As it turns out, AquaPalooza’s “neighborhood” of streets and avenues — its rafting grid — is the single most expensive component to the event. Created by the ’Palooza’s own city planners, it’s designed to accommodate 5,000 boats, neatly organized into mirror-image rows divided by a central highway. Earlier in my visit officials were privately noting that they didn’t think the crowd would be as big as expected. But shortly after noon, with much of the grid full and a steady stream of boats stretching to the horizon, AquaPalooza is proving to be a very popular destination. Complicating matters is that many of those already in position have left the safety of their boats to cool off in the watery streets. Prop-driven boats are in close proximity to swimmers. It should be mass chaos. The combined forces of the Lower Colorado River Authority, the Travis County Sheriff’s Office, Texas Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Coast Guard and safety patrollers such as Josh Bridges are trying their best to ensure it isn’t.
Sitting atop a WaveRunner, Bridges looks like your ordinary laid-back dude in his early 20s. Get close, however, and the stress of the job is obvious. His mouth is set in more of a crease than a smile. “The biggest problem out here is that everybody is in their own little world,” Bridges says. “everybody’s out there having fun, but not everyone is paying attention to the safety precautions.”
I point out the irony that, in a sea of his carefree, partying peers, he and his fellow patrols quite possibly have the most stressful job of the weekend. “Probably so, yeah,” Bridges says with a laugh. “At least I feel that way!”
One reason it all works is skill sharing. A crew on a 20-something Crownline comes in with its idle running a little hot. Two guys on a Sea Ray Sundeck coach the driver to bump in and out of gear to slow his momentum while maintaining directional control. The Crownline slides into place, ding-free. Lines are shared all around. There’s even a free lesson on hanging a fender. Everyone is helping each other, knowing one bad move could have a domino effect.
The safety patrol’s biggest issue is keeping the flow of traffic out of the center aisle, which organizers want to keep open only to swimmers. Still, as show time draws near, an endless parade of boats is coming from every direction, trying to find the space that Bridges and his fellow patrollers assures them doesn’t exist. No accidents have happened, but Bridges is feeling the weight of the job.
“They’re really not responding right now,” he says, before heading back into the fray.