“Tombstoning”, the practice of jumping from a height into water, is an enjoyable recreational activity. However, it is associated with a steady stream of rescues, injuries and deaths. If the risks are mitigated, jumping into water is a relatively low-risk activity.
Many of the injuries and fatalities are caused by hitting rock instead of water. This can be due to the water being too shallow, or it can be due to a mis-judged jump. To minimise this risk:
- Inspect the landing zone from the water to check its depth. I check for a water depth of at least half the jump height plus my own height. So, for a jump from six metres I would check for a depth of 4.8 metres (6.0 x 0.5 + 1.8). The height you need will vary depending on your body shape and jumping style
- Check how far out you must jump to clear the slope of the land. I probably wouldn’t jump if the slope of the cliff requires me to jump out more than a metre. It’s quite easy to clear a greater distance under normal conditions, but you don’t want to hit rock if you slip or stumble during the launch
- Check for underwater obstacles such as ledges or rock outcrops
Rock is not the only thing that you could hit:
- Check for floating debris. A piece of wood could cause a major injury on impact. I wouldn’t even want to hit a jellyfish
- Check for underwater debris. If your jump takes your legs into weeds or into a pile of fallen branches, your legs may get tangled and you may not be able to surface
After you splash into the water, you need to get out again. In many places, the water is very cold. Water that is not moving (such as water in abandoned quarries) can be much colder than seawater or river water.
- Acclimatise yourself by swimming in the water for a while before jumping. If you’re shivering after a 10 minute swim, it’s probably too cold to jump
- Check that you can get out of the water. If you have inspected the landing area from the water, you have already tested this, but it’s surprising how many jumpers get caught out by this one and end up climbing awkward or unstable rock faces to get out
- If there is a current, it could make it hard to get to the exit point. An ocean swell can dash you against sharp rocks and shells, and I would never jump into a swell
Make sure you get a clean launch. Check that there is good footing around the edge of the jumping place, and enough space for any run-up that is needed. I always jump feet-first, with my knees slightly bent to help absorb the force of hitting the water. I hold my nose, but most people advise against this because unless you keep your arms tightly by your side the impact might lift your arms upwards and break your nose! I also close my eyes tightly for impact, because it’s really unpleasant when water gets forced under my eyelid. I don’t have contact lenses or false teeth, but I would think both of those are a no-no for jumping.
Consider wearing a wetsuit. In addition to keeping out the cold, it will reduce the incidence of bruising injuries from impact with the water. Wetsuit booties on your feet are also a good idea. In wilderness situations, I often jump wearing my lightweight sandshoes.
Bear in mind that ocean tides will change the water depth. Most sites are safest at high tide when the depths are greatest, but a few deep-water sites are best at low tide if their more straightforward jumps become high enough to be usable.
Consider also the psychology of the jump. Is peer pressure being exerted? If so, don’t be dared into doing something riskier than you would otherwise do. Are you jumping to impress your peers? Don’t jump outside your comfort zone unless it’s worth the extra risk that you are taking on. Although you may be cautious and thorough, bear in mind that less fastidious onlookers might be tempted to casually copy what you do.
Some people jump from insane heights. I think five to ten metres is enough. Above that you may earn cred points, but the risk from injury due to entering the water at a bad angle increases disproportionately. In any case, work your way up to your highest jump gradually. This gives you a chance to improve your technique before attempting the higher jumps.
Alcohol is out of the question. If you have been drinking, don’t jump. If others in your party have been drinking, they might do something stupid like pushing you to make you jump.
As soon as you surface, swim away from the landing zone. If a following jumper lands on top of you, it could cause paralysis or death.
Every location and situation is different, and there may be more things that you need to consider. In that sense, safe jumping is more about attitude and caution than about a fixed set of rules.
Finally, enjoy your jump and those few seconds when you are weightless, flying through the air. It’s great fun!
PS: Some find that a shout of “yee-hah” on the way down can enhance the joy and release some stress, but it may not be socially acceptable in the south of England.
See also tombstoning.com.
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