How to make Fistral a safer surfspot, all year round
Every summer, RNLI lifeguards patrol more than 240 beaches across the UK and Channel Islands, keeping thousands of beachgoers safe. But how can we keep people safe during the winter months?
A scheme being trialled on some of Cornwall’s busiest beaches could be the answer.
The RNLI Community Lifesaving Equipment Pilot Scheme gives qualified lifeguards access to the equipment they need to save lives, even when they’re not on duty.
The scheme also gives local people the chance to be trained in first aid and casualty care so that they too can access the equipment, putting lifesaving at the heart of the community.
One person who is backing the scheme is surfer Dan Provost from Looe, who got into trouble on the beach in December last year.
It’s the day before New Year’s Eve. The weather in north Cornwall is glorious and Newquay’s Fistral Beach is teeming with people making the most of the winter sunshine.
As one of the best surfing beaches in Europe, Fistral attracts surfers from all over, all year round. And on this day, Dan is enjoying the water with his son Finley, his friend Christian, and Christian’s son Leo.
‘It was really good surf,’ Dan recalls. ‘It was about 3ft and really clean on that Friday. Good fun waves.
‘We’d been in the water for just over an hour. I was catching good waves. I caught a wave in and started paddling back out again. I saw this wave coming towards us and thought: “I’ll grab that.”
I thought I'd been hit by a Jet Ski. It was a hell of a wallop.
‘I quickly turned and paddled to the wave and as the wave lifted me up on the board, I tried to get to my feet but went over the front of the board instead. As I surfaced, the wave caught the board and smashed it into my face - right in the eye.
‘At first I didn’t know what had happened. I thought I’d been hit by something like a Jet Ski. It was a hell of a wallop.
‘I couldn’t see out of my right eye. I was where the white water was breaking and I felt like I was going to pass out, but I managed to hold it together.
‘Seeing the waves coming, I grabbed my board and started to come in. I thought I’d lost my eye to be honest.’
When they realised what had happened, Christian, Finley and Leo helped Dan out of the water and made their way up the beach to the lifeguard unit.
Also on the beach that day was RNLI Lifeguard Supervisor Lewis Timson. It was out of season and Lewis was off duty, but he had been surfing with his dad, a former lifeguard volunteer.
‘It was really nice and sunny, like a summer’s day. It was packed down there. Everybody was obviously off for the Christmas break,’ Lewis recalls.
‘I was near the lifeguard unit and a group of people came out the water and started walking up toward the unit. They obviously didn’t know if the unit was open or not. There were no lifeguards on the beach, but trying the unit was their first reaction.
‘I could see that one gentleman in the group, Dan, was distressed and there was loads of blood on his face.
‘Thanks to the Community Lifesaving Equipment Pilot Scheme, I was able to open up the lifeguard unit and treat Dan straight away.‘Because he had a head injury, we have to offer spinal immobilisation in case of any neck injuries, but Dan just wanted to be cleaned up. So I put him in the shower, got him warm, cleaned him up, got him dressed and then treated his wound.’
‘It was a relief that Lewis was there’
‘Just having that reassurance that I was lucky and that the board had just missed my eye was good to hear,’ says Dan. ‘It was a relief that Lewis was there.
Anything can happen in the water. You just don't know.
‘He washed out my eye to remove all the sand and grit, washed the blood off my face, then bandaged my eye and head. He said that I needed to go to the minor injury unit because there were bits of fibreglass in my eye from my surfboard. He offered to call for an ambulance but my friend Christian drove us there instead.’
At Newquay’s Minor Injuries Unit, a nurse pulled a big chunk of fibreglass from Dan’s eye before referring him to an eye specialist at Treliske Hospital for further treatment.
‘We were down there for about 4 hours. They numbed all round my eye and checked my eye socket to make sure I hadn’t broken anything, which luckily I hadn’t. Once it was all numb the doctor just starting pulling little bits of fibreglass from my eye. They washed it out and I had stitches.’
Dan’s plans for New Year’s Eve were ruined. But 2 weeks later, his eye had fully healed and he was back surfing again.
‘I was very lucky and I’m very grateful for everything that Lewis did for me.
‘You don’t realise that somewhere as popular as Fistral, with such a big surfing name, doesn’t have lifeguards on the beach year round. It was a bit of a shock to me.
‘But if there are people that regularly surf or work there who are qualified or trained to help others and have access to the lifeguard unit, then that’s brilliant.’
‘I always recommend going surfing with friends’
Speaking about his passion for surfing, Dan says: ‘Being in sales, my job can be quite stressful with targets to meet so surfing is a way for me to forget about all of that. I’d go in any conditions to be honest - I just enjoy being in the water.’
His advice for giving surfing a go: ‘I always recommend going with friends. What happened to me could’ve been worse - I could’ve been knocked out. So having people with you is so important.
‘Make sure you know the water and what’s going on around you. Understand what rips are. Make sure you know all this before you even head into the water. It’s important because anything can happen in there. You just don’t know.
‘Now when I go in the water I always think to myself: “Could it happen again?” It was very unlucky what happened to me, but it makes you think.’
About the pilot scheme
The RNLI Community Lifesaving Equipment Pilot Scheme was developed by RNLI lifeguards and the RNLI Community Safety Team as a way of providing out-of-hours lifesaving cover on beaches.
‘Beaches can feel quite remote during the winter when there is no lifeguarding service, but there can still be a lot of people in the water, especially with wetsuit technology,’ Lewis explains.
‘The scheme is really for the wintertime, but also the evenings during the summer when no lifeguards are on duty.’
So how does it work?
‘All RNLI lifeguards who sign off duty at the end of the summer season are kept on as volunteers because they’re all qualified and know how to use the lifesaving equipment that’s available.
‘Many of the lifeguards are around in the wintertime surfing anyway, or work on or close to the beach. They have a code to access a key that’s in a key safe on the external wall of the lifeguard unit.
‘At Fistral we have an amazing facility, probably one of the best in the country. So that day I had access to a warm building with a phone, a hot shower and all the equipment that’s available to lifeguards when we’re on duty. Things like a full emergency responder bag, wetsuits, rescue boards, rescue tubes ... everything that we would normally have, I had available to me.’
How can the local community get involved?
‘We have community lifesaving responders - people who aren’t qualified lifeguards but join as volunteers,' Lewis explains. These are people who are around the beach for much of the day during the winter, perhaps working in the surf schools or cafés or who have lifeguard qualifications.
Only qualified lifeguards should get involved in rescuing people from the water
‘We give them the same casualty care training that RNLI lifeguards receive. We then have extra pairs of eyes and trained people around. So if something happens, they can access the emergency kit as well because they’ve had all the correct training.
‘The RNLI Casualty Care course is excellent and gives anyone who completes it all the skills they need to provide emergency care for all casualties until paramedics arrive or the casualties can be taken to hospital. Without this training, the pilot scheme would not exist.
‘So the scheme gives the community ownership of keeping people safe as well. We actually get extra casualty care courses in this area now specifically for people from the community. It’s definitely an expanding project.
‘It’s important to note that community lifesaving responders do not get involved in rescuing people from the water - only qualified lifeguards should do this. If they see anyone in trouble in the water, they know to call 999 and ask for the Coastguard.’
Where is the scheme being piloted?
‘The scheme started at Fistral Beach 3 years ago and is now running on 13 beaches around Newquay and up to Padstow,' Lewis continues.
‘So far the rescue equipment has been mainly used by qualified lifeguards for water-based rescues out of hours.
‘We’re still ironing out procedures but it’s definitely a worthwhile project.’
Area Lifesaving Manager Dickon Berriman adds: ‘There is no doubt that the concept works and will be picked up wherever it is relevant around the coast.
‘With the popularity of surfing and the improvement and availability of equipment we are seeing a blurring of the seasons year on year.
‘We acknowledge that there are many unreported rescues and interventions carried out by surfers and other water users throughout the year. This often goes unnoticed but can also lead to further problems if those who go to help also get into trouble. This scheme is a step toward equipping rescuers with the right skills and equipment to help keep them safe while helping others.’
'Never attempt to rescue someone yourself'
Lewis reiterates that only qualified lifeguards should attempt to rescue anyone in trouble in the water.
Too many people drown trying to save others
‘Never attempt to rescue someone yourself. Dial 999 or 112 and ask for the coastguard and give them as much detail as you can. Things like location, the activity the person in trouble is doing, for example swimming, bodyboarding or surfing.
‘The more detail you can give the coastguard, the better they can assess the situation and get the right emergency services on the way as quickly as possible, whether that’s a lifeboat, more than one lifeboat or the rescue helicopter.
‘If you have something that floats or they can hold on to, throw it to them. Help them stay calm and encourage them to float. But don’t enter the water yourself. Too many people drown trying to save others.’
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For more advice on staying safe while enjoying the coast, see our water safety pages.