Kayak Death and Preparation

Settegast road has a nice little kayak launch at the end of it. You can launch right into Eckert Bayou and paddle straight into West Bay, which separates Galveston from the mainland.

The man launched from the Settegast ramp at 6am and paddled through the 60-degree water into a really strong, cold wind from the north. But he had a small trolling motor on his kayak to assist him as he headed out. And then no one heard anything from him. Later in the day, after he was reported missing to the Coast Guard and a search started, his cell phone was pinged in a couple of different locations. More groups jumped into a search including the Galveston Police, Jamaica Beach Fire, Galveston Fire, State Park rangers, Beach Patrol, TEXSAR, Galveston County CERT, and the Brazoria County Sheriff Office. There may have been others. By mid afternoon his kayak was found. Crews searched into the night, paused for a few hours, an and resumed the next morning. Finally, his body was found miles away late morning the following day. He was face up with a lifejacket on.

The Beach Patrol/Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network (SSN) was called out to aid the growing number of family members who headed down to Galveston. At one point there were over 25 people there, with multiple groups broken out in prayer circles, question and answer sessions, and grief therapy. Casa Del Mar helped us out with a hotel room for the closest family members to spend the night and a local realty firm with a nearby office offered to let the family gather out of the elements.

In my career with the Beach Patrol I have seen, time and time again, Galvestonians give so much to people in need. I’ve been privileged to witness how we consistently come together in times of crisis to help each other and those who visit. It’s beautiful, and heartwarming, and restores faith in the human spirit. It’s probably the main reason I love my job and living here.  But there’s one thing it doesn’t do. It doesn’t bring him back. It doesn’t bring any of them back.

Because we can’t bring back the dead, Ocean Lifesaving focuses so much energy on prevention. Half a million people are moved from dangerous conditions a year by the Galveston Beach Patrol alone. Not the mention the 30 to 50 thousand children that receive water safety information presentations a year in the county.

Boating is tough. The Coast Guard, law enforcement marine divisions, and Park and Wildlife do an admirable job of getting into out to the public. But its tough and there’s a lot of ground to cover. The encouraging thing is the information is simple. Have a plan, communicate your plan. Know the conditions and your personal limitations. Wear a properly fitted lifejacket. Simple stuff.

The hardest thing is getting everyone to realize one critical thing. It can happen to anyone, so take reasonable precautions. Then go have fun.

Everything Happens for a Reason

Everything happens for a reason.

Things can go wrong pretty quickly in the ocean. After working in and around this environment for years we can, at times, become too comfortable and forget how little it takes to be overwhelmed. Arrogance is a real danger.

I try once a year to put myself in a place that isn’t familiar and is completely out of my comfort zone. I climb a mountain. When I return, I find my mind is clearer and things feel more in perspective. I also find that I don’t take it for granted that I’ll be safe, even at the beach. Rescue work demands a level of preparedness that is reinforced by walking that edge.

A three-day motorcycle ride got me to the base of my mountain. It was cold, but I’d brought good gear.  I had sturdy hiking boots, a fleece, Gortex gear (even though it was perfectly clear), a down vest, waterproof matches, a good knife, and a whistle (for bears). I’d laid it all out, packed extra food and water just in case things went south. I’d even brought a flashlight, extra batteries, and a GPS in case. I knew it would be physically demanding, but I’ve been training a bunch and was feeling good.

As I hiked the path got steeper. Obviously, in December there aren’t a lot of people out climbing so I was careful with my foot placement. I made sure and took lots of breaks, staying hydrated and eating these ridiculous little energy bars. I felt tired but was liking the whole “man against the elements” thing.

I was about halfway up the steep side of the mountain when suddenly this little, slightly paunchy, middle-aged man came zipping by me wearing a Mr. Rogers style sweater, aqua socks, and carrying a very small plastic bottle of some kind of flavored water. He shouted a cheery “Hellooooo!” as he all but skipped by me on the vertical slope.

At the top we shared a cup of hot tea (which I’d carefully prepared and brought in case the weather……well, you know….).  He was Korean and visiting every national park in the US for 48 hours. I had to tell him that we wouldn’t make it back before dark several times to get him to descend with me as he scampered around the rocks impervious to the 35-degree air and the 30 mile per hour wind. We barely made it back before dark.

Everything happens for a reason. Instead of returning feeling like I conquered the elements, I was instead reminded to not judge a book by its cover and that there is a real joy in spontaneity and simplicity. I hope that my new friend got something out of the experience as well. Maybe something about preparedness since he would have been stuck out there after dark without my nagging? Or maybe just a lesson about the versatility of a cardigan sweater.

Everything happens for a reason, but the lesson is usually not what was anticipated.

Rescue Theory – Part 3 (conclusion)

The last two weeks we talked about the basics of rescue theory and how we use techniques to make as many parts of a rescue become automatic as we can. The key components of elimination of distracting variables are level of fitness, skills, equipment preparation, and state of readiness. That gives the guards the tools, but they still need to prepare themselves for the myriad of unexpected variables that inevitably are thrown at them while making rescues.

Cognitive flexibility under stress, the ability to demonstrate flexibility and creative problem-solving strategies under duress, is a little harder concept for the guards to grasp at first. Through repetition neural pathways become more “worn”, much like a foot path that has been traveled more often and therefore becomes easier to use. This is a good thing in that response to a given stimuli becomes automatic, but with the obvious benefits come inherent risks. The potential issue lies in the environment itself. The ocean and beach are in a constant state of flux, as are the beach patrons themselves.  No rescue is routine as there are a multitude of factors that can affect the process. When in a stressful situation we all have a tendency to default to what we know. That’s good if it means we perform CPR the way we were trained. But you also hear stories about police officers who, in the midst of a shootout, start collecting their empty magazines off of the street because that’s the way they did it when practicing at the range. The goal of teaching people to show “cognitive flexibility” during a rescue or crisis is for them to default to their training while at the same time being able to expand their awareness and come up with creative solutions to problems that pop up while dealing with a multitude of issues.

Understanding this principle helps in the teaching process. In ocean lifeguarding we teach from the top down. Our instructors focus on the overarching principles and teach to trouble shoot application of these principles to a variety of real life scenarios. For example, instead of teaching exactly how to make contact with a victim in the water, we focus on basic principles such as keeping floatation between the rescuer and victims’ bodies, pausing and assessing a safe distance from a victim. That way the concept works when you use other types of floatation and/or in a myriad of specific rescue techniques. Once these general concepts are internalized through training and repetition (muscle memory), the guards become more confident and comfortable in their ability to handle anything that is thrown at them.

These concepts and a respect for the power and variability of the ocean are the beginnings of forging competent and professional lifeguards.

Rescue Theory – Part 2

Last week we talked about the basics of rescue theory and how we use techniques to make as many parts of a rescue become automatic as we can. The key components of elimination of distracting variables are level of fitness, skills, equipment preparation, and state of readiness.

Level of fitness involves a great deal of physical training that is specific to the actual environment that rescues will be made in. Our guards work out every day they work in the beach so they’re intimately familiar with the bottom contour, waves, and currents of that particular day. We also use periodic competitions as a means to motivate the entire staff to be at their physical peak during the beach season and to normalize the physical stresses inherent in a rescue.

Rescue skills atrophy if not used regularly. Incorporated into our daily pre-shift workouts is a skill component. They may practice CPR, hand signals, components of a rescue, public relations, or handling a lost child. Sports enthusiasts and public safety professionals regularly use the term “muscle memory” to signify repeating something over and over again until you don’t have to consciously think about it. For example, you may practice a modification to your swim stroke so many times that you start doing it automatically when you swim. It’s almost like your body remembers how to do something without your brain having to tell it. If these skills are kept current through repeated training and practice, they happen almost subconsciously during the rescue process so the rescuers consciousness isn’t spread too thin and he/she can focus on the weird stuff that inevitably happens instead on things that need to happen for every rescue.

Equipment preparedness is integral in the process. There’s nothing worse when trying to save another person than equipment malfunction. A fairly routine rescue can go horribly wrong when a fin strap breaks or a buoy is wrapped up improperly so the strap doesn’t play out smoothly. One of the first things the lifeguards learn is how to properly wrap their rescue tube. Once this is committed to “muscle memory” it’s automatically done the same way each time. The same principle applies to oxygen units, personal watercraft, rescue vehicles, automatic external defibrillators, and any other piece of equipment. Fewer variables stand between the rescuer and successfully saving a life.

State of readiness is a general concept that basically means the lifeguards come to the job each day prepared mentally, physically, and psychologically. They are able to maintain a state of alertness for their entire shift because they are well rested, hydrated, and wearing the proper gear for sun protection or temperature control. It also implies that they aren’t distracted by personal issues. Finally, before a lifeguard is able to work a stand, they need to have developed a certain level of confidence in their ability to save someone. This is accomplished by instilling the belief that they can handle unusual situations on the fly because they are proficient in their ability think creatively under the gun.

Rescue Theory – Part 1

A swimmer’s head sits low in the water and his arms flap out to the sides while trying to keep his head up. The lifeguard sees the telltale signs of a swimmer in distress. She immediately kicks into a whole pre-determined plan as she radios for backup, grabs her fins and rescue tube, chooses the proper entry (from sand or rocks), dolphins through shallow water while unwrapping her tube. Swimming with her head intermittently up to keep sight of the victim, she pauses on the approach, and talks to him as she keeps her buoy between them while extending it. Upon contact, she moves to his rear and buckles the buoy around him, assesses him, signals to shore what his condition is and if she needs help, swims him to the beach while checking intermittently, re-checks him more thoroughly at the shore and renders whatever medical aid is needed. While doing this she prepares to pass all this info on to her supervisor or other first responders.

Making an ocean rescue is a complicated process which requires a great deal of preparation to effect safely. There are a lot of ways this could potentially go sideways, so we spend a large percentage of precious training time on this topic. Obviously, there is a lot of physical training required in advance so the body is prepared, but the real keys are the mental aspects. These we break into two general categories, elimination of variables and cognitive flexibility under stress.

Elimination of variables encompasses a whole range of physical, mental, and psychological components. The overarching concept is when you start the rescue process there are a lot of things that need to happen, so you want to make sure you take care of as many of these variables as you can in advance and have fewer unknowns as you enter the rescue scenario. In addition to the areas that are consistent between most rescues, each event is unique and so things will be encountered that that could not be planned for.

When you go into action your body instinctively kicks in a whole range of physiological responses so you can do things you wouldn’t normally be able to do. Time seems to slow down as chemicals are dumped into your blood stream. Depending on your training and history you can experience a diminished mental capacity while at the same time have an enhanced physical capability. Taking care of as many things as possible in advance is crucial since you may not be at your best mentally during the rescue process. The key components in the concept of elimination of variables are level of fitness, skills, equipment preparation, and state of readiness.

This is the first of a three-part series that is the basis of how we teach rescue theory. Next, we’ll go into each of the specifics of the elimination of variables. Stay tuned for the next installment and Happy Holidays from all of us at the Galveston Island Beach Patrol!

4 Things To Be Grateful For

Happy Holidays! We’re suddenly at the end of a tough year with increased tourists, warming climate, and ever-increasing crew  reduces patrols to one vehicle a day for a couple of months and turns attention to rebuilding lifeguard towers, working on administrative duties, responding to occasional emergencies, and completing special projects, there is time to reflect. The holidays are a time to take stock of where you are in life, focus on important things, and take time to appreciate what’s good about living on our bizarre, unique, and very special little island. Here are the four things I appreciate the most:

  1. Working as a Lifeguard– It’s an incredible privilege to serve, and to have that service built into your career. So often ex-lifeguards come back to visit and talk about how the time they worked for the Beach Patrol was the most fun, most significant, and most pure. Going to bed knowing that what you did that day directly impacted lives for the better is something of real value. Along with 14 other amazing full-time people, I am fortunate enough to do that all year, and to have done it for most of my life.
  2. Living in Galveston– An old friend and I were talking on the phone recently. He and I grew up on the beach together and worked together for decades. He moved away for a time and couldn’t wait to get back here. He said mostly he missed the people, who are not like anywhere else. He’s from a big local family that’s been here several generations and was also talking about how great it is to live in a place where you have deep roots. We reflected on whether or not you have roots here, how many times and how many ways you cross paths with people in a mall island community like this as you move through life.
  3. Guarding in Galveston– Galveston is a place where people value what a professional lifeguard service brings to the community. The Beach Patrol staff really appreciates the support the community gives us within the city structure, the Park Board, other first responder groups, Wave Watchers, Survivor Support Network, CERT teams, and the citizens themselves. Getting over 7 million tourists home safely is a real team effort, and it takes all of us working together to make this happen. In return, repeat tourist business brings the revenue we all need to remain a vibrant city. Also, I can’t express what a privilege it is to work with the incredible staff of the Beach Patrol. They are a constant inspiration.
  4. The Water– As a 7th generation Galveston who comes from a long line of beach people, I was taught to love and respect the beach and ocean. Now after surfing for 48 years and guarding Galveston’s beach for 40, I still feel honored each day to have the privilege of seeing the sun rise and set over the Gulf.

Message In A Bottle

Detective Kris Pompa works for the Galveston Police Department, but years back worked as a Beach Patrol Officer/Supervisor. One day, as he was patrolling the beach in front of the condos on the east end when he spotted something unusual on the shoreline. The aquamarine blue colored bottle glinted in the sun as he stopped the vehicle and walked over to it. It was an unusual, long necked bottle. It was corked, but the cork was covered in wax that had been carefully dripped down the length of the neck. It was light and felt empty of any type of fluid. As he held it up to let the early morning sun’s rays shine through, he noticed several pieces of paper folded up inside.

Back at our headquarters we opened the bottle and pulled three sheets of carefully folded paper out. We unfolded them to find two separate letters in meticulously written German.

I asked my brother, who is fluent in German, to translate for me and sent him scanned copies. A few days later he sent me a summary. The story was heartbreaking.

Both letters were written to a one year old child who would have been just a few days short of his second birthday if he had been still alive, although it sounded like he died just shy of his first birthday. They talked about how much they missed him, including his now 4-year-old brother. At the time of the letters, he also had a younger sister. The father talked about how he wished he could play soccer with him and his siblings and how he still wants to be a better father to him and to pay more attention to him. The mother talked about how she wants to set aside an hour every two weeks to think about him and how, even though she misses him terribly, nothing can take away the fact that she was once able to hold and kiss him. They both talked about how he belongs in their family and always will. Neither says how he died.

Another lifeguard told me he found a similar message to a lost loved one from the Corpus area, but others had found the bottle and added their own notes of sympathy. He added his own, resealed it, and set it free in the ship channel on an outgoing tide.

I’ve never found a message in a bottle but it seems like a really poignant way of communicating, especially in the digital age where everything is immediate, but seems to also hold less weight.

All too many of us know how true loss freezes that last moment in time. Sending a message in a bottle reflects that. It is simultaneously both impersonal and intensely intimate. Not only are you writing to a loved one, but also to a complete stranger who finds the bottle. The idea that this stranger is connected to you both by fate, and is potentially someone who fully understands the essence of your message, seems very significant.

African American Lifeguard Monument Committee

After a full day, I climbed down a metal ladder from a flat, wooden platform with a thatched roof at 28th. It was a community beach back in ’84, and I knew most of the beach patrons by sight, if not by name. At that time, it was also still mostly an African American beach, as it had been designated either culturally or since the ‘20s.

As I made my way up to the seawall with my bicycle, I stopped to chat with 4 guys around my age or a bit older, one of which had recently graduated from Ball High with me. They were the “evening watch”, and I was never clear if they assigned themselves that role or the neighborhood leaders did. I let them know about things to watch for. As I rode home, I knew the beach was in safe hands, and that at least one of them would stop by the next day and update me on whatever happened after I left.

Years later, I ran down to stop a group of teens from getting caught in a rip current at the same location. An older African American man was already there when I arrived, yelling at them to get away from the rocks. Although he looked strong and fit from a distance, when I approached him, I could see that he was much older than he appeared. Well into his ‘80’s then OC Brown, as he introduced himself, was still full of that fire that lifeguards for life have. He told me he’d worked that beach for years and scolded me that I was a bit slow in responding. He was so impressive, and that event emphasized for me the layers of untold history, much of it involving African Americans, that is woven into our beaches and our island.

To that end, we’ve pulled together a committee that has been working on some really cool stuff, chaired by David Mitchell. The Beach Patrol, NIA Cultural Center, Old Central Cultural  Center, Visit Galveston, The Historical Foundation, Galveston Lifeguarding Inc., and others have been working on a multi staged project. Phase 1 was submission of an application for an “Undertold Story” marker on the same spot of the seawall that the “Evening Watch” sat, with the help of the County, City, and a myriad of groups that have thrown in support. The marker will honor the African American Beach and the black lifeguards that worked it.

Phase two will be a data base that profiles African American Lifeguards and black beach history. We’re looking for families and friends who can record stories of these heroes. We are also exploring the possibility of a large, sculptural monument to these lifeguards. The idea is that there will be a way to point your phone at either project and access the data base, and this will be part of a larger cultural tour of the island.

If you or anyone you know would be interesting in recording you or your family’s experience with an African American guard, please contact Alex Thomas at [email protected] or 409-797-5155.

Triple Rescue

Recently, two young men and a woman were making an Uber Eats delivery to Galveston and decided to go to the beach. Walking down to the sand at 26th, they saw a ton of surfers and several people out swimming in the warm water. They decided to hit the water.

As they got out to chest deep, the feeder current pulled them towards the Pleasure Pier, gently causing their feet to bounce along the bottom. A fairly strong east to west longshore current ran along the beach. As it hit the jetties and piers, most had significant rip currents on the leeward sides (west side in this scenario). These rip currents had been running for a couple of days and had scoured out pretty deep troughs on the west side of all the structures.

The trio quickly went from bouncing in the shallow waters of the feeder to getting sucked away from shore in the deep waters of the rip current. All three started panicking and went vertical in the water, struggling for each breath.

Someone spotted what was happening, and called the 911 dispatcher, who quickly notified Beach Patrol, then the Galveston Marine Response partners of Police, Fire, and EMS. The call came in that there were 5 people in distress. A minute or so later, the first Beach Patrol truck arrived, and the two Supervisors hit the water.

It was a bit chaotic as they sorted out what was what, but eventually it turned out there were three victims, and the other people were surfers who were helping the victims. This isn’t unusual, surfers probably make at least as many rescues as lifeguards, although this can come at a cost, since most don’t have formal rescue training. Two of the victims were being brought in by surfers and Beach Patrol, Fire, and EMS went to help one that collapsed. One of the lifeguards helped with this while the other, Michael Lucero, went for the third victim on a rescue board.

Michael spotted her being assisted by a surfer, who was reaching across his SUP board and holding her steady about 60 yards from shore. The rip current had spat her out about halfway out the Pleasure Pier, and they were floating quickly to the 27th street jetty. Michael approached and made contact with them about the time they rounded the end of the 27th street jetty. He attempted to get her on the rescue board, and she fell off. Then it got interesting.

The surfer got her up on his board and said, “You ever surf? No? OK 1,2,3!”, and he pushed her into a wave. She made it part way in as Michael paddled after her as fast as he could. She then fell off the board and started to struggle and go under. Michael arrived just in time, grabbed her, wrapped her in his rescue tube, and took her the rest of the way to safety.

This would have gone a different way, were it not for the surfers, and those who make it possible for us to work guards all year!

G-Town Surfing

People who don’t surf often have a misconception that there’s not very good surf in Galveston. And it’s true that on many days if you drive down the seawall and look out to the Gulf there’s not much in the way of waves. But if you know a few tricks and secret spots, there’s more than enough surf to keep even the most diehard surfer happy.

This is a great time of year for surfers. Once the fronts start rolling in periodically in the Fall and the Spring, there’s a pattern to it. First, we get a strong on shore wind which brings in some choppy surf. It’s usually short period waves that may have some size but aren’t great for surfing. But it’s enough to get a rush if you’re game and have a good fitness level. Then, the front hits with an offshore wind. If the wind comes in soft and blows either directly offshore or from the northeast, it will clean up the surf. Once its good and lined up we’ll get nice, clean, surfable swell. The past couple of weeks had we’ve had a couple of frontal systems that were good examples. They started with short-boardable waves and, as it got smaller, still was great for long boards, stand-up paddleboards, and foils.

One not so secret local spot that is pretty extraordinary is the area on the east end of the island, in the ship channel. Typically, this doesn’t have ridable waves, but when the conditions are just right it can be world class, with freight train tubes 100 yards long. Its ridable maybe a couple times a year for those that are there at exactly the right time, but only gets really good once every couple of years. Conditions have to be extremely rough on the beachfront- usually white water to the horizon with a west to east current. Huge waves refract around the south jetty and end up hitting the “beach” at an angle. Its often only good for a couple of hours, so only the most dialed in birds get the worm. That’s why “surfers isle” is so elusive and has reached mythic proportions in the surf community.

After some 47 years of surfing, I think the trick to enjoying surfing in Galveston is to embrace what it is. There are a number of classic surfing days here each year, but there’s a lot of days that you have to work for it. This means maintaining a high level of fitness for both those big, nasty days and for those tiny days where you work for every wave.  You’ll want an array of wetsuits for the incredibly variable water temperature that shallow Gulf waters are known for. And you’ll want a diverse quiver of boards that definitely includes either a longboard or a stand-up paddleboard for the tiny days.

But mostly you need a good attitude. One wave makes the session a success, if you appreciate the gifts our beach and ocean have to offer.