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National Championships

The early morning light glimmered across the water, bathing the line of figures in a coppery glow. Each of them carried a narrow, sleek racing board under their arm. They were coiled and vibrating, until the whistle blew. In a blur, they exploded as they raced out into the water. First, they high stepped until they were in deeper water then they hopped on the boards either prone or on their knees. Waves knocked a few back, but the front pack shot through the surf line in a tight clump and headed out to a line of flags and buoys.

The leader sliced through the water with the others drafting in his wake. They jockeyed for position as they neared the first turn, knowing even a small error would be critical at this point. Only a few would advance to the next round.

One of the competitors who was towards the middle of the front pack nabbed a nice wave on the outside, joined shortly after by a clump of others. Having been able to rest on the wave, he jumped up in knee deep water and sprinted in through a funnel finish.

Welcome to the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA) national lifeguard championships. This year Hermosa Beach, California will host several hundred competitors and their support crews on August 10th-13th. The best of the best ocean lifeguards and junior lifeguards in the country will compete in a multitude of Lifesaving Sport events which simulate the skills needed to rescue people in trouble.

More than any other of the emergency services, ocean lifeguards rely very heavily on their skill and fitness in the water to effect rescues. All the inter and intra agency competitions lead to regional competitions and eventually the best duke it out at the “Nationals”. Competition is the key motivator for thousands of beach lifeguards to maintain the incredibly high levels of physical fitness required to do the job. This is critical in a profession where every lifeguard is an athlete, and every rescue is potentially a race against time.

Los Angeles County takes the championships almost every year. Their depth of field ensures a pipeline of great athletes, and the percentage of year-round professional lifeguards brings a lot of master’s level competitors to the event. When the event is held is LA County it gets really competitive. Additionally, the colder water and larger surf can be a challenge for Junior Guards and less experienced athletes from Florida, Texas, and much of the East Coast. Hard to train in 88-degree water and compete in 65 degrees! But both our guard and junior guard teams have been training really hard and you shouldn’t underestimate Texas spirit!

Currents and Bottom Memory

If you’ve been on the beach anytime in the past couple of weeks, you’ve probably noticed that we’ve had day after day of wind running parallel down the beach. And then, occasionally, we’ve had extreme conditions over the weekend. This does some pretty interesting things to the bottom, which affect the safety of people that swim or wade in the water for quite a while.

The bottom within the surf zone has a memory. When current runs it picks up sand and moves it, causing a trench or trough, which is also known in “Galvestonese” as a “hole”. These are found consistently near structures like groins or piers and between the sand bars along the beachfront. These troughs can last hours to days, even after the conditions change significantly.

An example would be when wind blows parallel with the shoreline, causing a “littoral” or “longshore” current. This cuts deeper spots that run parallel to shore, forming our sandbar and trough system. This system is always there, but after a few days of strong current the difference between the sandbars and troughs is more pronounced. Deep troughs can be scoured out pretty close to shore. So, in extreme cases you can find water 5-6 feet deep only 15 yards from shore. Imagine the dangers for small children on these days. To make matters worse, when this is coupled with high surf, water from the waves can be pushed up to the shoreline and will have to find a way back out. If it breaks through a sandbar on the way out, more water follows, and it causes a trench perpendicular to shore that is a conduit for even more water to head back offshore. This causes a type of rip current called a “fixed rip”, which can last several hours.

Another example is that the groins and piers cause the water flowing parallel to head out away from the shore. This causes rip currents which are always there, called “permanent rips”. The deep spots near the rocks caused by all that water flowing out are responsible for water flowing out, maintaining the troughs, and causing danger, even on calm days. Water is lazy. It always seeks the path of least resistance.

A final danger imprinted in the “memory” of the bottom is “inshore holes” formed when larger/stronger waves break close enough to shore that they spill over, cut through the water, and smash into the bottom. These holes can be fairly deep. My daughter was body surfing with me a while ago, and we were laughing because I was up to my neck and she, while standing right next to me, was about waist deep.

As conditions calm, we’ll start seeing more normal bottom conditions after the sand jiggles back into place. For now, be extra careful.

The beach is a dynamic environment. This is why the guards are required to physically get in twice a day to check their area. That way they’re better able to spot trouble before it actually happens.

4th Wrap Up

The early morning yellow light angled sideways highlighting a young mother and her two young children giggling and laying in the shallows. A lifeguard raced across the slippery rocks as another dove into the water, both racing to stop a group of teens from getting sucked out by a rip current. A jacked-up pickup spun in the sand and slammed on the brakes, ex-military crew leapt out and almost jumped on an umbrella beach service worker before we diffused it. An older couple sat in the midst of the crowd, leaning into each other with the comfort of life partnership, and watched everyone playing in the sand and sea around them. A tiny girl sobbed as the lifeguard that found her wandering down the beach handed her gently to her mother. Rescuers from 5 different agencies resorted, in the dark, to coordinating the search for a small child that was reported as a drowning on foot during the drone show because the dense crowd made it impossible to get the rescue trucks down on the sand. The sun set as Beach Patrol trucks, with overhead lights flashing, removed every last person from the 9 mile stretch of guarded water before leaving for the day. A group of guards sitting in the tower after work finally relaxed and watched the drone show, while joking with the easy comradery that sharing a tough, fulfilling job together brings.

I once spent a week or so in Calcutta. I walked in long loops. Miles each day. At night I lay in bed looking up at a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling and tried to process everything I’d seen. So much life, so many stories, caught in glimpses. I told my brother that there was so much stimulation, and so much I didn’t understand, that I was probably only absorbing 15 percent of what my eyes actually saw. This last weekend was like that. Slow to fast, easy contentment to nail biting stress, and the press of so many radio channels chattering, so many people, so many stories and lives all around for hours and hours each day. I was so impressed with how our lifeguard and dispatch crew kept focused and how they tirelessly powered through.

This was the busiest 4th of July we’ve seen in a long while. Not only were the crowds thick, but until Monday we had some pretty rough water and strong rip currents. We reunited 25 lost kids, effected 101 enforcement actions, 38 medical responses, and made 4 rescues. The 46,025 people moved from danger alone equaled 1/6 of our traditional annual average.

There are no words to express the pride and gratitude I feel for my dispatch and lifeguard staff and our partners with the Galveston County and Houston Precinct 1 CERT (Community Emergency Response Teams), our GPD managed security detail, park staff, Wave Watchers, Survivor Support Network, and Coastal Zone Management. Also, can’t thank Police, Fire, and EMS enough for the extraordinary work they did over the weekend!

HAPPY HOLIDAY!

REMINDER:

  • Always swim near a lifeguard:
    • Lifeguards work continually to identify hazards that might affect you. They can advise you on the safest place to swim, as well as places to avoid. They receive many hours of continuous training and most have been with Galveston Island Beach Patrol for several years.  They want you to have a safe day. Talk to them when you first arrive at the beach and ask them for their advice.
  • Stay Away from Rocks!
    • Rocks present special hazards to swimmers. Piers and Jetties act as the perfect environment for the formation of Rip Currents, which are the number one cause of open water drownings worldwide. For more information on Rip Currents, visit our informational page
  • Four Legged Fur Babies:
    • Sand has been really hot lately.  Be passionate about your pets paws.

More information:

Sand Bars, Troughs, and Holes

Hidden deep spots in the surf are hazardous, especially for small children. Waves are powerful and dig holes in the bottom near shore that may be several yards wide. They can form at any water depth, so you may step into one while wading in very shallow water.

When you visit the beach, you may see swimmers standing in waist-seep water far offshore. What you don’t see is how deep the water is between the beach and the sand bar area they are on.

The natural processes of the Gulf create a series of bars and troughs in the nearshore areas of coastal Texas. The height of the bar and the depth of the trough vary, but the water in the trough is sometimes “over your head”. Unless you swim very well, do not try to reach the sand bar offshore.

Effects of Heat & Sun

Protect yourself against sunburn. You can become sunburned even on cloudy or overcasts days.

Ultraviolet rays are harmful to the skin, regardless of the color of that skin. You should wear a high SPF sunscreen (15 or higher); wear loose fitting light colored clothing, hat & sunglasses. Also, drink plenty of non-alcoholic, caffeine free liquid to prevent dehydration.

Piers and Jetties

The Texas coastline is lined with fishing piers and rock jetties. These present special hazards to swimmers. Barnacles and other sea life tend to make these structures their homes, increasing the possibility for stings, bites, and cuts when swimmers get near them. Piers and Jetties also act as the perfect environment for the formation of Rip Currents, which are the number one cause of open water drownings worldwide. For more information on Rip Currents, visit our ‘informational page’.

Stings, Bites, and Cuts

Stinging jellyfish abound the Gulf waters and randomly sting whatever they touch. The most dangerous stinging jelly is the Portuguese man-o-war, a community of animals called zooids. This most obvious zooid is a purple float with its tentacles dangling in the water. Lifting the tentacle from the skin and dousing the area with a saline solution brings relief. Do not rub the area with sand – this will only ensure that all the stinging cells fire. And remember just because the man-o-war or jellyfish is washed up on the beach does not mean that you are safe. The tentacles can still sting. Avoid stomping them or smacking them with a stick.

Stingrays frequent shallow Gulf waters and can thrust a sharp shaft into an offending foot or ankle when stepped on. This shaft, located at the base of the stingray’s tail must be handled carefully, usually surgically, because the spines point backward and prevent easy removal. One good preventive action is to shuffle your feet while wading. When disturbed, the stingray will move away.

Swimmers, particularly children are advised to wear some type of footwear when in the Gulf or on the beach. Broken glass and sharp shell remnants are everywhere, and children often fail to watch where they are going. Remember there is a high concentration of bacteria on objects in the water and near the beach. Clean even minor wounds well and monitor for signs of infection.

Currents

For any body of open water, currents will always be a danger, presenting a hazard not found in swimming pools or waterparks.

The Long Shore Current (also known as the Littoral Current)’s strength and direction are generally determined by wave and wind energy. Look for the Long Shore Current by the angle of the waves coming into shore, by the foam, swimmers and surfers flowing parallel to shore with the Long Shore Current. Always be aware of your surroundings and your position in the water relative to your location on the beach. The Long Shore Current can push swimmers far down the beach, and towards hazards such as piers and rock jetties.

The Long Shore Current can also influence and help create Rip Currents, which present a very deadly danger to swimmers. Be sure to avoid swimming or wading near rock jetties and piers, as Rip Currents often form next to them.  See our ‘Rip Currents’ page for more information.

Always adhere to warning signs.

Sicilio Adventures

Supervisor Matt Sicilio was patrolling the stretch between Stewart and East Beach last weekend when he was dispatched to check on a woman with burns on her feet. When he arrived, he realized that she had serious burns on her foot soles because her shoes had come off in the middle of some deep, dry sunbeaten sand on her way to the moist, cooler sand. This heatwave and sun rays are no joke. We’ve been called to several heat exhaustion cases and a couple of burned feet situations in the past week alone. And this is June!

Burns to extremities can be a big deal, so she needed to go to the hospital. Normally this would be a pretty straightforward thing, but its easy for things to get complicated on the beach. Because of the dry, fluffy sand, much of the beach is inaccessible unless you have 4WD, and even then, you have to know how to drive in these conditions. That means no EMS or Fire can come to the scene, so Matt had to coordinate with EMS with an improvised plan. They walked through a hotel lobby out to the beach and met him. Then together they packaged her and drove her in the back of the lifeguard truck a mile down the beach and around to the parking lot of the hotel to load her in the ambulance.

Matt has been a supervisor for a fairly short time, and he’s already shown that he’s a natural fit who can figure out how to improvise and adapt to most situations. In fact, later the same day he was tested again.

Another call came in that afternoon about a stranded jet ski on the west end. The craft was so far offshore that it was impossible to spot. Fortunately, the operator had a fully charged cell. Matt and his partner were able to talk with them directly and told them how to pull their GPS coordinates off the phone. Then Matt was able to plug them into an app he has on his phone and navigate over 5 miles from shore to locate them where they were tied off to an offshore platform. The two men were making the most of “their time at sea” fishing while waiting for help to arrive. The US Coast Guard ended bringing the two men aboard and towing the jet ski all the way to the Coast Guard base some 20 miles away. All told, Matt and his partner were out of their patrol zone for a little over two hours. This is a lot for us on a busy weekend, as it leaves coverage thin, but before cell phones the same thing could have taken hours or even days. Technology definitely saves lives.

Many of these potentially serious emergencies can be avoided by basic preparation. Having the right gear, making a plan, and making sure you have shared your intentions can make a huge difference in getting home safe.

Opening Lifesaving Minds

The crew has been holding up well, although they’re taking a beating.  Brutal heat and persistent west wind make for hot, gritty conditions that are an assault on the senses, particularly for guards who are working long shifts in the towers day after day. Guards in trucks and towers are moving thousands of swimmers away from some serious rip currents by structures like piers and jetties. There have also been a number of significant rip currents appearing in the middle of the beach, which have kept Galveston’s guards working double-time.

Persistent wind means persistent lateral currents that run parallel to the shoreline. These, in turn, scour deep troughs, some of which are very close to shore. Additionally fat, powerful rip currents near structures take sand with them, leaving deep channels near the structure which in turn perpetuates stronger rip currents. A few days of semi-calm conditions can break this cycle and allow for the bottom to level out, but over a month of continuous wind hasn’t allowed for that.

Last weekend, we had our mid-season all staff open water swim race. The whole crew met at 7:30 a.m. for a staff picture followed by the swim. The water was rough and there was a lot of current, which makes for great training. Also, it was a great chance for our seasoned guards to show off their skills and beat some of the newer, sometimes faster, swimmers. We have new employees that are amazing swimmers but get beat in our training races by slower, but more experienced, guards. Once these new rookies get the hang of using these “tricks” they often come out on top. This time a big pack of people overcorrected for the current and missed the buoy, swimming past it. Some of our best swimmers were in this pack and finished behind some of the guards that were more strategic and “picked a better line”, meaning they used the current to the maximum advantage.

We also incorporate a lot of entries and exits from the water. Repetition is a proven way to get the guards to internalize the theory that they learn in the academy and in our daily skill training sessions so it’s automatic when making a rescue in stressful conditions

We use races as a means to improve and hone ocean swimming and paddling skills. Some people are naturally more intuitive than others in this respect, but there is a learned component when it comes to using current and waves instead of fighting against them.

For the complete mind/body/ rescue techniques tripod of lifeguarding, the final ingredient involves remaining centered under stress, opening your mind, and seeing a few moves ahead. Some have an innate predisposition for this, but experience helps. It’s critical for ocean rescue and for preventing accidents. In many ways this ability is more important than physical conditioning or technique when racing or rescuing. It separates a good lifeguard from a great one.

And it can mean the difference between life and death.

Memorial Wrap Up

Somehow it all came together for Memorial Day Weekend.

The beach cleaning crews worked through the night to ensure the beaches were free of trash left from the day before. By first light, the beaches looked amazing. We finished the last part of the new lifeguard training Friday night and the rookie lifeguards hit the towers early Saturday with an experienced partner for their first shift. The Park Board Beach Security detail did an admirable job of dealing with the thousands that visited the parks. Wave Watchers patrolled, Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT) helped keep swimmers out of the water at both ends of the island, dispatchers were trained and in place, beach vendors had all their equipment out, and beach park staff was hired, trained, and ready to go. EMS, Fire, and Police were fully staffed and out in force. All the pieces were in place, and we needed every one of them.

From the time we started on Saturday morning until we crawled home late Monday night it was non-stop. Crowds were massive and the water was extraordinarily rough. Sunday was the peak, and there seemed to be so many people on the island that their combined weight would make it sink. Over the weekend we completed over 30,000 preventative actions where people were moved from dangerous areas, reunited 23 lost children with their guardians, made 105 enforcement actions, gave 1,366 tourists information about the island, let 16,069 people know to stay out of the water because lifeguards were getting off duty, responded to 77 medical incidents, and executed 12 water rescues. Needless to say, Galveston’s lifesaving team worked very, very hard to get everyone home safely, and we all feel both exhausted and grateful that we didn’t lose anyone.

The San Luis Pass was a hot spot. The police department worked hard to keep all the 4 wheelers and motorbikes under control while we struggled to get would-be swimmers to stay out of the dangerous waters in an area that has claimed many lives through the years. Our San Luis Pass patrol removed 1,324 people from the perilous waters of the pass over the three-day holiday.

Elbow grease wasn’t the only thing that caused things to go well. Fate smiled on our island. The sun was shining, the rain went elsewhere, and we had a really nice crowd on the beaches overall. We had few serious problems and, despite several hundred thousand visitors and locals on the beaches, no drownings.

As I drove the beach smelling the familiar BBQ, suntan lotion, and saltwater combination so unique to Galveston this time of year, I saw kids and parents, lovers, friends, and all kinds of people getting away from the daily grind and spending time together. All enjoying a place that enables them take time away from their daily stresses, honor our fallen heroes, and focus on what matters most for a little while.

Galveston and its beaches are a magic place.

 

MEMORIAL WEEKEND SAFETY!

Training, preparation of equipment, and all the little maneuverings needed to get this big bird off the ground are complete. All hands will be on deck and all 34 of our towers will be covered, all vehicles will be patrolling, and our 11 new candidates are graduated and ready to go.

This weekend we will see hundreds of thousands on the island, if the large spring crowds were any indication. As usual, your Beach Patrol will be ready for whatever madness this weekend brings, as will our entire safety network including Wave Watchers, Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network, Galveston Marine Response Group, Citizens Emergency Response Teams, Beach Parks, Coastal Zone Management, Parking, and Beach Security teams. We all provide an extra layer of protection, support, and response that supplements the common sense we hope our visitors and residents will provide for themselves and their families. Maintain situational awareness, or in “Galveston-ese”, “Don’t check your brain at the causeway!”

It’s been a rough Spring on the Texas coast which means deeper holes and channels caused by currents, so play it safe and stay closer to shore. Here are a few of the more important safety tips:

Swim near a lifeguard – each tower will be staffed every day for a double shift. We’ll be out there from early morning till dark, so we shouldn’t be hard to find. The guard is an added layer of protection though, and you are still responsible for your own safety.

Stay away from the rocks and structures – 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.

Designate a Water Watcher – who has the sole responsibility of keeping an eye on your group while they’re in the water.

Don’t dive in headfirst – 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 properly fitted Coast Guard approved lifejackets when in or around the water – and everyone should wear a lifejacket when boating.

Alcohol and water don’t mix – most of the beaches here are alcohol free, but if you choose to drink, no glass and 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 fluid.

Above all, remember the beach is a wonderful place. Go have fun, and focus on family, friends, recreation, and making memories this Memorial Day weekend. Remember the men and women of the armed forces who laid down their lives to make our way of life possible, while taking a well-earned break from the grind. Just do it safely!

More information about rip currents can be found at the following websites:
weather.gov/safety/ripcurrent/usla.org

Close Call

Lifeguard Rafael Diaz was working the early shift at tower 59 when he noticed a large school group pull up in two busses over by the 53rd Street groin. It wasn’t his area, but the guard for 53 wasn’t due to arrive for a few minutes more. Diaz, being a very proactive guard, noticed a big group of high school kids entering the water.

The current was running hard from west to east and there were really strong rip currents by the rocks. Diaz called in what he saw and started running towards the group. He yelled and whistled and was able to catch the attention of most of the large group and get about 15 of them to return to shore before they were pushed to the drop off where the rip current was.

Two young men were too far gone and got sucked quickly towards the end of the rock pier before we could make it to them. The 53rd Street guard arrived the same time that I pulled up. He followed Diaz into the water, and I ran out on the rocks.  The two young men were competent swimmers and kept their wits about them. They climbed up onto the rocks at the head of the jetty emerging with shallow cuts all over their legs and feet, but otherwise OK. I met them on top of the jetty and saw that Diaz gave the OK signal indication that there were no other swimmers in danger.

Diaz likely prevented multiple drownings by his quick actions in alerting the group to return to shore before they all got caught in the current like the two guys had done. But this is a big lesson for all of us.

Beach season is here, and the beaches are busy and crowded. With warm water and the usual rough spring conditions, its critical that we all remember the basics of swimming near a lifeguard, staying away from the rocks, and observing warning signage, because things can happen fast.  With 32 miles of beach there are many times and places where you will not have lifeguard coverage, so it’s a really good idea to remember these and other safety tips before you get to the beach.

Another thing to consider is getting to and from the beach safely. Driving responsibly, not drinking and driving (or swimming), and being very careful crossing the roadway to get to the sand are all things to consider. Basically, remember to keep your eyes open and don’t assume just because you are on vacation that its OK to forget to bring your most important safety weapon- your brain!

We are in the last push for the big Memorial weekend. We have a group of lifeguards graduating from a lifeguard academy and another is planned for June 15th. We got the go ahead to increase the pay to up to 18 an hour for new guards and are looking for anyone interested to join us. We’re also excited to kick off Beach Safety Week, which starts Sunday.

San Luis Pass Drowning

It was that time that isn’t really day, and it really isn’t night. Breezy with pink tinged clouds scudding across the sky as the horizon changes from pink to purple to a faded blue. The water was a little choppy, but not rough with the wind blowing off the beach into the channel rippling water that was running against the wind and out to sea.

A group of young men all stood in waist to chest deep water with a bit of distance between them as they cast their lines and heard the splat, then after a bit reeled them back in. Seagulls and water and occasional comments were all they heard as the evening stretched on.

All but one went to shore, and the one guy stayed out fishing. The group was on shore for a short time and one of them looked out to check on their buddy and saw….. water.

A massive search ensued involving multiple public safety groups. The following day the search continued involving additional volunteer groups and scores of people. Survivor Support Network set up a tent and provided refreshments and councilors to the large family group that came down and held vigil. Later in the day the body was recovered not far from where he disappeared.

As we do when bad things happen, we want to know two things: “Why” and “How can this be prevented?” These can be hard questions, as there may not be concrete answers. We hate it when we’re frustrated and the answers to our question are ambiguous.

We may never know why on this one. Since no one saw him go under, we don’t know if it was a current, steep drop off, or even an underlying medical condition that chose the wrong time to present itself.

How to prevent it is even tougher. The area is dangerous. So much so that the city made it illegal to swim there and Beach Patrol spends significant resources maintaining warning signage that blanket the area. Where this group entered has two rows of signs currently that you have to get past to reach the water. We also run a weekend patrol in the summer that has the sole responsibility of keeping people out of the water. The message is put out constantly about the dangerous currents. And yet people continue to go in the water when there’s no one to stop them.

Galveston has an amazing and fairly unique way to fund its lifeguard service. We are funded entirely by hotel occupancy dollars, and don’t use any ad valorem tax dollars at all. Tourists pay for our service. We’ve reduced potential for drowning fatality significantly by public education efforts, partnerships, and strategically targeting high use areas and times with our available resources.  But we can’t be there all the time. I really believe that all of us spreading the word about how to stay safe and teaching our children is the way to keep our drowning numbers low despite ever-increasing beach visitation.