If there’s one thing lifeguards hate on an offshore wind day is an emergency where a person is being blown out to sea. When the wind blows offshore, it creates a unique set of circumstances that can be lethal. This is mostly a danger during the spring and fall when repeated frontal systems pass across the Texas coast. When someone is blown offshore on a floating object, they can quickly realize that it gets rougher the farther from the shoreline you drift. Short period, choppy surf pushing away from the beach is almost impossible to swim or paddle against. We don’t permit inflatable objects, which act like sails, in the water when wind blows from the north for this reason.
Dusk is the absolute worst time to get into a situation like this. The wind and waves can carry a person beyond the field of vision of a rescuer really quickly. Looking out to sea while standing at sea level only enables a person to see 3 miles or so before a floating object disappears beyond the curvature of the earth. If there are waves or chop this distance is lessened and once a person disappears over the horizon the chances of finding them drop. Add low light to the equation and the chances drop even more. In this scenario, finding someone using a boat is like looking for a needle in a haystack. We move quickly on these calls and try to keep an eye on the victim, or the “last seen point”, until we can launch a jet ski. Fortunately, we’ve saved a number of people by making an educated guess based on wind, current, and a last seen point.
A few years ago, a couple of lifeguards were out training in our surf boat on a strong offshore wind day. A surf boat is essentially a two-person rowboat with a closed bottom and big holes in the sides that allow wave water to run out. They were only about 50 yards from shore when one lost an oar and decided to swim in and get help. The other couldn’t maintain solo against the wind and as he got farther offshore the water got choppier, and the wind increased. By the time we got a jet ski into the water, we could no longer see him. It took an hour search following the direction of the wind to find him five miles offshore and another half hour to make it back to shore. We had just decided to call for a Coast Guard helicopter when we spotted the boat on the horizon. We were lucky on that one, but it shows how quickly things can go bad on those days, even for professionals.
Now that we are getting frontal systems regularly, always swim with a friend and be sure to keep a close eye on the wind direction. Stay really close to shore when the north wind blows and be extra careful about paddling out on anything that floats.