It was a bad idea.

Archie Kalepa led the group as we swam toward the cliff face. Archie is the former chief of lifeguards in Maui, world renowned big wave surfer and Hawaiian living legend. The problem with being Archie’s friend is that he’s a giving soul and is real comfortable in big water. He wants to share the things he loves selflessly. And he loves putting himself in situations that normal people shouldn’t be in.

Not that our group was green. Among them was Rob Williams, chief of lifeguards in Newport Beach and former national water polo champion. Also Jay Butki, SoCal legendary Baywatch boat captain who has won more national lifeguard championship titles than I can count. All were people who grew up in and around lifesaving and the ocean. But none of us were Archie, and he was in his backyard.

“I promise you, the waves (probably) won’t smash you against the rocks,” Archie was saying as I started to get a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. There’s nothing worse than a bunch of grown-up, midlife-crisis-having lifeguard/athletes trying to show off for each other. And this looked like a prime example.

So, these big, I mean really big, ocean waves were smashing up against the cliff face. And we were going to swim right up there into that maelstrom. As we got close, a big set was just hitting. It lifted us up maybe 30 feet. You could see the rock face flying by underwater because the water was so clear.

We reached the peak, and then plunged back down, stomachs dropping out with the weightlessness of the descent. I broke the surface to the sound of Archie howling with laughter and pointing to our faces, which varied from bloodless to green to the embodiment of sheer terror. But, true to his word, no one had a scratch on them.

By the time we’d done it a few times, we all were howling with laughter, giddy with adrenaline. And Archie looked like a proud papa showing off his baby to a roomful of visitors.

That wave was an extreme example of a surging wave. A wave that pushes up against some type of surface and falls back without breaking. We have them next to the groins and against the south jetty. They aren’t 30 or 40 feet, but it’s the same thing. We know if we have people up against the rocks we can get in there and get them without getting smashed.

Surging waves are one of the types of waves that exist. Rolling waves are deep-water swells. Spilling waves break in water because it’s shallow enough to break. Surfers ride them, and they’re the ones we associate with our Galveston beach. Plunging waves break onto a dry or near-dry surface. A hard beach break or waves breaking onto a rocky surface would be examples.

Knowing and understanding waves are critical to lifeguarding. So is putting yourself in uncomfortable situations so you expand the types of conditions you’re comfortable making rescues in.

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.


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