Staying safe on our beaches

Cornwall’s 300 miles of coastline are probably one of its most recognisable and adored features.  We are fortunate to be blessed with a wealth of stunning beaches - in fact ask any local and they will have their own favourite spots - that are regularly heralded as the best beaches in the UK and even further afield.

Every year thousands of visitors enjoy a wonderful time of sun, sand and sea pursuing a wide range of activities in our coastal paradise.  However, as always is the case when nature’s primal forces are at play, visiting any beach location involves a certain number of risks, and though Cornwall’s beaches are protected by a strong presence from local life-saving clubs and the RNLI, as well as a robust system of local health and safety measures, every year a small number of incidents unfortunately do occur – many of them sadly entirely avoidable.

It is therefore our aim with this article to help you navigate through your visit in an enjoyable and safe manner, if you are one of the two out of three people that visit Cornwall with the intention of spending some time in one or more of our magical beach locations.


Before you set off make sure that you have all that you may need for the trip.  Things to consider are:

  • Clothing for changing conditions. Coastal conditions can quickly change and often with little warning – so bringing warm and waterproof clothing can often salvage a trip.  It is also definitely advisable to carefully check the weather forecast in the areas you are going to be travelling in or to, as well as if relevant the tide timetable (see below).
  • Food and water.
  • A working and fully charged mobile phone.
  • It is also advisable to apply plenty of sunscreen and keep sensitive skin covered up. The sea breeze is often cooling and disguises the fact that the sun may be out and shining strongly.

The tidal range, the difference between the sea level at low and high tide, in St Ives can be as much as 7m and is under normal circumstances at least 5m.  This means that twice every 24 hours the sea level will rise and fall by at least 5m, more than the height of a London bus.

It is therefore very important that you park your car, bike or other method of transport in a designated parking area and follow any parking instructions especially regarding restrictions for use – and never park and leave your car or bike or leave your clothing, bath towel, bag or other belongings close to the sea level. It can quickly change and claim your belongings for Poseidon!

Rockpooling is a great activity on our beaches, where you can explore our rich wildlife that lives in or near the sea.  A handy guide and information for rockpooling can be found here:

The best time to rockpool is at low tide where most rock pools are exposed and the closer to the sea-line you can start the better.  This however makes you vulnerable to the changing tide, so it is a good idea to carefully study the tide timetables before setting off.  A detailed tide timetable for most of the larger beaches in Cornwall can be found on this website:

The tide can come in very fast indeed, especially if it is accompanied by a changing or growing wind.  It is therefore always important to consider which way you are going to be able to exit the beach you are on and make sure that it does not get cut off by the incoming tide.  It is also worth remembering that distances on a beach can appear shorter than they actually are, and terrain can be harder to get through than it looks from a distance – for instance if you find yourself walking in very soft, warm or soggy sand.

For a fascinating further reading about the types and nature of tides:

If you do find yourself cut off and marooned by a rising tide do not panic.  Go immediately to the highest ground you can find and contact the emergency services as quickly as you can dialling 999 or 112 – both of those numbers will put you thorough to the emergency services.  The emergency services will also automatically get details of your location, but it will still be helpful if you can provide as much information as possible that you can spot such as identifying features of the landscape, buildings, tall trees or anything else that will help a person with local knowledge to locate you.  It is also important that you identify how many people are in your group, what age, whether there are any mobility issues and even what colour clothing you are wearing, as that will help the responders find you and help you to safety in the most efficient way.  Also make sure you stay together as a group as it will be much easier to locate you if you stay in one place together.

If you do not have a phone or it does not work go to the highest ground possible and try to alert anyone within earshot.

It is unwise to ever try and climb rocky sea surfaces or cliffs as these can be unexpectedly slippery and contain sharp edges that can and do cause nasty injuries.

Most importantly there is no shame in asking for help, thousands of people get caught out every year by conditions and terrain they are unused to.  The sooner you realise that you need help the easier it will be to bring you to safety.

The sea off the beaches in Cornwall hides a multitude of different conditions that make it such a popular destination for anyone from fearless thrill-seekers to cautious toe-dippers.  However, the enormous and unpredictable forces, of ebbs and flows and swells and gigantic crashing waves that can be the cause some of the most serious and preventable accidents that befall visitors.

Most important thing is to heed the local safety advice that is provided.  All monitored beaches have standard beach-entry information boards that will highlight local hazards and conditions to watch out for as well as inform of the timings and nature of lifeguard cover.  If you are intending to enter the water for any activity it is strongly advisable to choose a beach that has a lifeguard on duty and enter the water only between the red and yellow flags which is the area the lifeguards will be monitoring.  To find your nearest beach with a lifeguard you can follow this link:

Should you find yourself in difficulty and in need of lifeguard assistance roll onto your back and try and float in the water and raise your arm in the air to indicate that you need help.  It is also strongly advisable to never enter the water alone or without a ‘spotter’ or the beach, somebody that watches you and can summon assistance if needed either by notifying a lifeguard or by carrying a working and charged mobile phone and calling 999/112.

Flags are used on all monitored beaches to provide information about the conditions for entering the water.  There are two types of flags in use on UK beaches; the zone flags and the condition flags.

The zone flags:

The red and yellow flag signifies that there is a lifeguard on duty and that this is a zone that is suitable for swimming and body boarding.  The flags will indicate the boundaries between which the lifeguard will be monitoring, so it is best to keep within the flag boundaries.

The black and white flag signifies an area where surf boards and other water craft can and should be used and it is therefore unsafe and unwise to enter the water in such an area for swimming or bodyboarding.  Again the flags signify the boundaries so surf boards or other water craft should not be used outside of these, though it is not advisable to rely on all beach users to comply with this.

The condition flags:

Solid red flag signifies dangerous and unsafe water conditions.  Do not enter the water and take care not to be swept into it by straying too close to breaking waves or an area where waves may break.

The orange windsock signifies that conditions are not safe for the use of inflatables.  This could be due to off-shore winds and/or unsafe water conditions.

Rip currents

If a beach has not got an entry information board or flags clearly visible it is unlikely to have been assessed or be monitored and it is best to assume that it is hazardous and it is not safe to enter the water.  Many of the hazards that can cause serious accidents may not be immediately visible.

One of the most treacherous and unpredictable hazards to be found on beaches are rip currents.  Rip currents occur when a combination of factors cause water to flow fast from shallow water near the beach to deeper water further out to sea.  They can be very difficult or impossible to spot and can and have caught out even the most experienced beach-goers.

The best way to avoid rip currents is to swim between the red and yellow flags on lifeguarded beaches that are monitored and assessed to ensure that conditions are safe for entering the water.  If however you find yourself in a rip current there are certain things you can do that will dramatically improve your chances:

  1. Do not fight the rip current by swimming against it. Most rip currents will flow at a rate faster than even Olympic swimmers can swim – therefore fighting it will only zap you of important energy.  Try and stay afloat and if possible find ground.  Sometimes you will flow over sand banks that may allow you to stand up and stop the current from carrying you further out.
  2. Swim sideways onto the current along the beach not towards it. Rip currents are funnels of water and if you can break through the side of it you may be able to escape its pull and even start to move back towards shore.
  3. Make your spotter and any onlookers or people nearby aware that you are in difficulties and require assistance. The most effective way of doing this is to roll onto your back, try and float and put your arm in the air.

For further information about rip currents you can watch this very informative video from the RNLI:

If you find yourself unexpectedly in cold water, either because you have been swept in or been carried to colder water or maybe you have been windsurfing, paddle boarding or kayaking and fallen in, you may experience cold water shock.  The body reacts when suddenly emerged in cold water by dramatically increasing the rate of breathing and often a feeling of panic can set in.  It is important to try not to fight this but instead take a minute to try and calm down and control the breathing, preferably trying to float on your back, and summon help before you think about trying to swim to safety.

It is also important never to enter the water to try and help somebody in difficulty unless you are trained to do so and know the local conditions very well.  You will almost always be of much more help summoning assistance from emergency services and assisting them when they respond, and maybe trying to locate local life-saving equipment.  Many of the complex and serious accidents that have happened here have involved people that entered the water in order to help others, only to get into difficulty themselves.

Finally, a little bit about some of the many exciting species that we make their habitats in or along the coastline that can sometimes cause problems in the wrong circumstances.

Weever fish are small fish, up to 14 centimetres long, that often reside in shallow warmer water where they hide just under the surface of the sand waiting to pounce on smaller fish or creatures passing by.  It is nearly impossible to spot a weever fish but if you are unfortunate enough to step on one you will almost certainly know about it! It is highly likely to sting you with a thorny poisonous spine that it uses for protection against predators.  Whilst the poison is not dangerous to most humans it is extremely painful and the pain can last 24 hours.  The only way to prevent being stung by a weever fish is to wear beach shoes or wetsuit boots when walking in shallow water.

If you are unfortunate enough to get stung the best treatment is to submerge the affected area in hot water as quickly as possible for 60-90 minutes.  The water should be as warm as can reasonably be tolerated, but be careful not to scald yourself!  The hot water will help break down the poison and stimulate blood flow to the affected area accelerating natural healing.  If problems persist or intensify, or a young or old person or one with underlying health problems has been stung, you should seek medical help.

Eight types of jellyfish can be found in UK waters, most of the jellyfish cause only mild stings but some are more severe and even in rare cases dangerous depending on the species that causes the sting.

A useful guide to the jellyfish found off the UK shores can be found here:

Mild jellyfish stings should be treated by rinsing the affected area with vinegar.  If you have tweezers available you can try to carefully pluck the stingers out of the skin, however do not try and scrape them out as this is likely to acerbate the symptoms.  Then if possible immerse the affected area in hot but not scalding water for 20-45 minutes.

Severe jellyfish stings are extremely rare but if you experience stomach pain, nausea or vomiting, headache, muscle cramp or spasms, weakness, drowsiness, fainting or confusion, difficulty breathing or heart problems following a jellyfish sting you should seek medical attention immediately.

Over 70 species of sea anemones live along the UK shores.  Most of them attach themselves to hard surfaces but some will burrow in sand or gravel.  Anemones are known as the nettles of the sea and like their namesakes on land all of them use stinging cells to protect themselves.  Anemones can be extremely beautiful but are best observed and not touched as they will sting, even when dead and washed ashore.  Anemone stings are not normally harmful to humans but can still be quite uncomfortable to experience.

If you have been stung by an anemone the treatment is to rinse the area with vinegar, and if possible carefully pull any visible spines out taking care not to break them in the process.  The area can then be carefully rinsed with warm water and soap and left to heal uncovered, which may draw out further spines which can then be removed.  Antiseptic cream can be applied to prevent infection and if tetanus vaccination is not up to date it should be done.

This has been an overview of some of the most common causes of accidents along our shoreline and how to best avoid them.  The vast majority of our visitors enjoy a wonderful time here and don’t ever experience any of those things, and we hope that by reading this you are now more likely to also enjoy a wonderful visit free of any adverse experiences if you choose to visit one or more of our beautiful beaches.

Should you wish to read more about beach safety the following links offer further reading:


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