If there’s one thing lifeguards hate on an offshore wind day is an emergency where a person is being blown out. When the wind blows offshore it creates a unique set of circumstances that can potentially 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 they drift. Short period, choppy surf pushing away from the beach is almost impossible to swim or paddle against. This is why we don’t permit inflatable objects, which act like sails, in the water when wind blows from the north.
Dusk is the absolute worst time to get a call like this. The wind and waves can carry a person beyond your field of vision really quickly. Remember looking out to sea while standing at sea level only enables you to see three miles or so before a floating object disappears beyond the curvature of the earth. If there are waves, or chop, this distance is lessened.
Once a person disappears over the horizon the chances of finding them drop. Add low light to the equation and the chances drop significantly. In this scenario, finding someone using a boat is like looking for a needle in a haystack. This is why we move so quickly on these calls and try to keep an eye on the victim, or at least the “last seen point,” until we can launch a Jet Ski. We’ve saved a number of people by making an educated guess based on wind and current when we had at least a last seen point.
A few years ago, a couple of lifeguards were out training in our surfboat on a strong offshore wind day. A surfboat 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 off shore 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 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. He had drifted about five miles by then. We were lucky on that one, but it shows how quickly things can go bad on those days.
Now that we are getting frontal systems be sure and keep a close eye on the wind direction. Be sure you stay really close to shore when the north wind blows and be extra careful about paddling out on anything that floats.