Water danger: Even the most experienced surfers can struggle

It is heart-breaking that an activity that is so life-affirming, so intoxicating and so healthy as surfing resulted in three deaths on Sunday. Surfing tragedies don’t get any worse than the incident at Mawgan Porth on the north Cornwall coast, in which Stuart Calder, a 52-year-old holidaymaker from Leeds, and a couple from St Austell perished.

I can’t think of another occurrence of three people dying at the same time while surfing, here in Britain or anywhere else in the world.

So what went wrong? The sea conditions at Mawgan Porth were certainly not ideal for surfing. Karl Mackie, a surfboard shaper and photographer who lives near by, was out running along the cliff path just before the group of surfers found themselves in trouble. “I checked the surf earlier in the day but didn’t fancy it,” he says. “There was an onshore wind and it wasn’t worth going in. What’s happened is terrible.”

An onshore wind means that waves lose their shape. Instead of approaching the beach in lines, they become lumpy and break unpredictably. This tendency is exacerbated when waves break on a sandy beach — as at Mawgan Porth — rather than over a reef or rocky point. The sea constantly rearranges the topography of the underlying sandbanks so that beachbreak surf can change from one day to the next. An experienced surfer, Mackie could assess in an instant the sea condition at Mawgan Porth. “The surf wasn’t huge but it was messy. There weren’t really any decent waves to be had.”

Not only were experienced local surfers who may have been able to help not in the water at the time of the incident, lifeguards were not operating on the beach either. Lifeguard cover is part paid for by the RNLI, part paid for by local authorities. Its presence on beaches during the summer months is probably the single reason that there are so few surfing fatalities in Britain. It is statistically far safer to surf than it is to swim in rivers or lakes, an activity at which 20 people drowned last year, compared with the two people who died while surfing in 2013.

Even angling from the beach is more dangerous than surfing — triple the number of people died while doing so last year. Yet, as one surfer who didn’t want to be named told me, “Year after year you see more and more cases of people going surfing who have all the gear and no idea. Either the lifeguards or experienced surfers have to get them to safety.”

Surfing’s increasing popularity means that people are now taking to the sea without the kind of experience that means they will be safe. It’s also tempting, once you’ve driven all the way to Cornwall with a surfboard strapped to your roof, to want to go in to the water whatever the conditions. Add wetsuits that are now so good that you can be warmer in the sea than on land, even in winter, and there is little to deter the determined. While the full details of Sunday’s tragedy are not yet known, it raises a key question: should there have been lifeguard cover at Mawgan Port on the first Sunday of the autumn half-term break, when the sea is still relatively warm? Wasn’t it foreseeable that there’d be an increase in people going surfing?

Mawgan Porth is described as a “fickle beachbreak” by the leading surf forecasting site magicseaweed.com, which is “normally unrideable unless a perfectly clean, small swell is running”. Yet for former Women’s UK Pro Surf Tour champion Hannah Harding, who surfs it regularly, Mawgan Porth is also a break to be reckoned with: “It can be small at other breaks near by but a lot bigger there because of the way the sea funnels in. It’s also a punchy, powerful wave. I think it needs lifeguards during the autumn half-term. It can be quite dangerous.”

Peter Dawson is a staff officer with the RNLI. A surfer himself, he explains how the RNLI decides on the level of safety cover at beaches. “We carry out a full risk assessment, working with the local authority or private beach owner. This takes into account numbers and types of beach users, numbers and type of incidents, natural hazards, topography and proximity to other rescue services. A recommendation is then made on the level of safety cover on the beach, including season dates, number of lifeguards and type of rescue equipment. Information on the locations, dates and times of local lifeguard cover is displayed in the area.”

Dawson says that Mawgan Porth beach’s signage is good and points out that many other beaches have lifeguard cover – which ends at most beaches on September 30 each year — for the half-term break. Among them are nearby Fistral in Newquay, Gwithian, Praa Sands and Perranporth in Cornwall and Bantham and Woolacombe in Devon.

All of them are beachbreaks, which means they will have rip currents — often wrongly referred to as rip tides. Rip currents form because waves break on sandy beaches in different places, then find the quickest route back to the sea. The result is a narrow, fast-moving current heading directly offshore, typically at one to two feet a second. Experienced surfers know where rips are, and will use them to lessen the strain of paddling out, but for the unwary they are terrifying. They account for a large proportion of the 150 or so deaths from drowning that occur annually in British waters, the typical mistake being that people exhaust themselves trying to swim against a rip. In fact, they should swim parallel to the shore until free of the rip, and then head back in.

Sunday’s conditions at Mawgan Porth would have seen plenty of rip currents. It is thought that the group of surfers, which included four teenagers, were caught out by a rip, with one of the men who died going to the aid of the others. Both Newquay’s lifeboats — the Atlantic 85 and D class inshore lifeboats — were launched after a series of 999 calls to the coastguard from members of the public, along with the Padstow all-weather lifeboat. Greg Spray, Lifeguard Manager for Newquay and Padstow, emphasises the need to be safe: “We strongly advise those visiting beaches to observe signage, check the conditions and ensure they are not beyond their capability. The best way to avoid a rip is to choose a lifeguarded beach, as lifeguards are trained to identify them and mark out a safe swim zone based on sea conditions.”

Spray’s advice cannot be over-stressed. I’ve seen any number of tourists get in trouble in the sea over the years, whether because they don’t understand the conditions or because they have an inflated sense of their own ability. These factors may, of course, be nothing to do with what happened on Sunday — it could be, as local surf school owner Peter Abell says, that the party were “really, really unlucky — they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time”.

The sea, though, can never be taken for granted. Once, at Sennen Cove, my local surfing beach, I watched as a man and woman in their mid-twenties strode nonchalantly to the water’s edge on a day when even a few local surfers were content to sit in the café and watch rather than paddle out. Back then I was happy taking on heavier conditions; with a friend I was soon out there catching some of the rides of my life. But soon we had to abandon surfing and chaperone the unfortunate couple back to safety. They had no idea of the sea’s force and weren’t fit enough to be out in surf that was around the 8ft mark.

A few years later it was my turn. Conditions weren’t particularly big but a decent swell was running. I took off on a left-breaking wave that should have peeled nicely, only for it to “close out” — shut down in one fell movement. Powerless in the maelstrom of white water, I was hit in the ribs by the rail of my own board. I knew instantly that two ribs were broken — the same two that I’d broken on previous occasions, whether boxing or playing rugby. My experience of the sea meant that I made it back to dry land, but once there I couldn’t stand up for the pain. The RNLI lifeguards and coastguard did a magnificent job, hauling me on a stretcher off the crowded beach and to an ambulance.

This incident caused me to re-evaluate my own comfort zone. I’m 48, and a lifetime of sports injuries mean I’m now a long way from robust. So now, despite still being fit and swimming for a mile or so in the sea up to three times a week, I only surf when there’s clean, lined up surf – reasonably mellow conditions that give as much predictability to a dynamic environment like the sea as possible.

Like Mackie, I wouldn’t have paddled out at Mawgan Porth on Sunday. It may offer, as Hannah Harding puts it, “lovely left-handers — fantastic waves on its day”, but sadly, that day wasn’t Sunday.