These tips may seem obvious, but with between 5 and 20 deaths in Cornish waters each year, it’s worth repeating time and time again.
When you live and grow up in Cornwall, we’re taught about beach safety and the ocean from a young age, with lifeguards coming into our Primary schools every year to drive home the message of respecting the sea.
But many people who haven’t grown up here and who aren’t used to spending a lot of time by the sea may not know what to do in certain situations, so I feel it’s always worth a refresher! There are hundreds of incidents at our beaches each year (that’s why we need our fantastic lifeguards and RNLI!), including some tragic deaths, many of which could have been avoided.
Swim between the red & yellow flags (and do not swim if there’s a red flag)
Swimmers and bodyboarders should only go between the two red & yellow flags, which marks the lifeguarded area and the one which has been deemed safest to swim.
A black and white flag indicates a surfing area (stand up paddle boards, kayaks etc. are also allowed here), and swimmers and bodyboarders should stay out of this section for safety. Meanwhile if you see a plain red flag, it means there’s danger and you should stay out of the water.
These flags are used for your own safety, and remember that if you do get into trouble in the water by swimming where you shouldn’t be, you’re also putting a lifeguard at risk when they come to help you!
If you’re out in the sun all day with no shade, heatstroke can be a serious risk – yes, even in Cornwall! It can creep up on you so you may not notice it at first, which means it’s even more important to continually drink and keep yourself cool throughout the day, even if you don’t think you’ve got an issue.
If you start to get a headache, or begin to feel sick or notice a difference in your heart rate, breathing or mental state, get to shade straight away to cool yourself down and drink lots of cold water. If it gets worse while you’re at the beach, head to a lifeguard station as they may be able to tell you if you need to see a doctor.
Not only does sun exposure cause skin damage, hyperpigmentation and premature aging to your skin (who wants that?), almost all skin cancers are caused by radiation from the sun. Did you know that getting sunburnt just once every two years can triple your risk of melanoma skin cancer??
It’s a shocking statistic, and one you can easily avoid by applying sunscreen throughout the day. If you’re worried about greasy cream on your face if you have sensitive skin, use a sunscreen that’s specifically developed for your face, like this one from Eucerin*.
Understand rip currents
A rip current is a strong current in the water that starts from the shore and can drag you out to see. If you’re in the water and you can feel it pulling you strongly to the left or right as you wade in, or you notice that when you’re swimming/bodyboarding/surfing, you keep finding yourself moving down to the other end of the beach, this is usually the effect of a rip current pulling you around to the area where it’s about to pull you out to see – like a funnel.
This video explains how to spot a rip current, but the main thing you need to know if you feel yourself being dragged down the beach is that the best thing to do is to get out of the water and walk back, rather than fight against it.
If you do get caught fully and find yourself being pulled out to sea, don’t fight against it. Instead, escape by swimming parallel to the shore until you can no longer feel the current, and/or signal for help by raising your hand and calling for help. By fighting against the water or panicking, you will use up your energy and the most important thing is to focus on staying afloat and signalling for help.
If you always make sure to stick within the red & yellow flag areas for swimming and bodyboarding, you shouldn’t run into an issue with rip currents.
If you get stung by a weaver fish, head straight to the lifeguard hut
I got stung by a weaver fish for the first time last week! It’s funny because I had literally just been talking about how I didn’t know anyone who’d been stung just two days before with Becca (@Beccaincornwall) who told me she’d been stung twice at Gwithian and told me exactly what it felt like and reminded me that the best thing to do would be to go straight to the lifeguard hut.
Two days later (surfing at Gwithian, funnily enough) I felt a sharp sting/scratch on the bottom of my toe, and thanks to Becca’s description of what it would be like, I knew instantly it was a weaver fish and walked quickly up to the lifeguard hut. It had felt like a bee/wasp sting or an injection, but quickly after the initial sting I could feel a strong throbbing pain in my toe that was creeping into my foot and getting steadily more painful.
By getting to the lifeguard hut quickly, they could boil some water and quickly put my foot in a hot water bowl to soak. This breaks down the poison enzymes from the sting, and the pain subsided after about 30 – 40 minutes. My foot still felt a little bruised for a few days afterwards, but it was all sorted very efficiently!
A weaver sting won’t kill you if left untreated, but it will get very painful and could make you quite sick (it is poison after all!). You also won’t know until you’ve been stung whether you will have an allergic reaction to the sting, which could be very serious! So best to act quickly.
Of course, if you want to avoid it altogether, it’s a good idea to wear wetsuit shoes or boots when you’re in the water. (I have some, but had stopped wearing them for the week as I was getting too hot in the water! Oops!).
Be aware of tides and don’t get cut off
One of the biggest issues people get into on Cornish beaches is getting cut off by the tides. There are certain beaches where, at low tide, you can access caves, coves and extra areas of the beach that get covered or submerged by the sea when the tide comes back in.
If you plan on exploring areas of the beach at low tide, make sure you know what the sea is doing – is the tide going in or out? Do you know what time high tide is and have you checked where the tide line of the beach each (ie. the tide’s highest point – usually marked on the sand or rocks by the last point of seaweed and debris)?
Make sure that if you’re going for a walk along the beach to nearby coves etc. that you have checked these things, so you know you’ll be able to get back safely without being cut off. I use the Magic Seaweed app for all my tide and surf information.
If you get into trouble in the water, stay calm and raise one arm while calling fo help
If you start to feel panicky or that you’re in trouble in the water, take some deep breaths and lie back to float in the water. This will help to calm you down and keep you steady. Next, raise your arm and call for help. Waving your arm can sometimes be mistaken for waving to a friend, so keeping it still and raised high can be more obvious that you need assistance.
Have you ever been stung or got into trouble at the beach or in the sea?
* Suncream was gifted, all thoughts are my own