Tamning San Luis Pass

I n mid-August, after a short-term spate of drownings, Brazoria County officials opted to shut down the recreational dipping of so much as a toe into water around San Luis Pass. To make their message clear, signs were posted to explain that people who violate the new law face fines up to $500.

This natural interchange between West Galveston Bay and the Gulf of Mexico is relatively narrow, like the waist of an hourglass. Ingoing and outgoing flow between the two water bodies is predictably strong and, as we are reminded annually, potentially perilous. Stand ankle-deep in water there at the peak of a tide change, and you can—you could until August 18 anyway—feel the sand being swept from beneath your feet.

Sadly this past summer, several people died there almost within a week of each other. Two men were lost when one tried to rescue the other. Another man drowned when the kayak on which he and six other people were riding—including some children and adults not wearing PFDs—capsized.

One side of me understands completely the county court’s decision to shut down fishing, swimming and bathing in an area that claims at least a few lives each year. Labeling it a “public safety” issue, Brazoria County Commissioners Court voted unanimously to make splishing, splashing or otherwise getting wet there a Class C Misdemeanor.

That ruling, at least on the Brazoria County side of the pass, leaves me and other fishermen high and dry, presumably forever. We respect the pass as much for what it’s done to others as for what it could do to us and used it accordingly.

We either wore PFDs or fished somewhere else. The other side of me is willing to accept my own responsibility to fish there sensibly; if something happens to me there, without interference of anyone else, it’s my fault.

Where next, I wonder, might someone identify a string of tragedies and declare that area off limits? Do we barricade dangerous intersections and force traffic to circumnavigate them? Do we build overpasses at every railroad crossing?

Some places, some things, are inherently dangerous. Sign or no sign, warning or no warning, a handful of people occasionally are going to expose themselves—intentionally or otherwise—to that danger. The risk associated with doing so is on them.

It’s hardly a recent determination that San Luis Pass is a perilous place to enter the water. It’s claimed victims since some unnamed storm sliced the coast there centuries ago.

Count me among those who have temporarily lost footing in its swift current and had to swim patiently back to shore. I was young and strong when it happened, and I knew to stroke with the flow rather than against it. So, I put toes back on sand barely a minute later, but almost 50 yards from where I was yanked off my feet by the tide.

I recognize that some people may not realize how fast water moves at San Luis Pass or that swimming against that current is a life-losing proposition. However, I’d hope people would heed warning signs and adjust their activities accordingly.

I wonder if county officials might have been at least as concerned with potential lawsuits and negative publicity as with public safety. To be honest, I wouldn’t blame those men and women for thinking that way. Society is quick to blame others for its own poor decisions.

When lawyers ask in open court what could have been done to prevent any sad occurrence at San Luis Pass, at least one of several possible answers must include the victim not getting into the water.

Ultimately, most potential future victims of San Luis Pass will get the message—some by way of citation—and enjoy beach time elsewhere. For anyone who is not an expert open-water swimmer, that’s a good idea.

As a veteran (read as “old”) wade fisherman, surfer and general fan of coastal waters, I count exactly five times I’ve felt uneasy in the water. Five times, I was at least moderately uncertain whether I’d get out of the jam I’d found myself in. Two were surfing incidents, one prior to leashes and another the result of a broken leash.

Two others were nighttime wade-fishing events in Texas that involved stepping into deep water merely one unexpected, single pace beyond shallow water. Each time, when I resurfaced, I had to tread water and regain my bearings (with rod handle clenched in teeth) before side-paddling back to safety.

The fifth was that San Luis Pass episode, and that’s the only one of the five that involved swift water. Fast-moving water is more dangerous than water standing still, but either can kill you.

Instead of threatening $500 fines, I’d rather that the county had erected big signs, lots of them. At least one should state (in a half-dozen languages with bold illustrations) that the county assumes absolutely no responsibility for anything that happens beyond that sign.

Maybe the county could just draw a big line in the sand and say, “If you cross this line, you’re on your own.” Driving past the line would be akin to signing a liability waver in favor of the county.

Ultimately, short of fencing off San Luis Pass or posting full-time law enforcement, the county can’t force people to do the right thing—or keep them from doing the wrong thing.

San Luis Pass can be dangerous. If you don’t get that, it might get you. 

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