They have an eye on the Gulf and a love of beach life
Daniel Gutierrez sat in Tower 6 at Stewart Beach with a gallon jug of water behind him and a crowded beach in front of him. It was high noon on a weekday for the 18-year-old lifeguard who seemed to see everyone and everything at the same time. He was alert, but steady and as cool as sea breeze.
Gutierrez has been a lifeguard with the Galveston Island Beach Patrol for two years. It’s unlike most first jobs. And it’s unpredictable.
“There’s more going on with larger ocean currents,” he said. “Conditions can change.”
The Galveston Island Beach Patrol traces its history to 1875 and the U.S. Life-Saving Service, Chief Peter Davis said. It’s gone through a series of organizational changes — from a volunteer service to part of the police department to the sheriff’s office.
Now, the patrol falls under the Galveston Park Board and is responsible for 33 miles of beaches that attract 6.4 million tourists each year.
“We had 17 people in 1983 when I started,” Davis said. “We like to have 150 now.”
Nine are full-time lifeguards. The others are seasonal employees, but the season keeps getting longer.
Galveston has extended its beach season to almost a year-around tourism schedule, Davis said.
Before lifeguards ever get to sit in a stand on the beach, they have to complete 100 hours of training.
Many start as teenagers who are drawn to beach culture, Davis said.
“The ones who like it stay,” Davis said. “The ones that move on look back and think, ‘That’s when things made sense.’”
Davis was a seventh-generation beach kid. His great-grandmother, as a young mother, would have picnics on the beach with china she brought from home.
T.K. Mills, 33, is a third-generation born-on-the-island Galvestonian, but he’s the first lifeguard in his family.
“I am a water man,” Mills said. “Most of my passion comes from the water.”
Mills started surfing when he was 12. He was in the U.S. Navy for four years. And he’s been a lifeguard with the beach patrol on and off since 1998.
“I told my grandma I wanted to be in the junior lifeguard program,” Mills said. “She sacrificed the money so I could do it.”
Now, it’s turned into a regular job and he’s able to live in Galveston.
“If I didn’t love my job, I wouldn’t do it,” he said. “It’s not really a job. It’s something I love to do. It’s a lifestyle.”
The job can be challenging, depending on the weather, Michelle Gomez, 23, said.
“Or if the currents are really rough,” the Galveston native said.
One day, she was helping a swimmer near a jetty when she heard a commotion.
“You go into rescue mode,” said Gomez, who is attending Texas A&M University at Galveston and studying maritime administration.
That immediate, professional response is a combination of following procedures and snapping into action, she said.
Gabriel Macicek, 24, is another born-on-the-islander who has been a lifeguard for nine years.
“I think it’s a cool job,” he said. “It’s a lot of responsibility. You have to stay in shape and keep up to date with emergency medicine protocols.”
One of his strangest encounters was rescuing a woman who was high on narcotics and was swimming in the nude. She survived and was arrested, he said.
“I always wanted to be a lifeguard,” Macicek said. “Every day you make a difference. You have a huge impact with minor movements.”
Hallie Pauling, 23, has been with the beach patrol for six seasons. She commutes to the University of Houston-Clear Lake, where she’s majoring in biology and also is working on a teacher’s certification. After she graduates and starts teaching school, she might keep her seasonal lifeguard gig, she said.
“It’s an active, outdoor, decent-paying job,” she said.
She watches as relief and relaxation washes over people who visit the beach. It’s joyous, but poses a danger, she said.
“People think things will never happen to them,” she said. “You’re not invincible. The water will always win.”
The lifeguards start their work day with a workout. It varies. One day it might be a 3-mile run, the next day might involve a paddle boat, Gomez said.
“An everyday training session keeps skills fresh,” Davis said.
After the workout, beach patrol assigns lifeguards to towers. The lifeguards have 25 minutes to get to their towers and put up the appropriate flag that signals Gulf conditions.
“We swim our area to get a feel for the water,” Gutierrez said.
After four hours at a tower, a lifeguard gets a break, then goes back to work and continues until sunset, Gutierrez said.
Gutierrez is from Houston, but stays with his grandmother when he’s working on beach patrol. He works for seven months a year as a lifeguard, saves his money, then travels. This winter, he backpacked in Southeast Asia. Next winter, he plans to backpack in India.
“Everyone says, ‘I wished I had traveled when I was younger,’” Gutierrez said.
Lifeguarding fits his international lifestyle, and he intends to keep doing it for a few years.
“I show up and get paid to work out,” he said.
Lazy kids who just want an easy job being at the beach don’t work for Davis, he said.
“We attract people who want to perform better,” he said. “We really try hard to create a culture where they want to be here.”