On the return flight from a sunshine holiday in Tenerife I was inspired to explore the quandary facing UK authorities over the increasingly popular practice of tombstoning. A picture on the lavatory wall of the Jet2 aircraft captured the sheer joy of jumping into clear blue water on a hot sunny day.
All over Tenerife, from the harbour walls in Garachico and Los Cristianos, from every rock and specially constructed key side, adults, children and teenagers share the joy of jumping into the water, a joy we here in England seem to confuse with the potentially hazardous sport of 'tombstoning'. Without harm or injury thousands daily take the plunge and no one seems to think anything of it. Yet in the British press a number of tombstoning stories have been making the news, some expressing genuine concerns and others, little more than health and safety killjoys. From the outset let's make a distinction between jumping into water and tombstoning.
Tombstoning or Jumping?
Jumping into water can be exhilarating and addictive but tombstoning describes the "…practice of jumping from great heights into the sea or similar body of water from a cliff or other high point such that the jumper enters the water vertically straight, like a tombstone." The higher the jumping point the greater the waters depth needs to be. The RNLI advise: "As a rule of thumb, a jump of ten meters requires a depth of at least five meters". ROSPA's advice makes sense: "Don't jump into the unknown. Consider the dangers before you take the plunge." Of course jumping from low walls or rocks into deep water presents a fun alternative with low risk and should not be confused with real tombstoning. The energetic among us repeatedly jump in at swimming pools and lidos but you can't class jumping in from the side of a pool as tombstoning. However officials seem to disagree and state that there is no safe time or height from which to jump.
A Comparison with Attitudes in Spain
In Spain the communal tiled hotel and apartment pathways are meticulously tended as the Spanish take great pride in their surroundings, always sweeping and mopping, watering plants trimming trees and taking great satisfaction in their work. Now, a recently moped tiled surface is very slippery and a hazard worth at least three pages of risk assessment paperwork here in the UK, but there was no need for a caution sign in Spain. It would seem that both adults and children have memories long enough to remind them that wet floors are slippery without the need for 'Captain Obvious'.
When it comes to swimming, Spanish parents hold hands with their youngsters and keep a close eye on them and on other children at all times as they play. When splashing in the sea, mum dad and big brother are there to offer a helping hand and so the need for lifeguards is minimal. Children seem valued and loved by all and yet when it comes to water they enjoy much more freedom than most British youngsters. With a relative at their side a six or seven year old will swim way out of his or her depth, having been taught how to swim by the family. Babies swim in rubber rings, toddlers in water wings, two at first, then just one until, whilst still tiny, they swim confidently within an arm's reach of safety.
Not all resorts in Tenerife have big enough beaches to cope with demand and so many have created swimming and sunbathing facilities on rocky outcrops and quaysides. When the weather is hot, young boys and girls inevitably gather to jump into the cooling waters, and they develop all kinds of flight techniques with arms and legs posed as they show off to their family and friends (see video by the sea). The lifeguards do not try to stop them; it's a natural thing to be doing at the seaside. Why then do officials get so hot under the collar when children start jumping into water in the UK?
Should Jumpers be Reported to the Police?
I have read several news stories recently which have encouraged members of the public to report any instance of jumping to the police in order to protect youngsters from danger, yet the pictures accompanying these articles sometimes show children jumping from heights of less than three feet. No one wants swimmers to get hurt but surely children can jump from walls onto grass from that height without serious injury, let alone into deep water? Of course increased height raises the risk as highlighted in the RNLI statement on tombstoning, but surely all jumping can't be bad.
I caught part of a documentary series about the duties of coastguards on TV. In this particular program a group of trainees were taking a written test in order to qualify as team members when an emergency call came in advising that youngsters had been seen tombstoning from a cliff. The test was abandoned and an emergency vehicle scrambled in urgent response. The zealous coastguards warned the teenagers of the risks; changing tides and hidden rocks, yet there were no concessions made as the youngsters explained that they had brought goggles with them and they had examined the landing area and checked the waters depth before they had even started jumping. A lookout had been keeping an eye so that no one collided with a friend in the water yet despite the minimal risk and the great fun enjoyed by all, the coastguard insisted that they desist just in case they were called out again wasting the coastguard's time and resources.
There is a difference between tombstoning and the innocent pastime where children and teenagers enjoy jumping into water having checked its depth and assessed the risks.
Health and Safety in America
The health and safety culture here in the UK has brought many benefits, but surely we want to reward those who take calculated risks rather than condemn them. The Economist of August 11, 2012 ran an article: 'Camps for scamps' explaining that the American summer camp tradition is spreading. By one estimate as many as 250,000 British children attend summer camps each year, yet it reported that "lighter regulations make American camps more fun: safety rules bar British brats from enjoying risky games that delight their American peers." The September 1, issue carried a letter from Marc Sylvain of Canada who said: "... I was shocked to read that Britain's elf'n safety killjoys have bested American attorneys by making British camps less risky." So we cannot blame the American litigation culture for what has been done in the UK. It can be fun for small children to ride a bike with stabilizers on the back lawn, but as experience is gained the freedom of the open road beckons. As a child progresses from four to two wheels the family celebrates his achievement taking him on longer bike rides in the street. It might be safer to keep the child enclosed in the back garden but cycling proficiency can be taught and risks dramatically minimised. Self reliance and learning to taking responsibility for ourselves and others was once part of the fabric of British culture. If things carry on the way they are, independent water sports could soon be a thing of the past.
Celebrate British Life and Culture
There is much to celebrate about British life. The opening ceremony of the Olympic Games typified the very best of British in a way that will long be remembered with pride, and I for one would not wish to live anywhere other than here in the UK. But if the Spanish manage to love, cherish and protect their youngsters, if they safely help them to enjoy life and open water whilst keeping them from harm, perhaps we could take an open minded second look at our restrictive attitudes here in the UK, rely a little less on procedure practice and method and focus more on family, responsibility and community. The culture of blaming others for what amounts to our own mistakes is self defeating. Yet in expressing my observations it is not my aim to minimise the well meaning efforts of the risk adverse, litigation weary authorities who want to keep us safe, but rather to raise the question: Is there a better way?