Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Essential Skill: Swim Ashore

Swimming is a confusing sport, because sometimes you do it for fun, and other times you do it to not die. And when I'm swimming, sometimes I'm not sure which one it is.
- Demetri Martin
How would you handle this situation?
Swimming is an interesting physical skill to me.  Most people don't naturally swim, tread water or float--we need to learn this skill intentionally.  While babies love the water and automatically hold their breath under water, humans quickly develop an understandable and visceral fear of the water if they don't learn to swim early in life.  As a Marine, I saw some of the toughest people you'll ever meet collapse with fear at the prospect of jumping into water no deeper than their waist.  Running is also a skill that you need to develop, but people don't risk immediate death by starting a running program without adult supervision.  I'd even argue that open water swimming may be the most important physical skill that we teach children for saving their lives.  Oh and swimming is also a great exercise to develop cardiovascular & muscular endurance with minimal injury risk regardless of how skilled you may be at it.

For the swim ashore training standard, I propose that everybody should be able to comfortably swim at least 1 mile in open water without any flotation assistance.  We take boat rides all the time without a second thought and seldom know where the life jackets are stowed.  Wearing a life jacket for an afternoon of kayaking or canoeing in a lake may interfere with getting a good tan so you leave it at the rental shack.  You may fall overboard from a cruise ship while mindlessly strolling the deck at night.  For those of us who are comfortable in the water, scenarios like this are hardly life threatening.  We'd just compose ourselves after hitting the water and casually make our way ashore.  If you aren't comfortable in the water however, you'll die rather quickly without immediate assistance.
Swimming in the open water is very different than pool swimming
If you have kids, swim lessons are more than just a fun summer activity so get them comfortable in the water as early as you can.  If you're an adult who can't swim, tread water and float, check out basic swim lessons at the YMCA or Red Cross.  The next step for everyone is to get better at swimming with a focus on stroke mechanics.  The Masters Swimming organization is a great resource to improve this.  Start in a pool and strive to swim a mile* without stopping or hanging on the wall.  Finally, go find some open water and work up to completing a mile there.  You'll find that having to lift your head to navigate, negotiating the chop & current of the water and the psychological impact of swimming in unprotected water all make open water swimming significantly more challenging than pool swimming.

Being a physically fit human means that you can handle yourself in a wide variety of situations.  Strength and cardiovascular conditioning are huge components of this as are agility, balance, coordination and flexibility.  We need to train all of these consistently but swimming in open water should be top priority--for fun, health and life.
You either do it or you don't; there's no A for effort in survival.
*1 mile = 1,600 m = 70 lengths of a 25 yd pool (typically found in the US)

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