This has been one crazy summer. We’re in August, and there are still tons of people moving around, the water has been choppy to rough with some pretty strong rip currents, and our call volume has been equivalent to days in May or June.
Last weekend, we moved a couple thousand people away from rip currents, made a number of rescues, responded to several “possible drowning” calls and made the scene of a few boaters in distress. Our lifeguards have been knocking it out of the park and have both prevented and responded to hundreds of thousands of accidents so far this season.
They have few tools to help them. Most of this work is done with a simple rescue tube and a set of fins. For some of the weird stuff that happens farther off shore or in the bay, we go to what has become a vital piece of equipment in recent history for any state of the art lifeguard service — the personal water craft.
A PWC is a pretty unique vehicle. Because they use a jet drive to funnel water from the bottom of the craft and shoot it out of the back, they have some real advantages compared to a powerboat. They can run in really shallow water because there’s no prop. They also don’t have the danger inherent in a propeller churning when working or playing near the power source.
The Galveston Beach Patrol was the first lifeguard service in the country, and probably the world, to use the craft as a rescue device back in 1984. We were given two Yamaha Wave Runners for some kind of promotional deal. We used them for patrolling and shepherding swimmers closer to shore — but not so much for rescue. We hosted a meeting for the United States Lifesaving Association that year and let everyone try them out.
The next year, the Hawaiians figured out that you could attach a rescue sled on the back to pick up victims, and history was made. My buddy Brian Keaulana is justifiably credited with being the pioneer of PWC rescue. He and his team used one to make a crazy rescue in a cave on the north shore of Oahu that was videotaped and helped promote the effectiveness of the craft as a rescue device all over the world.
Nowadays, beach guards can drop a PWC in the water almost anywhere and be to a victim within seconds. We use a rescue sled to bring the victims in or use it as a working platform in the water. We can do anything on that sled from CPR to spinal immobilization. We have them placed all over the island during the day for quick access and every supervisor is a certified rescue operator.
We still make the vast majority of surf rescues the old fashion way — swimming with a rescue tube and fins, or paddling out on a rescue board. But in many ways, the PWC revolutionized longer distance surf rescue, and for better or worse, we’ve all grown very dependent on them.