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Cold Front

Cold front after cold front have been rolling in. We are now in my favorite time of the year, with moderate temperatures, warm water, some surf, and variable conditions. But this comes with specific hazards.

Changing winds can take people by surprise. On the beachfront a switch to offshore wind can blow you offshore. Once there the waves are rougher and can prevent you from making it back in easily. Strong side-shore winds typically produce strong rip currents near any type of structure like a groin or pier. These rip currents dig deep troughs by the structure and can pull people out when they step off into the deep area. And of course, big thunderheads can roll in causing lightning, gusty wind, or even waterspouts.

The tower guards are not going to be back on the beach until March, but we do have our rescue trucks patrolling the seawall and beach parks. That said, you should be more cautious than usual and stay farther from structures and closer to shore. Also check the weather forecast before heading out to beach or bay. Be particularly careful in boats this time of year because things can happen quickly. Of course, as always, use a Coast Guard approved lifejacket while boating. If you have a small child or are a poor swimmer a lifejacket is always a good idea when in or around the water.

Our year-round crew has been out patrolling daily and will continue to do so throughout the winter months. But with fewer people on the beach there is more time to catch up on some maintenance. This week they’ve been working on getting signs back up that were knocked down in the recent high tides. We maintain over 300 signs up and down the beach front, and it’s a constant process keeping them up. Every time the surf or tides get unusually high we have to get out there with a water pump and reset the posts or we need to re-attach signs that were blown down. Of course, we have signs to warn about areas that are dangerous to swim in like the groins or the ends of the island. But we also have beach ordinance signs on the back of each tower and rip current and beach rule signs at the base of every staircase, beach park entrance, and paths that people use to access the beach on the east end. We even have signs to warn about underwater rocks and debris. And if there is a rip current that pops up unexpectedly in an open beach area, we have temporary sandwich board signs warning the public.

These signs require a lot of work to maintain, but we don’t have the resources, personnel, or ability to be everywhere all the time. At least the bilingual, iconic signs we place around the island give the public a chance to avoid dangerous areas when they see them. A sign will never replace a lifeguard, but they are an integral part of the safety net.

Jellyfish

Last week one morning I was training. I was alternating racing rescue board legs, running, and swim legs. This time of year, working out is just maintaining skills and staying in decent shape for winter lifeguarding, so I was coasting along on my second swim thinking about something else, when I felt something I haven’t dealt with for a while. I felt little strings across my chest, down my belly, and down my legs. I wasn’t expecting it since we’ve had very few all summer. It was probably a Japanese Jellyfish, or “Sea Nettle”. The bad part is you feel the tentacles and there’s a gap before the pain starts. And you don’t know how bad it will get. This one was moderate but managed to find its way inside my suit, so maybe worse than moderate in select areas!

Jellyfish and man-o-war are more common in late summer although we typically have both year-round. If they are numerous, we fly a purple flag in addition to the red, yellow, or green condition flags on the back of the towers, at strategic locations on the seawall, and at the entrances to the beach parks. There are also flags at Jamaica Beach, in front of some hotels, and at a couple of sites on the Bolivar Peninsula. We post the daily flag colors on our website and you can sign up to get e-mail and text notifications to help you plan your beach day.

The current treatment for jellyfish in our part of the planet that the World Health Organization and the International Lifesaving Federation recommend is saline. If you don’t have saline the next best thing is actual seawater. If there are tentacles still on the skin, you should first douse the area with the saline, then remove them using a glove or cloth so as not to get stung yourself. Then rinse the area completely to make sure all the little stinging cells (nematocysts) that have not yet fired are gone. This will keep the sting from getting worse. A sting from a man-o-war or jellyfish can be extremely painful, especially if the sting is in a tender area. Fortunately the sting is just on the surface of the skin so a true allergic reaction is very rare. That’s not to say people that get stung won’t get abdominal cramps or feel panicky. This is a pretty normal reaction to any pain when the person doesn’t know how bad it’s going to get.

Another thing to remember about the jellyfish is that they, and their cousins the man-o-war, can still sting you after they’ve been washed up on the beach for some time. Kids love to pick up the “balloons” on the beach and some like to pop the man-o-war with sticks. It’s not pretty when the juice spurts up and gets in an eye.

The good thing is that overall, we’ve had a pattern of very few stinging critters for a couple of years, so you probably won’t have my bad luck!

The Galveston Island Beach Patrol Family

At our National Lifeguarding Championships in Virginia Beach I was suddenly hit with a moment of clarity that was close to a revelation.

Just like is often the case here in Galveston, there were so many things going on all at once. We had athletes from the Junior Guard program, U19, open, and age group competing. In addition to these incredibly talented athletes from 10 to 70+ years of age, we had a sponsor appreciation party, numerous events for the athletes, a celebration of life/ paddle out ceremony for several lifeguard chiefs who have recently passed away, and we had the privilege of giving out an award to a group of brave US Marines who saved a group of kids from drowning.

I was thinking about all of this, and it suddenly hit me what a comprehensive web we all collectively weave, both in Galveston, nationally, and internationally. Locally, we are so much more than a collection of beach lifeguards, and lifeguard support teams. We are a large, comprehensive safety net. And we are a family. The Galveston Beach Patrol Family. That family includes guards, Junior Guards and their parents, Wave Watchers, Survivor Support Network, partner public safety groups, Park Board and City of Galveston departments, the media, the larger Galveston community and many more.

Many enter as very young children in the Junior Guard Program. They learn about the ocean, build an ocean and rescue skill set, and learn how to use it to help others. They may continue as guards, volunteers, athletes, coaches, sponsors, administrators, and more. Hundreds devote uncountable hours and energy to prevent accidents, save lives, educate the public, acknowledge service and heroism inside and outside of the family with our cousin groups, mentor newer and younger members, and to support each other in so many ways. This is way beyond what would or could be done out of a feeling of obligation or devotion to duty. This must be love.

We love the over 7 million people we protect annually. We love the environment we are so privileged to work in. And like a family, no matter how much we may disagree or argue or butt heads, we love each other. We understand the incredibly difficult role we all have in trying to keep people safe in an environment that is foreign to them, but that we thrive in. We know how hard you must work your entire life to maintain the conditioning and skills that allow you to be the rescuer and not the victim. We know how important even the briefest interaction with a tourist or local can be. And we know how much what you do to get people information on how to be safe before they ever get wet matters.

Thank you to each of you that play a part in the shared mission, and for choosing to be in The Galveston Island Beach Patrol Family.

Beach Safety Week

We’re in the middle of a lifeguard academy and lots more. We ended up with about 20 candidates out of the almost 40 that attempted the tryouts. But these 20 have some pretty serious challenges ahead of them in their 100-hour course that they have to complete before being able to work the beaches.

Next week is national “Beach Safety Week” and is arguably the most exciting week for us of the year. And we want you to participate!

Tuesday the 21st will be the annual Mass Aquatic Casualty Emergency Operation (M.A.C.E.O.) event. This is a huge drill held at 5pm at Stewart Beach. It’s designed to be a final practical test for our lifeguard academy, but has turned into something much larger through the years. The Lifeguard Candidates play the part of rescuers and medical responders as they rescue and triage “victims”, who are played by the more experienced guards. As they do this, they interface with emergency responders from a myriad of other agencies. So, they may rescue someone in conjunction with the Police Department Marine Division, bring them to shore where other candidates work with EMS and Fire to triage and treat injuries. Or they may assist peace officers in gathering information or blocking off an area. Wave Watcher volunteers will play the role of distraught family members as other volunteers from the Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network practice crisis intervention techniques. So far it looks like agencies participating include the US Coast Guard, Galveston Police and Fire Departments, Jamaica Beach Fire and Rescue, Sheriff Office Marine Division, Galveston EMS, Wave Watchers, Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network, Galveston PD Dispatch operations, and of course the Galveston Island Beach Patrol. After we finish, we’ll all work together to look for lessons learned and ways we can improve performance. This is a real good way to shake off the cobwebs and improve communication and operational procedures as we all head into the height of the tourist season.

In conjunction with this, the Park Board is hosting a first-time event called “Tourism Pays”. On Stewart Beach we’ll have equipment and personnel from the Park Board and Emergency Response groups from the area. Kind of a show and tell. Around 6:30 will be the presentation of a new award given in honor of Galveston lifesaving legend and Guinness Book of World Records record holder, Leroy Colombo. Following all of this will be hot dogs, hamburgers, and fellowship for participants and the community.

The following day, on Wednesday, May 22nd, is the final physical challenge for our academy. Candidates and returning guards will undergo a grueling course that includes running, swimming, special exercises (torture), skills, and lifesaving knowledge tests for an approximately two-hour challenge called the “night swim” We’ll start about 5:30 and end around 7:30 or 8. We’d love to see you at both events!

Following all this will be Memorial Weekend, so start making your plan and be sure you think about having fun, spending time with friends and family, and being safe!

Foggy Days

Sitting in the lineup waiting for a wave, the small pack of surfers could barely make out the dark silhouette of the rock groin. The heavy fog and lack of wind made for an eerie scene. They could hear voices from surfers at the next groin and from people walking on the beach, even when they were speaking in normal conversational tones.

One surfer saw a dark mass looming in front of her and spun around to paddle into a wave. She popped up and cut down the smooth, opaque glass. She could feel the spray beating on her wetsuit and hear the hoots of the other surfers as if they were right next to her. Suddenly the rocks appeared before her. She kicked out and the rip current by the rocks pulled her back out to the lineup.

Having so much moisture in the air can be a bit unnerving because the water in the air conducts sound more than on a normal day. But surfing in the fog can be a great experience. Typically, on these days there isn’t a ton of wind and the air is fairly warm. Spring on the Texas coast can often be foggy, as the colder winter water interacts with the warmer air.

But fog can be dangerous because it’s so easy to get disoriented. On days where the sun doesn’t show through and there’s not a prevailing wind direction, once you’re outside of the surf line there are no references. Its easy to think you’re paddling to shore when you’re headed out to sea. A few of us train and race on something called a “surf-ski”, which is essentially a long, skinny kayak designed for the ocean. I learned years ago to always have a compass on my watch for times when a fog bank rolls in and I’m offshore. It only takes getting caught 2-3 miles offshore once to never forget a compass again.

For lifesaving, fog has special challenges. Even the simplest things can be complicated. This week we had to walk out on the groins to see what the surf conditions were, so we could set the flag color. Later in the spring we’ll have at least a few days were our trucks have to stop and walk out on each jetty to make sure there are no people getting close to the rocks. The other night we responded to a call where someone thought flares were set off in Offatt’s Bayou. It was so foggy our Supervisor couldn’t see anything. And the only boats that can search need to have radar and a GPS, and even then need to be extremely careful.

Fog is just another reminder how the winter months present challenges when going in the or on the water. The main thing to remember is that because there is less of a safety net and more things that can go wrong, you need to plan carefully in advance and take more safety precautions than normal.

Lifeguard Program

The first day I worked for the Beach Patrol was in 1983. I stood in the sand early in the morning waiting to get my radio which was passed to me out of our “Headquarters”, which was a smallish trailer in the sand next to the old pavilion on Stewart Beach. There were 17 of us on staff and we worked 6-7 days a week for about 10 hours a day with no organized breaks and no formal training.

Back in ’83 we had no Junior Lifeguard Program, no daily training exercises, no lifeguard academy, no classroom space, very minimal community outreach programming, and no real equipment that needed to be stored on the beach. But even back then we knew the importance of having our headquarters, as humble as it was, on the beach. People needed a central location that right on the beach that was close to the action. They needed a first aid station and a place to hand out daily equipment.

Fast forward 36 years. Our staff tops out at 135 during the summer. We have 5 jet skis, 12 patrol vehicles, a boat, and 3 UTV’s. We have space to hold equipment for work and training; and a classroom for a Junior Lifeguard Program of 125 that is on the beach so they can bounce back and forth between lectures and skills practice. Lifeguard training programs include a two-week long lifeguard academy, dispatch training, Supervisor/Senior Guard Academy, CPR, Emergency Medical Response and much more. Most of this involves running from the classroom to the beach and back repeatedly. On-line courses are held by computer for National Incident Command, Boater Safety, EMT and Law Enforcement recertification. We do classroom/beach courses for at risk, other first responders, and surf camp instructors. And every day before the lifeguards pick up their equipment they run, swim, paddle, and practice skills in the water, on the shoreline, and in the nearby classroom.

Our Headquarters, like pretty much every headquarters for reputable beach lifesaving programs around the planet, is right on the most populated beach. That way we can provide first aid and tourist information while acting as a resource and an informal tourist office for the city. Our dispatchers have a bird’s eye view on the busiest beach on the island and can spot for lost children, water emergencies, and problems developing, while keeping an eye on the lifeguards in the area to make sure they’re safe.

For those who don’t spend time on the busy beaches during the busy times its difficult to fathom the volume we deal with, how busy it is, and what an important role the lifeguard play in keeping everyone safe. For those who do, and who see all the training and structure required to get this done, it makes sense that we need to have our Headquarters where its been for the past decades. If we were not right there on the beach, and on a busy beach, we’d be far less effective in serving the public in such an efficient manner.

Polar Plunge

Last Saturday 6 Lifeguards volunteered to come out and stand in the 54-degree water keeping watch for almost 300 people who participated in the Polar Plunge. They were freezing cold when they came out of over an hour in the water wearing only 3-millimeter wetsuits. Amazing that they chose to do that during a time they’re not working. While watching over them and the groups who were running in the water, I also noticed one of our blue “Wave Watcher” shirts on shore.

Carlos Guerra was standing on the shoreline adding an additional set of trained eyes to our layers of protection for the swimmers. Carlos and his wife Iris have been big supporters for many years. Their son, Carlos was in our Junior Lifeguard Program for many years, and now works as a lifeguard. Three years ago, when we started our “Wave Watcher” program, Carlos and Iris were among the first to sign up and have been very active volunteers.

The Beach Patrol has been fortunate for many, many years to have great support from the community and county. We are so lucky that the hard work our guards do is recognized and appreciated and we recognize that that is something we continually need to strive to maintain. That’s a big part of why we have so many programs that tie to the community in which we are imbedded, such as the Jesse Tree/Beach Patrol Survivor Support Network, our Junior Lifeguard Program, being designated as a “Safe Place” for kids, our School Outreach Program, At Risk Kids Camps, and, of course, our Wave Watcher Program.

The Galveston Island Beach Patrol Wave Watcher Volunteer Program is a way for ordinary citizens to join our team. It’s a mini lifeguard academy for that is free of charge and that will serve as a force multiplier in our effort to prevent drowning deaths and aquatic accidents.

We’ll have the Wave Watcher Academy in April. Participants will go through 20 hours of free training that includes topics such as, Beach Patrol history and operations, rip currents and general beach safety, “Code X” (witnessed drowning) procedures, victim recognition, first aid and CPR, and tourist ambassador certification (CTA Training). There is no swimming involved and everyone is welcome!

Once they graduate, they can help with our LCD (Lost Child Detail) on holidays, join us for special events and competitions, or assist with large scale emergencies. Most importantly they will form a cadre of informed beach goers who have “the eye”, so are able to spot trouble developing before it happens and notify us or other emergency service groups. This could happen in the course of their normal daily lives when they drive, walk, fish, surf, etc. along the beachfront. Or it could take place with a more organized activity. The level of commitment and involvement will be completely up to the graduates.

If you or someone you know is interested in joining the crew there is info on our website or they can call Tricia at 409-763-4769. Join us!

Japanese Coastline

We pulled up a little before first light and parked under an overpass. We sat in the van as the world turned slowly from black to dark grey. The guys spoke quietly in Japanese, but even without understanding the words I could detect an underlying tension and excitement to their voices. A big swell was reportedly hitting this section of the Japanese coastline and we’d driven the better part of the night from Osaka to be here. The beach wasn’t much to look at, just a thin strip of brown sand, but we could hear and feel the growling, vibrating surf with each pounding wave. As it got light enough to make out the surf, I could see we’d definitely hit the swell right on.

Onosan was the leader and not only did he have a successful surf shop, but he’d surfed professionally and had spent a couple of years on the world tour. In true Japanese fashion he had a whole possessed of disciples. As we paddled out through the big surf I stuck close to Onosan. There’s nothing like local knowledge and he seemed to know exactly how to find the rips to get out and how to time it perfectly between sets.

It was fully light by the time we made it to the outside. It was bigger than I thought and I had some serious butterfly’s. None of the disciples had made it all the way out but I spotted them on the inside break. None looked good but they were dropping in with no fear and a sore of reckless abandon. Onosan had taken a couple of big ones before I worked up my courage to drop in on a juicy 12 footer. After that , following him I started adjusting and catching good rides until I got caught in a close out and my leash broke. It was a long swim in and I had to detour around a fat rip current. But I switched out leashes and made it back out.

Suddenly I heard shouting. Several of the disciples were trying to get a swimmer to shore and he almost choked one of them who got too close. They had him on a board but that rip current was keeping them out while the waves pounded them all. A fire truck arrived and some guys in bunker gear yelled from shore. I paddled to them and we ended up swimming sideways out of the rip and eventually to shore. The guy was in bad shape and left in an ambulance. But the surfers spotted Onosan catch a nice tube on the outside and excitedly ran back into the water.

Hopefully that beach has a lifeguard service by now!

When Things go South With a Offshore Wind

Even though we train our lifeguards very thoroughly, there’s no substitute for experience. Even guards who have been with us for a number of years can, at times, make dangerous mistakes without the safety net of more experienced guards around them. We had an incident earlier this week that was a wake-up call to how the dangerous combination of winter conditions and lack of experience can potentially be catastrophic.

A young woman walked into the water near the Pleasure Pier carrying a surfboard that she’d rented from a local surf shop. It was very cold, and the wind was blasting off shore. She paddled out and was quickly carried a distance from shore, where it got choppy enough to where she couldn’t paddle back in. Someone called 911 fortunately, so we were in the area quickly, as were other first responders. With these types of conditions, it can be really hard to spot someone because even though it looks calm close to shore, the chop can hide them once there farther from the shoreline. It took us a long time to locate her with binoculars, but we finally spotted her way, way out near 10th street. While one vehicle watched from shore another couple of guards launched a jet ski and headed in her direction. Even so it was a process. The waves blocked the view, so our rescuers had to follow radioed instructions until there were close enough to see her. By the time they found her, she was a couple of miles off shore and it was about half an hour before dark.

If this young woman hadn’t been found before dark, this could have been a whole different thing. Even wearing a wetsuit its doubtful that she could have survived the night once hypothermia set in. But fortunately, our crew got her back to shore where EMS checked her out. She was fine.

But it didn’t end there. Our ski crew felt bad because they were able to get her board almost to shore but as they were taking care of her and other equipment the board blew back offshore. So, they went down the beach in a rescue truck looking for the board, which they found floating only about 50 yards from shore. Even though it was almost dark they decided that one would paddle out on a rescue board and grab her board till the other got out there swimming. Then they each would paddle in. It didn’t go as planned.

A similar thing happened. The loose board was moving too fast to catch, and at one point our guards got separated in the twilight. Fortunately, one of our experienced supervisors, Nikki Harclerode, realized we hadn’t heard from them for awhile and started a search. We found the vehicle and had two jet skis on the way to find them before dark set in. For the record, they made it out without help, but I’m glad our staff was ready if things went south.

It was an interesting debriefing, but I doubt we’ll make this mistake again.

Winter Workout

You stand on the beach, wind whipping around you and easily penetrating your wetsuit. The air
temperature is in the mid 50’s, but the real feel temp is in the 40’s. It feels wrong to be standing
exposed, really wrong to be about to get in the water, which is in the mid 50’s.
The small group starts to jog down the beach. Because of the rubber hood sounds are different. Internal
sounds, like your breathing and heartbeat are uncomfortably loud, as is the wind. But everything else is
muted. As you run, your heels seem to make a metallic spring sound when they hit the sand. Your feet
are starting to get numb, so you are careful to avoid shells and bits of debris. You wouldn’t feel it if you
were cut.
Entering the water brings an involuntary sense of panic. Where your skin is exposed, there is sharp pain.
You force yourself not to turn back, but instead to take high steps until you get to chest deep water.
Piercing streams of water creep up your legs. Then comes the worst part.
You dive in and several things happen simultaneously. The water pours down your suit from the neck. As
it hits your chest you feel like you can’t breathe. But its hard to even think about that because the
source of the most discomfort is your face. You have an ice cream headache where your forehead used
to be. The skin on your face feels like ice is being rubbed on it. And when the water enters your mouth,
it hurts our gums and teeth. As you start to swim you take a breath, and ice-cold water pours into your
right ear and feels like it goes all the way into your brain. This is the point that you have to trust in mind
over matter. You tell yourself it will get way better in 100 strokes.
You reflect on the fact that wet suits only work when there’s a thin layer of water between your skin and
the suit. But when the water enters its basically the same as jumping in the water with nothing. So,
there’s a gap from entry until the suit gets water in it and the water is heated to body temperature.
There’s also an adaptation period for skin to adjust to the cold, but for water in the upper 50’s and
higher this will happen. Knowing all this and reflecting on it helps a bit. 5 minutes makes a huge
difference. Also, experience helps you know what wetsuit thickness and pieces to wear for certain air
and water temperatures, as well as activity levels. And you begin to trust that things will get better, even
comfortable, for as long as your body is able to continue generating heat.
After the hundredth stroke you realize that you feel ok and you can focus on the workout.
Doing this a minimum of once a week keeps our winter crew ready to make rescues in all types of
conditions.