Is Coasteering Safe?
The question “Is coasteering safe?” is one that we hear every now and then from members of the public who have never heard about or seen coasteering before. We believe that it is.
We have worked incredibly hard for the past decade to ensure that the activities that we offer (in particular coasteering) are as safe as they possibly can be when operating in a dynamic natural environment, and we’d like to take this opportunity to share publicly how we manage our sessions and plan for all eventualities in order to address common questions and misconceptions.
What is the Difference between Coasteering and Tombstoning?
Coasteering and “Tombstoning” are two very different activities; coasteering is an exploration of the coast led by two trained and experienced guides (per group) that utilises risk-assessed “features” (such as jumps) selected depending upon the state of tide, conditions, and ability of the clients. “Tombstoning”, as it is popularly termed by the press, is unsupervised jumping from rocks into water. Sometimes people get them confused however, and unfortunately sometimes coasteering activities are disrupted by people tombstoning, as happened here at Port Gaverne recently in rather dramatic fashion when a young man intent on tombstoning climbed above and then slipped and fell on to a coasteering group from another activity provider (not Cornish Rock Tors) that sometimes run sessions out of Port Gaverne. The young man fell onto a member of that group, knocking her into the rocks; her helmet protected her head and she escaped without injury, however the young man had a suspected broken ankle and was taken to hospital by the air ambulance. He was very lucky and could easily have sustained more serious injuries or injured the people below him. We don’t want the reputation of coasteering to be tarnished by the reckless actions of people who think that there is no need for proper guidance, preparation, and safety equipment when enjoying the coast in such a way (you wouldn’t try to teach yourself to skydive, would you?).
Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance
Before we took our first clients out to explore the Cornish coast ten years ago, we explored it thoroughly ourselves; recording the changing conditions on different tides, swells and winds and diving down with a mask or dropping plumb-lines to measure the depth of water beneath prospective jump spots and check the sea bed. We then re-check all of this information at the start of every year, and update our records monthly throughout the season. All of this information is kept on file in our risk assessments, which are required for our AALA license (Adventure Activities Licensing Association). We check our minor incidents log before the start of every season and use this information to update our risk assessments. Each of our routes has a number of different options for clients depending upon both the conditions and the ability of the group, and our guides are trained to undertake dynamic assessments as the session progresses meaning that they tailor the session with safety in mind. The route is not set-in-stone and starts with jumps from knee-high, with progression to the next level at the discretion of the guide who is constantly assessing the client’s ability. Our guides? They’re all either qualified beach lifeguards (they hold the same qualifications as the guys in red that patrol our beaches) or qualified in outdoor first aid and receive further site-specific in-house training. There is always a lead guide in charge of each session, and they will have had a minimum of one year’s experience with Cornish Rock Tors before being assessed and signed off by our management team. One thing that we are always keen to stress is that there is never any requirement for a client to participate in a part of an activity that they are not capable of or comfortable with, and we frequently adjust sessions accordingly to ensure that everyone has the best time possible. This is our standard operating procedure (SOP). We also plan for how we would respond to and deal with any emergencies, although we hope that we never have to implement our emergency action plan (EAP).
What Situations Do We Train For?
The most likely injury that we encounter during a session is minor trips, slips and falls. These are normally the result of over-enthusiasm and rushing at the start of a session, or complacency within the environment towards the end of a two-hour session (we’ve nick-named this “falling on the finish line”).
The element of coasteering that casual observers and the media are often most concerned about is the jumping. All of our jumps are into deep water, and there is always a guide at the take-off spot to ensure a clean launch as well as a guide treading water at the landing spot to “receive” the jumper. Industry-wide, from our involvement with the National Coasteering Charter Group, it would seem that the most common serious incidents that are logged by coasteering providers around the country are muscle spasms in the lower back caused by an awkward landing, which are almost always treated as a suspected spinal injury in the interests of being as safe and as cautious as possible. This involves immobilising the client and returning them to shore so that medical professionals from the ambulance service can assess them or, as can be the case here in Cornwall, the air ambulance paramedic who arrives by helicopter does this. Other possible risks can be the potential for grazes or small cuts from coming into contact with the rocks, particularly if the sea is a bit lively. One of the first things that we do at the start of a session is teach clients the safest way to approach an exit point, feet first with their legs extended, so that they can push off the rocks if washed towards them by a wave. We minimise this risk by positioning a guide at the exit point to offer a helping hand and assist clients out of the water, whilst another guide treads water with the rest of the group and times their exit one or two at a time.
Cornish Rock Tors took part in what we believe to be an industry-first joint-training exercise in 2016 working with several local volunteer coastguard groups and our local RNLI lifeboat from Port Isaac. The aim of this joint-training was to ensure that our guides’ expertise and detailed knowledge could be an asset to rescue services should an incident occur at Port Gaverne and our team are first on scene, and so that we all knew how to work together to deliver the best possible outcome. Cornish Rock Tors’ managing director Ben is a crewman on the Port Isaac Lifeboat, and we are always looking for ways to work together and learn from them.
Even So…What If?
We minimise risk, but it is impossible to eliminate it when offering adventure activities in a dynamic environment. There is no escaping that fact, but surf schools, climbing centres and similar activity centres all over the country face the same risks. Should we suspect an injury though, then our training kicks in. All of our guides carry tow-lines and one guide with each group also carries a waterproof bag containing a first-aid kit, mobile phone and other emergency equipment. We will always err on the side of caution if we ever suspect an injury, particularly a possible spinal injury, and follow both recommended best practice and own protocols to ensure that the situation has the best possible outcome.
Few things in this life are entirely free of risk. It is these risks, some real and some perceived, that make activities such as coasteering exciting and that provide people with a challenge and sense of achievement.
There are plenty of statistics out there about how many people are injured in car accidents or by falling off ladders each year, and whilst that doesn’t make coasteering any safer it does help to put the risks posed into perspective. We operate to the highest standards set out by our industry, and would do anyway even if left to our own devices. We have a passion for sharing exciting experiences in our beautiful environment and so we manage the risks presented as much as we possibly can, and train for the possibility that something might not go to plan. We believe that when coasteering with Cornish Rock Tors the enjoyment and sense of achievement felt at the end of a session far outweighs any of the possible risks.