dinner cooked over a fire. Over the Thanksgiving holiday my family and I visited the town of Leticia, in the Colombian Amazon. Leticia is across the river from Peru and sits half in Colombia and half in Brazil. It’s a wild, bustling frontier town.

Entering the small airport there’s a huge mural of Kapax in the forest. On the way to town there’s a huge statue of Kapax holding a giant snake. There are posters of him, magazines with his picture all over the place in all three countries, and everyone tells stories that seem to be half real and half shrouded in the mists of myth. I was hoping to at least catch a glimpse of this famous waterman.

And then, on the third, day we saw him. The Tarzan of the Amazon was in our hotel chatting up a couple of ladies. Eventually he broke away and came to talk. He said a lot, including that my daughter should eat more so she’d have strength to dance. But then he said two things that showed why he’s such a legend”

“The most dangerous animal is man”.

And…

“He who loves the river, protects it.”

Water Safety

This week has been a great example of why Galveston in the fall is such a great combination. The water still hovers just over 70 degrees and the days have been beautiful. We still run patrol vehicles and are scheduled to do that until December 1st, at which time we’ll focus on rebuilding lifeguard towers, repairing equipment, replacing signs and rescue boxes that need it, and a thousand other small things we need to do to prepare for the next season. Of course, if this type of weather comes back around, we’ll divert our resources back up to the beach front to make sure everyone is OK. We also continue to respond to emergency calls day or night just as we do the rest of the year, so if you need us for something urgent just dial 911.

We responded with our partners in the police, fire, and EMS to a pool incident earlier this week. That call reminded me that, although we specialize in beach and surf lifesaving, there is a broader world of water safety. At times we are so preoccupied with our primary concern of rip currents and other beach related issues that we neglect to stress the importance of some very basic safety advice.

As the president of the United States Lifesaving Organization, which specializes in open water lifeguarding, one of my duties is to sit on the board of a really wonderful group called “Water Safety USA” www.watersafetyusa.org . Water Safety USA is a roundtable of longstanding national nonprofit and governmental organizations with a strong record of providing drowning prevention and water safety programs, including public education. Part of our mission is to tease out commonalities in water safety messaging between the 14 members and encourage them to put out information the same way. That way the public will not receive so many similar messages that are presented different ways. Unified messaging is much more effective and hopefully more likely to stay in people’s minds.

At this point there are two main messages Water Safety USA promotes. The first is “Water Safety- Its Learning to Swim and So Much More”. The importance of learning to swim is fairly obvious, but the idea is part of a larger framework of skills and information that keep you safe when in or around the water. The second is “Designate a Water Watcher, Supervision Could Save a Life”. The idea here is that when kids are swimming there should be an older responsible person whose sole responsibility is to watch them and make sure they’re safe. The third message will be released in the spring and has to do with the use of life jackets when in or around the water.

Remember that backyard pools and other bodies of water claim many more lives each year than the beach. And winter does not mean that you can drop your guard. Supervision, barrier devices, learning to swim, etc. are key components to making sure water is what it should be- something to enjoy safely.