By: Matt Wyatt July 15, 2020 Updated: July 15, 2020 5:44 p.m.
Ben Bailey was on his way to take his boat out of the water when he got the call.
The Texas game warden changed course with haste. Someone was in trouble.
He thought he was responding to an adult in distress, swept away from shore. He knew he had to get there quickly. The waves from passing vessels can prove deadly on an open Lavaca Bay.
“The wake from those ships can be as tall as a person,” Bailey said.
When he arrived on scene, the game warden was surprised to find an inner tube wrapped around a 6-year-old girl, 1,200 yards from shore and in the middle of the Matagorda ship channel.
She was crying heavily when he arrived, but Bailey noted it was fortunate that she smartly remained in her tube. Bailey gently pulled his boat up next to the little girl and hoisted her aboard.
She immediately embraced him.
Bailey returned the child to her grandmother where they had been swimming near Magnolia Beach. His work was done.
The rescue was a stroke of fate.
Water safety, patrols and rescues are a significant part of Bailey’s work life as a game warden in coastal Calhoun County.
However, it is up to individual discretion whether the warden patrols that community by truck or boat on a day-by-day basis.
The rescued little girl can thank her lucky stars that Bailey decided to go with his boat last Tuesday.
“It was by chance that I decided to go out on the water that day. And I’m glad I did because there weren’t any other boats out there to get her,” Bailey said.
Bailey said that with the busy Fourth of July weekend in the rearview, the bay was empty of anyone who could have assisted the stranded child. The Texas game warden was perhaps her only hope.
The incident serves as a reminder of the constant preparation and vigilance required of water safety.
Bailey, 35, said he and his wife Chelsea, who is also a game warden in Calhoun County, keep their kids in life jackets while on the beach.
“It only takes a second for something to happen,” said Bailey, who’s been a game warden for 10 years.
“That current and wind will push a float faster than you can swim. A lot of times we have boats get away from people, they’ll swim after them and they’ll end up drowning. Stuff gets carried out pretty quick.”
Game wardens have had a busy summer so far patrolling Texas waters.
Wardens carried out water safety checks on over 11,000 vessels and arrested 42 people for operating a boat while intoxicated on July 4 weekend.
Officers across the state were also involved in several water-related rescues over the holiday weekend.
Game wardens picked up three people whose boat had washed ashore on San Jose Island in Aransas County. Wardens brought to safety two people who were clinging to a kneeboard after their boat capsized on Lake Travis. A swamped kayaker was rescued, and a lost child was found on Lake Alan Henry.
Over that weekend, game wardens also investigated 21 boat accidents, three boating-related deaths and seven open-water drownings.
Water rescues are something game wardens are accustomed to as part of the job description. Game wardens usually are involved in over a thousand water-related rescues a year. Last year they made 1,097 water rescues. In 2017, wardens made 3,775, and the numbers do not include disaster events like Hurricane Harvey.
Water rescues are a constant part of a game warden’s education. In preparation for hurricane season, game wardens will be holding swiftwater search and rescue training on Lake Bridgeport this Wednesday.
For Bailey, saving someone on the water is just another day at the office for “the best job in Texas.” He recalls his tale of rescue with the measured humility so typical of many Texas game wardens.
His occupation is a calling he wanted to answer since he was young.
Bailey was born and raised in Louisiana but frequented the area where he now works as a child. His grandfather was a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force who flew B-52s on training missions to bomb Matagorda Island. They would hunt and fish a lot in the area, and it’s where he had his first run-ins with Texas game wardens.
“I remember interacting with Texas game wardens when I was young and it just left an impression on me, the way they carried themselves and how they talked. They were polite, professional,” Bailey said.
Now, he is who he once aspired to be. He does not seek recognition for the rescue he made last week, he said he’s only relieved that the situation worked out for the best. Often, it does not.
“I’m just glad it was a rescue and not a recovery,” he said.