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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.

Kayak Rescue

The wind was blasting from the west. The sand pelted the lone figure as he dragged his kayak to the water’s edge at Sunny Beach. Wearing waders and a lifejacket, he paddled his kayak from shore into the frothy water.

It was about one o’clock in the afternoon last Sunday as the man’s wife watched him paddle out. She quickly lost sight of him as he attempted to paddle into 30 mile per hour wind and 2-3 foot chop. By three she was completely panicked as she gazed at the empty beach and seemingly empty water. Someone noticed her, asked what was wrong, and called 911.

Beach Patrol and other members of the Galveston Marine Response group responded quickly. Working together, they quickly mounted a search. Because the wind and waves were moving from west, they searched to the east. Nothing. But they found a bystander who had snapped a picture of the man in his kayak off the west end of the seawall as he man was blown out and to the east.

Supervisor Mary Stewart and Sergeant Kris Pompa worked with a couple of officers from the Galveston Police Department to check the area, re-interview the man’s wife in Spanish, and extend the search area all the way to the east end of the island. Still nothing.

As evening approached, they knew that they would be almost ineffective just shining lights out into the water. As each minute went by the chance of a rescue diminished. Mary called the Coast Guard and asked for a helicopter.

As light faded the helicopter ran search patterns while coordinating with the Galveston group who searched near shore. Everyone was starting to give up hope. The water was 62 and the air temperature was dropping which put the wind chill in the 50’s. Someone blown offshore wouldn’t stand much of a chance once their core temperature dropped. The farther offshore you go the bigger the waves and more likely they’d tip a kayak over. It’s a big ocean in the daytime, but at night it’s virtually impossible to find something so small. The rescuers searched into the night.

But our team made the right call when they requested the helicopter. The Coast Guard pilots are almost always very experienced. This one put himself in the right spot and, almost an hour after it was fully dark, his crew spotted the victim using a thermal imager, which detects differences in temperature.

They lowered a walkie-talkie down and the man called up that he was OK. They lifted him with a rescue basket and watched his kayak drift out rapidly. They let our crew know to meet them at the Galveston airport.

The man spent a full 6 hours lost at sea. This is one of the longest searches I remember that resulted in a successful recovery. This guy is alive because of how well the whole team worked together and because they didn’t give up. Kudos to the Galveston Marine Response, Coast Guard, and our crew!

Wave Watchers

Saturday afternoon I got a phone call from my friend Mark Porretto. He told me there were two kids close to the rip current on the west side of the Pleasure Pier. He added that they weren’t in immediate danger, but that we should check on them. I immediately radioed our “on call” unit and they were on scene within a couple of minutes. The kids were removed from the water just as they got to the edge of a strong rip current next to the posts.

Mark and I grew upon the beach together. We both surfed. We both rode bikes up and down the seawall in Jr. High and High School. We both worked and spent all of our spare time on the beach and in the water. He has a good lifeguard eye and calls me periodically to let me know when he sees problems developing on the beach. Those calls through the years have resulted in many accidents prevented and, no doubt, several lives saved. When Mark calls I know he knows what he’s talking about and I make sure one of us responds quickly.

Mark isn’t the only one that makes these calls. I have a number of beach people that help by keeping an eye out when they drive down the seawall or visit the beach. And the lifeguards I work with each have their own network that does the same thing. Add all of the people without direct connection to one of our staff who call the Beach Patrol or the city dispatch non-emergency number to let us know when there is some kind of problem on the beach and you have a serious force multiplier. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of people out there who help us do the difficult job of keeping millions safe each year.

This year we will be formalizing this process with a new program called “Wave Watchers”. Designed by our very own year-round Supervisor Dain Buck, our goal is to essentially train volunteers to do the same thing that Mark Porretto does. We’ll teach them to identify rip currents and other hazards on the beach, recognize swimmers who are in distress, spot dangerous environmental conditions. They’ll also be trained in CPR, First Aid, and Beach Patrol operational procedures. If they wish they can volunteer on busy weekends to manage first aid and lost child stations and to keep an eye out along the entire beach front.

Keeping all 33 miles of beach safe is more than any one group can do. We are lucky to have partners in the other public safety groups on the island and in the community who help. It definitely takes a village.

Very soon we will be putting out information on how to join our team of Wave Watchers. If you or someone you know is interested, send your contact information to Supervisor Dain Buck at [email protected] and he’ll make sure you get program and registration information as soon as he makes it public.

Aloha Pat

We’re all really mad at that groundhog that it doesn’t feel like spring, but this weekend is the start of the biggest spring break weekend. The Beach Patrol’s pace accelerates rapidly because the first wave of our seasonal lifeguards come back and do their annual requalification swim and other requirements and head out to the lifeguard towers.

Tomorrow morning is also a tryout day followed by the start of a 9 day lifeguard academy immediately afterward. If you know someone that’s interested it’s not too late for them to meet us at 7am at the UTMB Field House. Information is available on our website.

Our fulltime staff has done a fantastic job of getting everything ready for the beach season. The Park Board Beach Maintenance Department put the towers out on the beach for us and our crew has taken care of the last details of proper signage, flag poles, etc so they’d be ready for the guards. They’ve also gone out and done another round of maintenance on the 300 signs that we maintain along all 33 miles of beachfront- no easy task in the weather we’ve been having. There’s a great deal of prep work that goes into preparing everything for the lifeguard academy, which is a pretty involved deal involving Red Cross and United States Lifesaving Association certifications, along with all the scheduling of facilities and instructors and revising course materials. But it’s all done (and much more) and we’re ready.

We’re starting the season off on a sad note this year. Pat McCloy, a long time Beach Patrol supporter, died early this week. She and her late husband Dr. Jim McCloy of Texas A&M Galveston were always there for us and for many other groups on the island. We’re helping her close friend and former Director of Beach Patrol, Vic Maceo, to organize a paddle out ceremony at around 2pm today at Stewart Beach, which is open to anyone who is interested. Several years ago we participated in a similar one at the same spot for Jim. Friends of Pat and Jim, lifeguards, beach people and others will follow the Polynesian tradition and paddle boards to a point offshore and make a circle. We will then put her ashes in the water along with flowers. There will be prayers, stories, or silence as we say goodbye/aloha to Pat and watch her ashes dissolve in the same waters that hold her lifelong partner’s. They were real ocean lovers and inseparable in life. It seems fitting that they will finally rejoin in the water. Thank you from all of us Pat and travel well in the next phase of your journey.

As lifeguards and rescuers we know we can’t dwell long on the past or even the future. We need to be present and focused when the tourists arrive and need us to help them get home safely. Pat of all people would understand this and cheer us onward into a new beach season.