Beware the Dangers of Tombstoning

7 May 2024 By Kate Lardy
Credit: Getty Images

Kate got her start in the yachting industry working as crew. She spent five years cruising the Bahamas, Caribbean, New England, and Central America, then segued that experience into a career in marine journalism, including stints as editor of Dockwalk and ShowBoats International.

It's tempting to celebrate the end of the charter season by jumping off the bridge deck – but have you ever thought about what could go wrong? Kate Lardy investigates the dangers of "tombstoning" following the fatality of a crew member.

It was the end of a multi-week guest trip, and the crew were in dire need of some downtime. To reward them, the captain arranged a day of leisure and watersports at anchor. After launching a safety boat, some crew entered the water at the swim platform, while two convened on the bridge deck wing for a more thrilling way to get wet — with a 17-meter drop into the sea.

The first crewmember jumped and resurfaced with no issue. The second turned around and attempted a backflip in the air, landing, as the crew later described, “badly.” When they resurfaced, they were unresponsive.

The safety boat’s crew leapt into action, recovering the crewmember to the mothership, where the medical team, led by a qualified nurse, administered first aid and CPR, which they continued to do as they transferred the unresponsive crewmember to shore to awaiting paramedics. Unfortunately, they never regained consciousness and were declared deceased on arrival at the hospital.

Sadly, this is a real-life worst-case scenario, recounted on a safety flyer from the Maritime Authority of the Cayman Islands (MACI) warning of the dangers of “tombstoning” from yachts. The uniquely British term describes jumping into the sea from a cliff, falling like a tombstone feet first. It’s a practice that’s grown immensely in popularity in recent years through clips posted to social media.

In the yachting world, large vessels replace cliffs. Instagram is full of Reels of crew jumping from top decks and running off the back of yachts underway at high speed, each with thousands of likes, asking users to “tag someone who would do this.” Even reputable yachting companies are posting these.

George Self of Riela Yachts, a superyacht services company headquartered in Isle of Man, wonders where the senior crew are in these videos. “Someone has to be driving the yacht,” she says.

“At what point do the senior crew step in and say, ‘No, you can’t do this,’” Self asks. As the safety and compliance manager at Riela, she is naturally passionate about safety. In the aftermath of this crew fatality, following MACI’s safety flyer, she was inspired to publish an article on, taking the stance that it is the industry’s responsibility to not condone and promote such trends. In the article, she points out that peer pressure can be a strong factor in the yachting environment, where saying yes is the expectation and where no one wants to be considered the spoilsport. “It is the responsibility of the captain to empower their crew to say no when appropriate and not become pressured into allowing unsafe practices to occur,” she writes.

As an ex-crewmember herself who recalls jumping from height some years back, Self has an interesting perspective. “Back in the day it was never recorded. It was not out there for everyone to latch on to. And I wasn’t really aware of the dangers then. There’s more ability now to inform and educate,” she says.

The industry also has moved on and is far more professional now, she says. “Yacht crew want to be recognized as professional seafarers. In order to do that, you need to be a professional seafarer, which includes recognizing and understanding safety and dangers and also standing up for fellow crew. If somebody’s going to do something that you recognize is dangerous, it should be pointed out, and crew should be trying to stop that happening instead of encouraging it.”

And the dangers of high dives are real. “Your average person off of the street” can get away with feet-first jumps from up to around 10 meters with minimal instruction, says Steven LoBue, a world champion cliff diver and the high diving program coordinator at the Fort Lauderdale Aquatic Complex, whose dive platforms of up to 27 meters are the highest in the western hemisphere.

“Feet first” is the key. “There is a clear distinction between jumping off of something and landing feet first, and attempting something that you have no business trying to do. Even diving (head first) from 10 meters without experience, you’re very much at risk for a concussion,” LoBue says. From that height, you are hitting the water at around 50km/h,  he says. Entering at the wrong angle is like “a mini car accident.”

The speed on entry only multiplies as you go higher. “Past ten meters, we’re definitely going to start looking at injuries whether you’re jumping or diving,” says LoBue, who explains that a bad landing will stop a person in under a meter. The force of going from more than 50km/h to zero in less than a meter will hurt.

“We’ve seen broken tailbones and people totally knocked out, that had we not had a safety in the water, they would have just stayed underwater,” he says.

All of this brings up the liability issue, which is something the confidential incident reporting program CHIRP Maritime addressed in its LinkedIn post about the uptick in crew-jumping social media posts: “While CHIRP in no way wishes to stop people having fun or enjoying themselves, the captain/senior person present may find themselves personally liable if things go awry because they failed to control reasonably foreseeable risks, and furthermore, activities that incorporate unnecessary risks are likely to fall outside of any personal or corporate insurance policies.”

Pragmatically, LoBue notes that we’re not going to stop people from jumping. His advice is to consider all safety checks. “How deep is the water? Where is the closest hospital if something goes wrong? What’s your exit plan if somebody is injured in the water and you have to get them out? Have people in the water ready to go. These are all things that you really have to stop and think about. While yes, this is fun, and almost anyone that’s brave enough can do it, you still need to go through the proper steps.”

Self believes that having fun doesn’t have to come at the expense of safety. “The challenge lies in finding the equilibrium between adventure and safety,” she writes in her article. “But we shouldn’t have to choose. It is possible to offer thrilling experiences without compromising on safety.”


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