Every year, thousands of vacationers, recreational swimmers and anglers descend on the Texas Gulf Coast. Inevitably, a small percentage of those will drown in Galveston County.
The Daily News compiled drowning data spanning the last dozen years and spoke to experts to learn the safest and deadliest places to swim surf-side and along the bay.
The Galveston Island Beach Patrol reported 76 drowning victims since 2001, but the largest concentration of those, 10, happened when swimmers entered at or near the San Luis Pass on the island’s West End.
Despite warning signs on both the Galveston and Brazoria county sides, adults and children swim at the pass, which has a history of swift, tidally influenced currents that sweep swimmers offshore or into the bay, Beach Patrol Chief Peter Davis said.
Ten people have drowned while swimming in or near the San Luis Pass since 2002, including three people this year on Memorial Day weekend. A wave took a teenager from Galveston’s beach front, and a father drowned while trying unsuccessfully to save his son after the boy entered the channel on the Brazoria County side.
“The ends of the island are always big problem areas,” Davis said. “The water that goes all the way up to Houston has to funnel through these little gaps.”
The Texas City Dike and the ship channel off the island’s far East End are trouble spots, mainly because of tidal currents.
Hurricane Ike, which made landfall Sept. 13, 2008, heavily damaged the dike, but nine people have drowned and 44 were rescued from the water since its reopening in 2010.
Texas City had a few signs along the dike warning swimmers and anglers of the dangerous conditions. The signs stated that those who ventured into the water did so at their own risk.
After two girls and their father drowned while swimming off Dike Beach in October 2010, the city added more signs — including some in Spanish.
While the city charges for access by car to the dike on weekends, the money is used for trash pickup and general maintenance. The city has never provided lifeguards along the dike’s beach area.
Texas City Fire Chief Joseph “Brud” Gorman urged anglers to wear flotation devices and warned against wearing waders along a sandbar called Mosquito Island. The sandbar is north of the dike on the ship channel side and has a deep hole created by the scouring current.
A former Texas City emergency services captain described the hole in 2008 as being 35 feet deep. When anglers fall off the sandbar, their waders fill with water, dragging them beneath the surface.
Other trouble spots
The beach off the ship channel on Galveston’s far east end is another area of concern, but the prohibition of swimming and enforcement of a no-parking zone near a danger spot has reduced the number of water rescues and drowning victims, Davis said.
Signs prohibit parking within 500 feet of the bridge on Boddeker Drive that spans the lagoon. Swimming near the bridge is dangerous, especially for children, when the changing tide produces strong currents, Davis said.
Swimming near Galveston’s beachfront piers and 15 rock groins that jut into the Gulf between 10th and 61st streets can be dangerous because of strong rip currents, Davis said.
“Eighty percent of drownings in the surf environment happen as a direct effect of rip currents,” Davis said. “We build our whole program around that idea that rip currents are the biggest hazard people face when they come here.”
More than 90 percent of people who drown off a Galveston beach are not residents of Galveston County, and about 80 percent of the total weren’t related to medical issues or suicides, Davis said.
Most of the Beach Patrol’s average of 50,000 to 70,000 annual preventive actions involve moving swimmers away from the rock groins, Davis said. The rip currents at the rock groins are roughly 20 feet wide and carry swimmers into the Gulf.
Surviving rip currents
The best way to survive a rip current is to stay calm and do nothing while in its grasp, Davis said.
“The number one thing to do is relax — go with the flow,” Davis said. “It’ll take you out and natural processes will take you back to shore. No current pulls you under. There’s no such thing like that at the beach.”
Good swimmers could swim parallel to the shore to escape the rip current, Davis said.
“Rip currents can move faster than an Olympic swimmer can swim, in excess of 5 miles per hour,” Davis said. “The reason people drown is simple. They try to swim against them, and they tire and panic.”
Although eight people have drowned since 2001 at Stewart Beach, the combination of lifeguards and no rock groins makes it the safest place to swim on the island, Davis said.
Stewart Beach is also among the busiest destinations for beachgoers on the island, seeing 12,000 people daily, Davis said.
Beach Patrol supervisors use United States Lifesaving Association guidelines to certify the island’s lifeguards. The chance of drowning a USLA-guarded beach is one in 18 million, less than lighting strikes and shark attacks, Davis said.