What catches swimmers off guard at beaches and lakes?

By Robert Arnold - Investigative Reporter

HOUSTON - The Houston area has seen several drownings this year, several of which have occurred in lakes and in the Gulf of Mexico.

Police and lifeguards say many of these situations involve swimmers who are unprepared for the conditions they’ll face in these settings.

Rip currents

The chief of Galveston’s Beach Patrol, Peter Davis, said rip currents are behind the majority of rescues and drownings seen on the Island.

“It’s like a little river that pulls you out,” Davis said. “(Swimmers) sometimes don't realize they're even in a rip current because they start moving the same speed as the water offshore.”

Davis explained when many swimmers realize they are being pulled far from shore their natural instinct is to swim straight back to shore, against the current.

“A lot of drownings or almost drownings happen because they're swimming against the current, exhaust themselves or panic or choke on water,” Davis said.

Davis said if you are caught in a rip current, swim parallel to the beach until you're out of the current and then start swimming back to shore. 

This year, Galveston’s Beach Patrol has already reported five drownings. The latest happened July 4.

Davis said Salvador Morfin, 22, and his girlfriend went swimming at night and are believed to have become caught in a rip current near a rock groin. Davis said most rip currents form near these structures and the Beach Patrol has already taken nearly 79,000 preventative measures to keep swimmers away from these areas.

“A lot of the drownings that happen in the surf area are actually decent swimmers, they just overestimate their ability or they don't understand the conditions,” Davis said. 

Tidal currents 

Lateral currents

Davis said these currents run parallel to the shoreline and can dig troughs in the seabed. 

“They can step off a sand bar into a trough over their head, get caught unexpectedly by a wave,” Davis said.

You can check current beach conditions by clicking this link here or this link here.

Texas Beach Watch also provides updates on bacteria levels in the water.

Boating on the lake

Houston police Officers Alfonso Garcia and Sam Roccaforte are with the Houston Police Department’s lake patrol. Both said many boaters get in trouble because they don’t pay attention to rapid changes in depth.

“If you jump from 5 (feet) to half a foot just like that because of a sandbar you're not going to have time to react,” Garcia said.

Garcia said boaters can easily be thrown into the water if they hit one of these sandbars or pieces of debris hidden just under the surface. Garcia cautions boaters to pay attention to buoys positioned at different spots around the lake that help boaters stay in deeper waters.

“That momentum is taking you forward, it's going to launch you,” Garcia said.

Roccaforte and Garcia said another problem is boaters not wearing life jackets or wearing improperly fitted life jackets. The officers also said many people make the mistake of thinking swimming in a lake is similar to swimming in a pool.

“Here we're fighting against the wind, we're fighting against the current, the waves. As you can tell, they start smashing into your face,” Garcia said. “It’ll take a toll on you.”

River current

Roccaforte also shared with KPRC a video of his recent training when it comes to swimming to safety in powerful river currents. The video shows Roccaforte swimming diagonally toward a stationary object while letting the current pull him downstream.

To check lake and river conditions, click the following links:

https://tpwd.texas.gov/fishboat/fish/recreational/lakes/houston/

https://webapps.usgs.gov/lake_houston/home/

https://www.lakeconroe.com/

https://www.sjra.net/

https://tpwd.texas.gov/fishboat/fish/recreational/lakes/livingston/

Copyright 2019 by KPRC Click2Houston - All rights reserved.