The deaths of seven men who drowned at a beach last summer might still have happened even if there were lifeguards, a coroner has concluded.
Two men died at Camber Sands, East Sussex in July, followed by five young friends a month later in August.
Following a five-day inquest in Hastings, coroner Alan Craze ruled their deaths were through misadventure.
Afterwards, the families of the five men said they believed lifeguards could have saved their lives.
They said all five were competent swimmers but had been “blamed for their own deaths”.
The RNLI had precommended employing lifeguards previously.
Recording his conclusions, Mr Craze said: “The RNLI had recommended, amongst other measures, deploying lifeguards at the beach in 2013 but this had not happened.
“Of course, it is not known whether such a step would have prevented the deaths, but it has now been implemented.”
Mr Craze said he would be sending off a prevention of future deaths letter with official figures highlighting his concerns, including those over the control of risk assessments.
The inquest had heard that there was no legal requirement for Rother District Council to follow through with recommendations contained in risk assessments by the RNLI.
Consultant forensic pathologist Dr Brett Lockyer recorded a cause of death of immersion [drowning] for all five victims who died last August.
Rother District Council offered its condolences to the families and said it did not “want anyone else to have to suffer the tragedy of losing a loved one in these circumstances”.
It said it had made improvements “year on year” at Camber in response to the risks identified.
Kenugen Saththiyanathan, 18, known as Ken, died alongside his brother Kobikanthan Saththiyanathan, 22, known as Kobi, both from Erith, south-east London.
Their three friends who also died were Nitharsan Ravi, 22, from Plumstead, Inthushan Sriskantharasa, 23, from Grays, Essex and Gurushanth Srithavarajah, 27, from Welling.
Two other people had also died there a month earlier.
On 24 July, Mohit Dupar, 36, from Hayes, west London, attempted to reach Brazilian Gustavo Silva Da Cruz, 19, after he got into difficulty.
Mr Silva Da Cruz died at the scene. Mr Dupar died in hospital four days later.
The inquest heard the five men were all fit, healthy and competent swimmers but were unaware of “hidden dangers”.
Oceanographer Dr Simon Boxall believed they got into trouble after heading out to a sandbar to play ball a significant distance out at sea, and then got into trouble amid a fast, incoming tide as they tried to head back to shore.
He told the inquest there was insufficient wave activity to build up rip currents at the beach, but there would have been strong currents that would have had a significant impact even on a strong swimmer.
‘Beach patrol staff’
Nine deaths occurred at Camber in the four years from 2012, including the seven last summer.
There were no lifeguards on the beach prior to the seven deaths.
Instead, the area was manned by beach patrol staff whose tasks included reuniting lost children with their parents and dealing with lost property.
The inquest was told that in 2013 the RNLI had offered to deploy lifeguards following a risk assessment after the death of Tanzeela Ajmal, 31, a year earlier, and a number of near misses.
Beach-goer Thatchayiny Segar drowned at Camber in 2015.
The RNLI also offered to provide lifeguards at Camber in 2009.
Arumukam Saththiyanathan, the father of Ken and Kobi, said in a statement to the inquest that they had “good swimming ability” and their Sri Lankan village was surrounded by three big rivers.
He said his sons swam in Sri Lanka almost every weekend before they came to the UK in July 2008.
“As a family, we went to the beaches in the UK nearly every summer and the boys went without us sometimes,” he said.
One of the fathers said it had been claimed the group were of Asian origin and not able to swim.
Relatives also said they were disappointed Rother District Council had not taken up recommendations by the RNLI in 2009 and 2013 to provide lifeguards.
They called for resignations at the authority, and said civil action had not been ruled out.
‘Minimise the risks’
In a statement, Dr Anthony Leonard, the Rother council’s executive director of business operations, said: “Our sympathies remain with the families, friends and communities of the seven people who tragically lost their lives last year.
He said the deaths were different to the two previous incidents, which had involved non-swimmers paddling in shallow water, wearing non-swimming attire.
“Following an urgent review of the fatalities in 2016, we asked the RNLI to provide a full lifeguard service at Camber to give visitors reassurance and minimise the risks further.
“This service is now in place and our beach patrol works closely with the RNLI to deal with land-based incidents and educate visitors of the dangers of the sea.
“All measures put in place at Camber are kept under constant review.”