Are there lessons to be learned from the Mawgan Porth tragedy?

Are there lessons to be learned from the Mawgan Porth tragedy?

The tragic death of three people at Mawgan Porth beach in Cornwall on Sunday has shocked the UK’s surfing community. A complete picture is yet to emerge, but it’s believed the trio got into trouble after going to the aid of four young surfers caught in a rip tide.

The British Isles are relatively safe for surfers, but drownings at sea occur more often than most people realise. Sunday’s events have stimulated a debate about what can be done to improve safety in the water and will hopefully raise awareness of potential risks – especially rip tides.

Rip tides form when water moving back out to sea is forced through a narrow gap like a sand bar and can extend from 60 metres to over 700 metres out to to sea, although they are usually less than nine metres wide. Surfers caught in rip tides should try not to panic and swim parallel to the beach in order to find calmer water.

Huck spoke to local bodyboarder and sometime-surfer Dr. David Baglow to see if there are any lessons to be learned from this tragedy. David, aged 35, is an anaesthetist at Truro hospital and shares relevant medical knowledge with the surf community through his blog GetSwellSoon, to help surfers stay safe.

David argues that this incident shouldn’t scare people away from the water (least of all Cornish beaches) and deaths are incredibly rare, but safety is a complex issue, where everyone – from authorities to surfers themselves – must play a part.

Mawgan Porth is without a lifeguard in the winter months, but the incident has raised questions about whether out-of-season  cover should be extended – especially in busy periods, such as during autumn half-term holidays when this accident occurred.

David points out that predicting and managing risk on the extensive and varied Cornwall coastline is a difficult task. “I wouldn’t say Mawgan Porth is any more dangerous than other beaches,” he explains. “The sand has changed so much since the big storms we had last year and every beach is different at different times of the year, with different tides, swell directions, and wind conditions. To have someone predicting where’s going to be dangerous is almost impossible – unless you’re looking at storm conditions and 25 foot surf, for example.”

Three lifeboats and two helicopters were involved in the rescue operation. Sources suggest that four teenage surfers got into difficulty and were eventually plucked safely from the water, but three adults who went to their aid drowned.

A number of beaches in Cornwall are patrolled by lifeguards throughout October on weekends and at half-term, but not Mawgan Porth – although this is now under review. James Millidge, RNLI’s coastal safety manager, told the BBC that he urged surfers to use beaches where lifeguards were on patrol. “Throughout Cornwall and Devon there are a number of beaches with extended lifeguard cover through October on weekends and at half-term. They are strategically placed so that they are no more than half an hour’s drive from anyone. We would always recommend that people go and visit a lifeguarded beach.”

Safety on Cornish beaches is managed between Cornwall council and the RNLI (a charity and volunteer-run organisation) and lifeguards are often trained by the RNLI but funded by local authorities. “I think it’s important to remember who the RNLI are, how they’re funded and how they’re organised,” David says. “If the public expect the RNLI to provide a service, that is available like that then I think it needs to be organised or funded slightly differently. I think the RNLI are incredible; they’re very skilled, have local knowledge and are medically trained. But you have to remember that it’s not like a police force, where they can be omnipresent. Do I think the RNLI have responsibility to police beaches to make sure that people that want to go in the sea, don’t go in the sea all year round? I absolutely don’t think that’s the case.”

David cautions against a knee-jerk reaction against the authorities. Every time somebody gets in the water, they have to take ultimate responsibility for their safety, especially in cases where there is no lifeguard present. It takes experience to learn how to read conditions and fully understand the potential risks, but the learning process needs to take place in a safe environment.

However, David feels the government does have a role to play in improving safety. He would like to see increased funding for first aid training, where risk assessment is a crucial element. As part of his work as a medical adviser for the charity Surfers Against Sewage, David has noticed that care of the coastline is often neglected in the winter months. “If I think there is a bigger picture to look at in terms of people taking responsibility for water usage and using the beach out of season, which I think goes all the way back to the government,” David explains. “At the moment, water companies are allowed to pollute beaches off season because it’s not acknowledged that they are still used heavily by surfers and others. If there’s going to be any sort of consensus that we need the RNLI and other services on beaches out of season, first of all people in government have to recognise that beaches are being used all year round.”

Check out David’s blog GetSwellSoon.