Very soon we’ll see some real temperature shifts, and we’ll be looking at much colder water conditions. Some people will continue their beach activities as usual, and with increasing beach use in the off season our staff must be prepared.

Starting next week, our year-round staff is required to do at least one long training session on the beach per week, that way they stay familiar with how much wetsuit to wear when going into the water for an extended time. Their bodies need to be adapted to cold water immersion, and they need to know what to wear for which temperature ranges, since Texas water temperatures fluctuate quite a bit during the winter months.

A winter water rescue is usually a big deal. Water conducts heat away from the body much faster than air does. Rescuers aren’t immune to succumbing to the same conditions as the victims if they’re not prepared properly.

And our lifeguards don’t have the backup that they do in the summer, often working alone at night in extreme conditions. A much higher level of both fitness and preparation are required.

Locally, water rescues are made either by other mariners, or by a combination of agencies that participate in the Galveston Marine Response Group. These groups are generally well prepared, but occasionally even professionals who work in all kinds of conditions can overlook something critical.

I remember a personal water craft rescue crew heading out for what seemed to be a simple rescue about 300 yards from shore on a warm day without taking the time to put on wetsuits. The rescue got more complicated and took much longer.

Even though the day was mild, the water temperature was very cold. There was a happy ending, but it was a serious lesson learned for a couple of our staff members.

Rescuers aren’t the only ones who need to be prepared before getting in or on the water in the winter. The No. 1 mistake people make is not preparing properly for the temperature. Hypothermia, which is lowering of the core body temperature, sets in quickly. Mild symptoms include disorientation, shivering, and numbness and tingling in the extremities. The problem is that usually people get into trouble before they realize they’re hypothermic and then can’t think themselves out of the situation.

Some examples of how this typically plays out are the surfer that doesn’t wear the appropriate wetsuit for the water temperature, kayakers who don’t wear any type of wetsuit because they don’t “plan on getting wet,” or swimmers who aren’t familiar with how fast they can be affected.

Something as simple as returning to shore and warming up in a vehicle doesn’t occur to the victim until the symptoms have progressed to the point where more serious symptoms set in and self-rescue is no longer an option.

So, as we go through the change in seasons, remember to be prepared and that conditions change rapidly this time of year.

Be prepared — but get out there and have fun!

Peter Davis is chief of the Galveston Island Beach Patrol. The views in this column are Davis’ and do not necessarily represent those of the Beach Patrol, Galveston Park Board of Trustees or any other entity.

(2) comments

Miceal O'Laochdha

Peter, at what water temperature would you recommend that it is risky for a good swimmer to swim without a wetsuit?

George Croix

I certainly don't presume to speak for an expert of the quality of Peter Davis, but can tell you I decided, not too brightly, to underwater power wash some stubborn black algae spots off the bottom of my pool a couple of Novembers ago, and after being in the water up to my chest (my pool is 5' deep at deepest point) for just about 30 minutes it suddenly occurred to me that I could barely move my legs! I had been standing essentially still except for upper body movement and working in an arc around me. I had to thrash over to the steps and arm pull myself up and out of the water, then drag into the garage and warm up.
Water temp check when I could walk again showed 73 degrees....once IN it, it didn't feel cold.....

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