Train in deadly currents, swim somewhere else

Petty Officer 2nd Class Joshua Magie, an aviation survival technician at Air Station Houston exits the water after completing rescue hoists, at San Luis Pass.

Down in central Texas there’s one place that provides a constant and dangerous challenge for the area rescue services – San Luis Pass. Each year, folks walk past the large, numerous, multicolored signs that scream in English and Spanish, “NO SWIMMING/WADING” and “DANGEROUS CURRENTS.” One sign even states the number of lives lost in the past year: four. Three adults and one child were lost in about a month. Still, people put their lives in danger and as is the Coast Guard’s mandate, we will continue to respond.

On April 22, Coast Guard crews from Air Station Houston conducted rescue training in the area to acclimate themselves to the treacherous conditions presented by San Luis Pass and to bring public awareness to the hazards of the area. For the crews, it was an eye-opening experience.

“I’ve got all the gear and flotation and even then, when you’re under the rotor wash and out in the water, you can still feel the currents pulling, you can still feel that fatigue,” said Cmdr. Scott Langum, the commanding officer of Air Station Houston. “So I can only imagine how terrifying it is for someone caught in the water without the proper equipment.”

(From left) Cmdr. Scott Langum, commanding officer of Coast Guard Air Station Houston and Chief Petty Officer Charles Ferrante head toward shore after participating in a rescue exercise in San Luis Pass, Texas.

It’s not usual for a Coast Guard senior officer to participate in training as the mock victim, but with all the attention surrounding the dangers of the pass, Langum wanted to experience it firsthand.

“I’m playing the role of a simulated survivor today on the business end of a rescue hoist,” said Langum. “Normally I’m flying the aircraft, but today I wanted to see what if felt like to be under the aircraft, in a current.”

And what a current. San Luis Pass is the largest artery linking Galveston’s West Bay with the Gulf of Mexico. Millions of gallons are sucked through this outlet daily, which can cause any sure footing you may have found to disappear.

“San Luis Pass is dangerous because we have a lot of tidal flow. It almost acts like a rip current,” said Peter Davis, the chief of the Galveston Island Beach Patrol.

Davis and the GIBP are a constant partner in the ongoing battle for human life at the pass. Any incident that calls for Coast Guard assistance also brings Davis and his fleet of shallow bottom boats and rescuers to the scene. And that scene, more often than not, is San Luis Pass.

A Coast Guard rescue swimmer is hoisted from San Luis Pass, during a rescue exercise.

Davis and the Coast Guard have a lot in common. They’ve both been doing this a long time (Davis has been lifeguarding for more than 30 years) and they both protect human life with an almost unguarded ferocity. Davis has trained lifeguards in Central and South America and was named as one of Aquatic International Magazine’s 25 most influential people in aquatics. You’d think he’d have written the book on water safety and you’d be almost right. He co-edited it. All these accolades make it easier to listen to him when he says…

“Don’t swim in the pass, don’t swim on either end of [Galveston] Island. Swim in open beach, which is far away from the entrances to these bays. Anywhere where there’s a river mouth or the mouth to some bay is dangerous areas because of the tidal flow.”

“It’s really important when you come to swim in Galveston that you choose an area with a lifeguard. We have a great lifeguard service. Choose an area with a lifeguard, swim near the lifeguard and ask the lifeguard where it’s safe to swim and what the conditions are for that day. We’re here for you.”

At the end of the day people are going to do what they want, regardless of what a sign says. Americans, Texans specifically, have an inherited dislike of anything and anyone that even whispers of encroachment on their freedoms. “Who are these signs to tell me where I can and can’t swim?” Well if that doesn’t work for you, please take it from two men who’ve dedicated themselves to the safety of the public. One whose military service requires him to respond in horrifying conditions and was still surprised at the strength of currents in San Luis Pass. The other who has devoted the majority of his life to the safety of swimmers in the Galveston area and continues to train others to do the same. They both plead with one voice: Don’t swim in San Luis Pass.

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