Scenarios for a surfer:

Single swimmer in distress, multiple swimmers in distress, injured surfer or surfer in distress, submerged swimmer.

You pull up at the beach, wax your board and start paddling out… and notice a kid in water just over his head, facing the shore, a wave breaks over his head, he struggles and starts to panic, you quickly paddle over and help him to shore, then paddle out for a session with the feeling of knowing you just saved someone's life.. Another day at the beach for local surfers here at South Padre Island. It may have been a simple assist, but moments later it could have been a drowning, it happens so quickly, and too often.

Your surfboard and your surf knowledge are invaluable lifesaving tools.

Rip Currents are the cause of most drownings and are very common in the surf, especially at Isla Blanca Park. Rip currents (mistakenly called rip tides or undertows) are common and can be found almost daily on all South Padre Island Beaches. RIP CURRENTS KILL MANY SWIMMERS EVERY YEAR HERE AT SOUTH PADRE ISLAND. They are found close to shore, even on days when the surf is very small. They form in the surf zone, starting in shallow water where even small children swim. Unlike undertows, rip currents are shallow water processes that do not pull a person under. They form when water, piled against the shore, begins to return to deeper water. Typically, strong wind and swell waves push water over a sandbar allowing excess water to collect. Eventually, the excess water starts to return seaward through low areas in the sandbar, "ripping" an opening. Rip currents can be readily seen from the shore. You can spot a rip current by looking for objects or foam moving steadily seaward. Wave heights are also lower and choppier in rip currents. Since rip currents are NOT undertows, you can be pulled away from the shore but not pulled under the water. They simply pull you out from shallow water to deep water where the rip current disperses, obviously a deadly situation for non-swimmers, children, or unexperienced surf swimmers. For us surfers, we understand them and use them to our advantage in paddling out, especially in big surf.
Click here to learn more about rip currents.

The most common rescue is in the shorebreak and first trough where rip currents are found almost daily. You may here a scream, or notice the situation as you are paddling out or when on the beach. Surfers in South Padre Island are responsible for saving the lives of hundreds of swimmers, as recognized by Cameron County in 2003 by a proclamation . Attempting a rescue is potentially very dangerous for the rescuer, even a surfer on a board can be pulled under by a panicked child.

To approach the victim, slide off of your board and present it to the victim, keeping the board between you and the victim. As you approach, talk to and reassure the victim, it helps a lot. Never approach to within arms reach or they will likely grab you and take you down. If you do make this mistake, simply go under water, and the victim will release you. A panicked swimmer in distress is very dangerous to a rescuer. Often when you do make contact and give the victim your board to float on, the victim will immediately calm down and say they are ok, but you should escort them to shore. Once while surfing Jocko’s late one evening on the North Shore on a fairly large day, I noticed a surfer that had broken his board being sucked out the rip in the channel beyond the break. I paddled out to assist, he was a big healthy guy but a poor swimmer, and would have quickly been swept out beyond Laniakea and probably drowned or eaten by the many large tiger sharks that frequent the area, he was scared and panicked but when I gave him my board he calmed down, problem was now we were both ½ mile offshore, so I swam behind him as we headed parallel to shore across the powerful rip and back towards the surf at Chun’s reef where we came in. Often when assisting a surfer the victim will only need a rest and something to float on, you can place the victim on your board and push them to the beach.

A much more dangerous scenario is a multiple swimmer in distress. You need to be careful and maintain a position of safety for yourself, you’ll likely need other surfers to help out. Again, presenting your board to the victims, keeping the board between you and the swimmers is a safe bet. If things go bad and the victims try to climb onto you, your escape is under water and away.

In the case of a victim that is unconscious, it is best to get the victim to shore as quickly as possible, CPR is nearly impossible to perform correctly in the water and you will be delaying proper medical care.

Submerged swimmer – Since there are no lifeguards here, Coast Guard will not enter the water and our local EMS will not either, your quick actions can save the life of a submerged swimmer. Seconds count, so quickly base your search off of the position and time that the victim was last seen and the speed and direction of the current, a description of the victim and clothing is very helpful. Again if you do locate a drowning victim, get the victim to shore as quickly as possible.

Injured surfer or surfer in distress – tropical storm Arlene a few weeks ago brought large surf breaking at the end of the jetty… and nearly every surfer in the state that had enough money to put gas in the tank was here (good place to insert a little reminder… DON’T DROP IN ON SOMEBODY). There were 2 separate incidents on the outside, where overhead waves broke the leash of the surfers board, and the surfer needed assistance. Sometimes you just need to give the surfer a rest on your board, or you may have to assist them to shore. Usually its best to let them lay on your board while you swim along, or on a longboard you can tandem paddle with the victim on front.

Another common situation is when a surfer attempts to jump off the jetty to avoid paddling out, and misses their jump or a wave washes them off the rocks, or even one that I saw was when a guy leaped off the rocks and his leash got caught on a rock, he stopped midair and slammed back into the jetty… ouch. The rocks are absolutely covered with urchins, and barnacles too. There’s usually a strong rip next to the rocks that will pull you out so don’t risk the jetty jump. If you happen to be near the jetty surfing and notice someone that is injured from attempting the jetty jump, they are likely to have serious injuries and be bleeding, and you will also be in the rip being sucked out in large surf so it is a very difficult rescue. First attempt to get the victim on his board, or on yours if he is injured and unable to paddle, then you’ll have to paddle parallel to shore away from the jetty to escape the rip, then back to shore. This scenario is likely in huge surf like a hurricane swell, and you may find yourself in a very heavy situation where you are being sucked out to the end of the jetty where giant waves will be smashing you both, possibly back into the jetty where you could be seriously injured or killed. Never try to get back onto the jetty from the surf either. You may be forced to ride the rip around the end of the jetty, then paddle back into the channel.

Self-rescue – Funny thing is lots of surfers are really poor swimmers. If you plan on surfing big waves at the end of the jetty then consider that you may be swimming all the way to the beach if you break your leash, don’t count on someone seeing you. Swim laps or on flat days swim in the surf, you’ll catch more waves when the surf is up and you’ll be conditioned for the inevitable. Paddling is a great flat day workout, but swimming is actually better and more accessible to inland surfers. Seriously, go swim 10 laps and you’ll realize you really need it.
So, here we go, next hurricane swell, you just got caught inside on a cleanup set, you pop up and your board is gone, 10 more waves break on your head and you are tired and a little dizzy, and way way out. Don’t panic! Best thing I’ve found in heavy situations is to just relax, smile, and say to yourself whatcha gonna do now? Well, you are in for a long swim, so sidestroke, backstroke, breaststroke, take your time. First thing is to get away from the jetty and away from the rip. Spot the pavilion on the beach and swim towards it, if you swim in too close to the jetty the rip will suck you back out. Dive under waves that are breaking on you, don’t let them hit you and roll you from behind. If you need help, yell at the first surfer you see. Most often in heavy surf there will be extremely strong rip currents, this applies to Mexico, Hawaii, Costa Rica or anywhere, so the channel where you paddled out is the last place you want to be. That means there’s only one way in… the impact zone. You’ll have to swim back over to the lineup, wait until after a set then swim towards shore. You’ll likely take a pounding but the waves will help push you to shore. One more note: whenever you travel to surf anywhere, always check with a local surfer or a lifeguard before you paddle out. If there's noone surfing, there's probably a real good reason why.

Being an ocean lifeguard since 1986, first in Corpus Christi and Port Aransas, then for years on the beaches of Oahu for the City and County of Honolulu (yes, the City and County actually worked together there) training and working with Brian Keaulana, Mel Puu, Terry Ahue and the best watermen in the world, and then with the Galveston Beach Patrol. After hundreds of rescues on duty and off, and more body recoveries than I care to remember, and seeing dozens of vistors to South Padre Island go home in bodybags, I feel compelled to push for a lifeguard program here at South Padre Island. The amount of drownings continues to increase each year. Lifeguards save lives, period. We call it preventative action, stopping a situation from happening, waving kids in that may be getting too far out, warning beachgoers of rip currents, and then assisting swimmers that are moments from drowning. EMS, even if they were to have a swimmer rescue unit, by the time they respond the person has been rescued by someone nearby, or they have gone under, its after the fact.
Lifeguards prevent drownings, rescue squads only respond to them, and in summer traffic that response time is not going to be sufficient, period.
Lifeguards do first aid on jellyfish, find lost children, and many other public services.
Lifeguards give Island visitors a safe place to swim.
Lifeguards promote a positive image of the Island.
Lifeguards provide locals a great healthy job, with opportunities to travel, compete (I’ll be competing in the World Lifesaving Championships in Australia this winter), and move into related fields such as EMS or Fire Dept.

The 2 big issues that the politicians say prevent us from having lifeguards (and there has been dozens of drowning deaths in the meantime)
1) Money. They say we don’t have it. Galveston Beach Patrol has a multimillion dollar budget funded by a simple hotel/motel tax, paid for by tourists. Quite simple. Yet, city officials here pride themselves on having a lower tax rate, sad but true.

2) Liablity. They don’t want to be sued if there is a drowning. Well, in fact the reverse is true, especially in County beaches where they charge access.

You can help this happen, if enough public pressure is placed on public officials, they might wake up to the fact that people are dying regularly on our beaches.
Simply take the time to make a phone call (email doesn't seem to have the same effect) to the City or County. You pay to enter the county beaches, your children deserve to swim in a safe protected area. You pay good money supporting Island businesses, the Island should provide this basic public service as well. In the meantime, keep your kids in lifejackets.
South Padre Island EMS (956) 761-5454
Cameron County Park System (956) 761-5494

Someday there will be lifeguards here to protect our chidren and visitors, until then, thanks to all the surfers that continue to save lives.

Happy surfing, Gene

questions or comments email Gene