Growing up, I had a particularly hard time learning to swim. Nearly drowned when I was about 7 – so I decided to learn. One of the problems was that during segregation, there were very few pools which allowed black folks. The closest one to us was about 25 miles away in Alexandria, Va., which meant that I only got to work on swimming about twice a year.
When they started integrating facilities n the early 60’s, I decided to take some swim classes – convincing my parents that since a common summer activity for us was fishing on the York River and Chesapeake Bay, learning to swim was a safety issue.
Didn’t really work for a long time, until I sort of mastered the “Dog Paddle”.
The following summer I spent with cousins on the Ocean. My “half fish” friends and cousins were jumping off a pier into a channel leading from the Yacht Harbor to the sea. So… in typical teenage desire to be one of the group …
I jumped in to the 20′ deep channel. First time I had ever tried to swim in salt water. I floated right to the top, and found it easy to keep my head above water due to the increased buoyancy in salt water. The problem was the current was running with the tide out to sea – which rapidly was whipping past the ladder on the side of the pier which everyone was using to get back out. Sink or swim time…
I learned to swim, and would become a good swimmer.
Caught the boat bug – probably from my parents who owned a small runabout. I migrated to larger and larger boats. It is common on the Potomac to anchor your boat at a beach on one side or the other in fairly shallow water (depending on how deep in the water your hull went) and dingy or walk to the shore. One popular spot was called “Sharks Tooth Bay” because along the shore you could find fossils and hundreds of fossilized shark’s teeth. On this particular day, I set the anchor and joined friends. The anchor broke loose – resulting in he boat beginning to drift across the river. Jumping in to swim to the boat, I didn’t realize it was the wind which was pushing it faster than I could swim. The long and short of it is I wound up swimming nearly 3 miles – all the way across the river – to catch the boat in fresh water.
Another night, on a friend’s boat – the Captain went for a leak on the transom and fell off the boat unbeknownst to the rest of us in the cabin. Since we were a couple of miles offshore -he left the boat in gear at low speed when he decided to take his “break”. When we discovered our missing Captain we had no idea how long he had been gone – so we reversed the course heading and started to search. Fortunately the guy had been a LRP, which was one of the precursors to the SEALS, and knew what to do. He made water wings out of his white pants, which kept him afloat – as well as made it easier for us to spot him with the boat’s powerful spotlight.
I don’t know any long term boat owners who haven’t fallen off their boats at one time or another. One of the hazards of even well designed decks is dew or rain making them slippery. Through the years I have pulled more than one non-swimmer out of the water – and a few swimmers who got caught in the currents. Because of that, I wear an inflatable life jacket which blows up when you fall in when out on the water fishing or beaching. They are expensive (although the prices are falling) – so not a lot of boaters carry them.
Teach your kids to swim. I started mine as babies in a baby swim class. And for those worried about the effect of water on their hair…
It’s a lot better than drowning.
Wanda Butts dropped the phone and screamed when she heard the news that her son was dead.
Josh had drowned while rafting on a lake with friends. The 16-year-old didn’t know how to swim, and he wasn’t wearing a life jacket.
“I couldn’t believe it, I didn’t want to believe it: that just like that, my son had drowned and he was gone,” she said, recalling the 2006 tragedy.
Butts had worried about her son’s safety when it came to street violence or driving, and she said she had always warned him of those dangers. But water accidents never crossed her mind.
“It did not occur to me that my son would drown because he didn’t know water safety,” she said. “Josh was never taught the basic life skill of learning how to swim.”
Josh was not alone in the black community. According to USA Swimming, 70% of African-American children cannot swim, compared with nearly 60% for Hispanic children and 42% for white children. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, African-American children between the ages of 5 and 14 are three times more likely to drown than white children in the same age range.
As Butts tried to make sense of her son’s tragedy, she realized she had passed her own inexperience to her son. Her father had witnessed a drowning when he was young and instilled in her a fear of water.
“So as a child, I never went around water,” said Butts, 58. “I never went swimming. I didn’t know anything about water or life jackets and water safety.”
Because of this fear, Butts raised Josh without any exposure to water. But today, she is determined to prevent other mothers from doing the same. In 2007, she started the Josh Project, a nonprofit that provides low-cost swimming lessons for children in Toledo, Ohio.
“After losing my son, I wanted to do something to help other people, to help another mother not have to suffer the way I do every day from the loss of a child drowning,” she said.
To date, the Josh Project has helped more than 1,000 children learn how to swim.
“All children are at risk of drowning, but the majority of the children that the Josh Project serves are minority children, who we have found are more at risk,” Butts said.
Several cultural and historical factors can help explain why that is. One is the segregation of swimming pools during the 20th century, according to Jeff Wiltse, author of “Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America.” Relatively few swimming pools were built to serve the black community back then, so much of a generation was denied the opportunity to swim, Wiltse told the BBC.
Also, if parents can’t swim, their children are far less likely to learn how, according to a recent study conducted by the University of Memphis. The study, sponsored by USA Swimming, found that a fear of drowning and a fear of injury prevent many African-American parents from putting their children in swimming lessons. It also found that many avoid swimming for cosmetic reasons, such as the effect chlorinated water has on their hair. (– More – )