A wet blanket on dry land
June 6, 2016 6:30 PM   Subscribe

Is it realistic for an adult to learn to swim in deep water safely enough for recreation? Will I always be more likely to drown in open water? Every summer the news is full of stories of weak swimmers dying in boating accidents and while I'd like to enjoy the water, I don't want to be another statistic. Is it worth the risk to try and learn?

For a bunch of reasons (mostly cultural; most people of my ethnicity are non-swimmers), my parents didn't allow me to learn to swim until I was close to middle school, and even then, pulled me out of swimming lessons when I progressed to deep water work because I embarassed them by panicking in deep water once. So while I can swim a few lengths of a pool, I'm not comfortable in deep water, can't tread for long and I don't have an efficient stroke.

I live in a place where my non-swimming has had a negative social impact - people here like going to the cottage and paddling, and travelling to beach locations with friends is tricky because I always sit out snorkelling and scuba. I'd love to be able to enjoy the water, and I'm kind of tired of having to navigate these situations socially - it's hard to seem as fun as everyone else when you can't join in. I've been under the impression that I won't ever get comfortable enough in deep or open water to participate in this stuff.

So, the question is, can I ever learn to be safe in deep and open water? Because I didn't learn as a child, did I miss my chance to pick up this skill? I'd like to safely kayak without worrying that a capsize will kill me - how good of a swimmer do I need to be to be appropriately confident that it won't? It would be great to hear from adult learners who've made water-based activities a regular part of their lives.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (30 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
As far as "weak swimmers dying in boating accidents" wear a life jacket. Even the best swimmer will drown if they are incapacitated.
posted by patnok at 6:36 PM on June 6, 2016 [17 favorites]

Most of these things are alleviated by wearing proper flotation gear for whatever activity you are participating in.

The vast, vast majority of people who participate in the activities you describe are not efficient swimmers who can tread water for a long time -- and even if they were at one point in their lives, they haven't practiced those skills in so long it is largely irrelevant that they once knew how. I am fat and out of shape, and I routinely go snorkeling -- it doesn't require much endurance, since a lot of your time is spent floating.

So that leaves your comfort level as the main thing to attack. And you can learn that. Either through swimming lessons or therapy or both, depending on how deep your discomfort goes.

I know several people who learned to swim as adults, from being complete non-swimmers prior to taking lessons, so it is absolutely something that can be done.
posted by jacquilynne at 6:42 PM on June 6, 2016 [4 favorites]

I was a late swimmer - and was also a lifeguard for both pools and natural waterways (lakes, rivers, streams; not ocean though). Absolutely learn to swim! Learning to swim includes learning to be water-safe and gage your abilities. Swimming is fun and good for you, and as you know, somewhat social in some places. Take lessons. So many things are presented as talent can, in fact, be learned.

That said, everyone should be wearing floatation devices in boats! (The lifeguard in me cringes...) Part of what you need to learn is general water/outdoor safety and CPR/First Aid. You can actually learn how to capsize (for example).

I was just reading through an annual drowning report published by the state government, and from what I gather learning to swim, staying calm, and staying sober around the water will greatly improve your chances.
posted by jrobin276 at 6:53 PM on June 6, 2016 [8 favorites]

I'd like to safely kayak without worrying that a capsize will kill me - how good of a swimmer do I need to be to be appropriately confident that it won't?

I was a lifeguard. Most people, even those in boating accidents, do not drown. People who have been drinking a lot and people who are not wearing proper flotation gear, do sometimes drown. It's not that usual but it does make ALL THE PAPERS. The trick for you is a combination of some decent lessons (including water safety like "What is a riptide?" and not just "This is how to backstroke") and making sure you have proper flotation gear and some confidence in the water.

Because most of this is confidence and it's harder to master this when you've grown up in a culture that doesn't swim. It sounds like you've got some anxiety which can make some of this stuff less fun for you. So in addition to getting some good lessons I'd also suggest having some low-impact fun in the water that does not require much in the way of swimming. Stand in the surf. Kayak in a pond (with a lifevest that fits you). Practice floating in a pool.

And honestly some of this may be setting limits. I was a lifeguard and scuba is too much for me. But I looooove kayaking and I've been really happy to getting to do more of it. Do you have a buddy who can be with you as you try some things out so that someone knows you're nervous and can sort of "spot you" and also cheer you on? That might help. I think you can get the skills you need to be safe in the water, but the confidence will be a trickier thing but also absolutely attainable.
posted by jessamyn at 6:56 PM on June 6, 2016 [7 favorites]

Yeah you'll be fine. Wear a life vest in boats, stay out of the water if there are any warnings about heavy currents/riptides, don't go in the water past where you can stand solidly, even then take an inner tube or something. My husband can't swim and no one has ever ever commented on it in my presence beyond, huh, unusual.
posted by mchorn at 6:57 PM on June 6, 2016

It's mostly mental. If you can stay in the upper few feet of water in a pool, you can do the same thing in a lake.

You don't have to tread water furiously or be a competitive swimmer to be reasonably safe in the water. Take a YMCA class or something, learn a lazy sidestroke, a sort-of breast stroke that doesn't take too much effort -- there. You can stay in the water as long as you need to. Be reasonable about the sea state you're swimming in. Wear flotation devices when boating, and stay sober.
posted by ctmf at 7:08 PM on June 6, 2016

You can learn to swim! You can become just as comfortable as folks who learned to swim as children. it just takes a bit of lractice. Nthing the YMCA type class idea. You'll be great!
posted by Kalmya at 7:17 PM on June 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

(FWIW, I grew up going to a cottage with a non-swimmer and nobody ever thought "no fun." He relaxed on the dock, went out for a paddle/other boat excursion with somebody else, fished off the dock...)

As for the boat capsizing -- you're wearing a properly fitted PFD, right? You just float. You could also get one of these inflatable buoy thingies that go around your waist and give you something to grab on to. There's no shame in chucking extra pool noodles, floating cushions, etc, in a boat if it makes you feel better.

For what the comparison is worth, I did not drive until relatively late in life. The thing I kept telling myself was that accidents were for drunks and text-messagers and other careless people. So many of them are that it was easy enough for me to keep up the belief that so long as I was not drunk or really distracted or otherwise being what any reasonable person would readily identify as an unsafe driver, I would be fine. So if you have appropriate floatation devices, are sober, and are following "always swim with a buddy!" rules and so on and not drunkenly cliff-diving I think you'll be quite safe. (First couple of months trying to drive I was near tears most of the time. I pressed on, and I now think of myself as a pretty good driver.)
posted by kmennie at 7:33 PM on June 6, 2016

Wear a life jacket! Use flotation devices! - tubes, flutter boards, pool noodles, etc. It's totally fine and socially acceptable.

Honestly I don't know many people who like to spend a long time in deep, over-your-head water without a life jacket or flotation device. We want to just float around and relax, not tread water the whole time. Snorkelling is way more fun if you have a life jacket on and can just float and putter around. And if you're in/on a watercraft, you MUST wear a jacket - them's the rules.

If you were completely unable to swim I'd be a little wary of your going in deep water, with or without a jacket. But as you are able to swim lanes and tread water for a little while, and know how to float, that's pretty good! Go out on the water with a flotation device and let the people know you're not super-comfortable in deep water, so you're not up for horsing around. Good friends will totally respect that and be happy you're being brave enough to come swim.
posted by lizbunny at 7:34 PM on June 6, 2016

Based on what you've written, it sounds like at least half your battle is mental - in which case, take an adult swimming class. Call around to your local Ys to see what classes are on offer before they all fill up for the summer. These are skills that can be learned, and are learned by people older than you and with fewer basic skills than you - you can do this.

Always wear a PFD in a boat, even if your friends aren't, even if they tease you. Even expert surfers can - and do - drown. But being a not-great swimmer doesn't mean you WILL drown. Learn your physical limits and practice the skills you learn in your classes.
posted by rtha at 7:36 PM on June 6, 2016

I am a mediocre swimmer but I kayak, paddle board, dive, snorkel, and do a ton of stuff in the water. It's a mental thing. You can do it.
posted by Marinara at 7:48 PM on June 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'd like to add that "boating safety" is a different skillset than swimming - I did a fair bit of kayaking when I was young, so I'll address that particular piece directly. The key skills to have if your boat flips is being able to 1) not panic 2) get out of the boat underwater 3) hold on to your paddle 4) hold onto your boat 5) get back in your boat. Also knowing how to find a well fitting life jacket and back out when the conditions are too much for your skill level. Being a strong swimmer only helps if you fail to do one of these things. My recommendation that if you want to go kayaking, the best thing to do (once you can swim well enough that you're reasonably comfortable diving down a short ways) and swimming around, is to take a kayaking safety class if you can find one that does practice capsizes where you can learn what to do with people there to rescue you if you panic or screw up rather than hoping you can figure it out when it actually matters.
posted by Zalzidrax at 7:48 PM on June 6, 2016

Weak swimmers who die in boating accidents overwhelmingly a) have injuries from the boating accident, and b) are not sober. Wear a life vest if you are boating, and don't drink.

Anyone can learn to swim and to be safe in water for general swimming, floating, snorkeling, playing in the water. If you want to kayak, specifically take a class - because even very strong or competitive swimmers do not specifically know how to operate a kayak or capsizing in one. Same if you want to surf or paddleboard.

But as far as basic swimming, being recently-practiced is overall more important than having been a good swimmer - or a swimmer at all - when you were 9 years old.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:56 PM on June 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

It sounds like your confidence in the water and your own ability is the problem here. I would recommend getting lessons from a swimming instructor who is experienced in teaching adults to swim - learning to swim is an adult is a lot more about confidence and learning to over-ride your instincts than it is for children. (My mother is a swimming teacher and spends about half her time teaching adults. Lessons for adults are structured very differently).
posted by girlgenius at 7:59 PM on June 6, 2016

Sounds to me like what you need is time to play in the water.

I don't think I've worn a life vest snorkeling because it's always been in shallow water, but floating is easy enough - the trick is to keep your calm breathing through the rubber bite thing, to be able to use your hands and feet in small movements to control where you're going, to turn around or to get somewhere you can safely put you head up and feet down to adjust your mask without stepping on some fragile coral. All of that stuff is not strength but familiarity and comfort.

Playing in the water is how you get "cool, I can tread water with just my legs for a moment" and the way to cup your hand to turn and how to flick your feet to go left vs. right. Totally different sort of maneuverability than "swimming lessons" would give you.
posted by Lady Li at 8:14 PM on June 6, 2016

You can definitely still learn to swim. If you're in the US, consider checking out the Swimming Saves Lives Foundation (associated with US Masters Swimming). There might be a class in your area. Our group has had tons of folks in later ages learn. One woman, who I think was 60 when she first took a lesson, now swims regularly and even competes!

So go for it!
posted by susiswimmer at 8:16 PM on June 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

Take boating lessons. Take swimming lessons. Take scuba lessons.

There are lessons for all of these things. Do you know how you avoid dying while kyacking or jet skiing or whatever? YOU TAKE LESSONS.

Get thee to lessons! You will meet people! It will be fun and help you enjoy water activities.

posted by jbenben at 9:04 PM on June 6, 2016

I had a whole long answer typed out, but really I just have two points to make:

1: Swimming is a skill like any other skill, and anyone physically capable can learn to do it. You'll probably learn best if you take formal leasons.

2: Kayaking need not require much swimming ability at all, as long as you have a partner, wear your PFD, and stick to gentle water. It's very accessible that way.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 9:24 PM on June 6, 2016

Aside from extremely basic "how to human" skills like walking upright and acquiring a first language, there are really very few things kids can learn and adults absolutely can't. Swimming is certainly not one of them. Lots of people learn to swim as adults.
posted by waffleriot at 9:49 PM on June 6, 2016

I almost want to go all the way past reassurance and encourage you to take lessons and then keep going and then maybe a swim a few open water races. I have always been a water baby and then competitive swimmer and I won't lie — I take great comfort in the fact that should something bad happen, given the mercies of temperature and current, I can swim a few miles to land, should I really need to. It would be tiring, but I would be okay. I can float for pretty much forever. I think you can get there and you should! I think you would feel great. What if you could do one of these awesome vacations? I think you can do and it would be great.
posted by dame at 10:24 PM on June 6, 2016

If you can swim a few lengths, then you can swim. IMO. I'm a little puzzled that you'd think you couldn't.
posted by Sebmojo at 10:36 PM on June 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'd absolutely suggest taking scuba lessons. In my opinion, it does not require a ton of swimming skills, and is an absolute ton of fun. You can scuba dive in lakes and rivers, or open ocean. I prefer open ocean, and 99% of my trips have been very calm, very easy, and not too intimidating. The other 1% was deliberate choices as planned challenges, not paying attention to the weather.
posted by Jacen at 11:14 PM on June 6, 2016

In Australia tourists get into trouble in the water at the beach reasonably often, according to Bondi Rescue :). This is, from what I've been told, much more an issue of not knowing how to behave if caught in a rip (let it take you out or swim diagonally, rather than fighting it) than it is about swimming ability.

I concur that water safety principles are valuable acquisitions but that swimming skills are a different thing. Both are eminently learnable.
posted by jojobobo at 12:46 AM on June 7, 2016

It kinda sounds like you have a fair bit of shame attached to this ... whole thing. Like maybe your parents didn't do you any favors by saying that you "embarrassed them". (seriously what the hell.) You absolutely can learn to be comfortable in the water! But along the way you might have to sort of forgive yourself for ... whatever you're feeling.

I mean, from the other end of the scale, I have fond memories of my dad flipping me into the water every summer, in a supportive and loving way, so he knew I could handle it. I get the feeling that sounds like a nightmare to you. This stuff is inherently a little scary, and undignified, and it's entirely okay. (I definitely shrieked on my way in.) Most people get used to it and become - tada - comfortable with it. Some people don't, and that's okay too.

On the practical side, if it helps, I can tell you that

- It's almost impossible to drown if you're wearing a properly fitted life jacket, and you should always be wearing a life jacket on a boat, no matter how good a swimmer you are, no matter how shallow the water is. (And life jackets aren't very bulky anymore, either - they always bugged me as a kid.)

- The people who work at a kayak or boat shop will help you with your life jacket. They'll make sure you get the right size and that you know how to put it on properly. They can point you towards safety classes, if there are any to be had.

- Kayaks are one of the most forgiving boats to capsize!! There's one type that's built like a pontoon, and it's intended for heavy surf. It's just a sealed air compartment with a seat molded into it. So it'll float whether it's upside down or right side up, and you don't have to bail it out. The brand name is Ocean Kayak, I think.

Most important: Can you ask your friends for help? Kids learn this stuff from other people, after all. Undo the shame.
posted by Rainbo Vagrant at 1:29 AM on June 7, 2016

Also I'm really not a strong swimmer and I almost never go in above my head. It really is about comfort levels, not swimming skill.
posted by Rainbo Vagrant at 1:30 AM on June 7, 2016

Since other people have addressed the question of whether and how to become a better swimmer, I'd like to say something about what it's like to be confident and safe in the water.

I am not a swimming athlete. I'd probably get tired quickly doing laps in the pool. But I know how to float and swim slowly pretty much forever, so being in deep water (Ocean, middle of the lake) is no more scary than being in 8-10' of water. Kayaking in a sheltered area without ocean waves? No problem. I wear a vest, and I go with friends.

Floating in surf in above my head water at the beach? Sure. I'll read the beach warnings to be sure it's a safe beach first, and I'll only go out past waist deep if there are lifeguards.

Most of swimming safely in a lake or the ocean is the same as swimming in a pool, the differences being you have to think more beforehand about how the environment (temperature, waves) might tire you, and take steps to be safe (use a life jacket, don't turn your back on waves when you're in the water at the beach, swim sideways in a rip tide, not against it, etc.)

If you can swim at all and float forever (backstroke or sidestroke), and decide what situations are safe, you'll be fine.
posted by zippy at 1:37 AM on June 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

My great-grandfather tried to teach my grandpa how to swim by throwing him off a dock into deep water (WTF 1920's parenting?!?!). Luckily, grandpa did not drown but he was afraid of water his whole life until at age 50 he went to the local university's continuing ed program & took swimming lessons. It went (pun intended) swimmingly & he learned to be good in the water.
We always wear life jackets on boats though, even those of us who are strong in the water & even though my family loves good cocktails, no one ever gets tipsy on the boat. Ever.
Good luck & have fun!
posted by pointystick at 4:44 AM on June 7, 2016

The only way anyone gets to be a strong swimmer in open water is practice. You already know how to swim, and you can practice, too. Snorkeling is a shallow-water activity anyway - the point is to look at the interesting things underwater, which are mostly at or near the bottom, and if you are too far away or the surf is too heavy you can't see anything. So give it a try, in an area with lifeguards so you can get help if you get into trouble.
posted by gingerest at 6:50 AM on June 7, 2016

I grew up in lake culture, with a lifeguard sister, and, yes, you can and maybe should learn. Take a class or two at something like your local YMCA (or regional equivalent). It's great to take refresher courses to remind you of/improve your form--having good form and being efficient in the water helps me overcome my innate, deep-seated fear of deep water (I visit the 300+ foot deep lake near my hometown every summer, and I love it despite still getting the deep water nerves from time to time; when I get that sense of fear, I stop paddling in place and swim a few hundred yards; I always have floating things nearby for a rest).

Depending on your location, you may be able to take open water swimming lessons. It's very different than swimming in a pool, and "open water" can mean call for different skills depending on the specifics (lake? river? ocean?). You won't regret taking a course or two, and you'll probably get a refresher in first aid in the process.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 9:48 AM on June 7, 2016

I'm like you, though I've gotten a bit better at swimming in the last few years. I do all that stuff you describe (except scuba, but I'd love to try it someday). I've never come near drowning as an adult. It's really not a problem. Lots of people do that stuff without being great swimmers. You just need to know your limits. The magic words are "I'm not a strong swimmer".

"I'm not gonna go out much further than I can touch the bottom, because I'm not a strong swimmer"

"I need a lifejacket at all times in a kayak/boat because I'm not a strong swimmer" (though everyone should do this regardless of swimming ability, but I know some people don't).

"I can't swim too long without holding the rail because I'm not a strong swimmer, so I want to stay near the dock (or have a life jacket/pool noodle)"

"I'm not comfortable with roughhousing in the water because I'm not a strong swimmer"

"I like to swim with a pool noodle in deep water because I'm not a strong swimmer and get tired easily"

etc etc

These are all things I've said, and I've not only never drowned, I've never had anyone complain or make fun of me for it. Also, the more you practice swimming through low-risk activities like this, the stronger a swimmer you'll become, and the safer you'll be. Just stay as near to solid ground as you need to feel safe, but try to expand that area of safety as you get better at swimming.

People mostly only drown when drunk/injured somehow or when swimming in dangerous water (very cold water, rivers with strong/unexpected currents, oceans with strong/unexpected currents, etc). You'll be very safe if you stick to designated swimming areas, pools, quiet lakes, etc. Even more so if you're very conscious of how far solid ground is, and how much energy you need to reach it.
posted by randomnity at 1:06 PM on June 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

« Older I need money for a divorce attorney. Ideas?   |   How do I describe "what I do" without gainful... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.