By Richard Gambino
It was with great sadness that I read of a 26 year-old man drowning in Noyac’s Trout Pond on June 30. According to news reports, he and a woman were enjoying the cool water in the pond on that very hot, humid day. Neither knew how to swim. The man stepped into a hole at the bottom of the pond and – well, police say his body was found in eleven feet of water just 17 feet from shore. Seventeen feet.
The story, and many others like it have exasperated me over a lifetime. Because it takes little effort to learn how to swim — if the teaching is done well. As a lifeguard for five summers and a certified swimming instructor (both long ago), I came to the conclusion that each and every person should learn to swim so that he can save himself if need be, and also that each of us should make sure our children and grandchildren also learn. (This is not to mention how much fun kids, and adults, have when they are secure in water — just watch them.)
What prevents many folks from trying to learn is fear, quite simply and quite understandably. Unlike many other four-limbed creatures, e.g., dogs, cats and deer, humans over evolutionary time have lost the inborn instinct to swim. And bad experiences. An East Hampton woman in her eighties recently told me that when she was a kid, a foolish adult, following the disastrous old rule of “Just throw the kid in the water,” so terrified her that she is still afraid of water, and avoids it. But learning to swim under safe conditions is as easy as a baby learns to walk, or a kid learns to ride a bike. And like walking and biking, once you learn, it just comes naturally for the rest of your life.
Many kids learn on their own how to swim, naturally, in safe, secure circumstances. My friends and I learned on our own by spending long summer days in a municipal pool, the Red Hook Pool in Brooklyn — constantly watched by lifeguards. Then at the beach at Coney Island, also watched over by lifeguards. We so loved it that we eventually took courses in good swimming form, and later in the skills of lifeguards. (I should say sincerely that I was never a great athlete. But no one ever drowned on my watch.) During my lunch breaks, I taught people from 7 years old into their late 60s to learn to swim. A 68-year-old woman said to me, “I don’t care anymore how clumsy I’ll look to people; I want to learn to swim.” I told her that if she practiced what I would teach her, by summer’s end she’d be able to swim back and forth across a pool. On Labor Day, her family came and applauded as she did so.
In fact, I so love to swim that at age 73 I swim to euphoria (with no need for “recreational” drugs, thank you) daily outdoors in summers, and once a week in winter in an indoor pool. And the consensus among M.D.’s is that regularly swimming even very moderate distances is great for one’s health and fitness. (A doctor once said to me, the only way you can hurt yourself in a pool is to bang your head on one of its sides or its bottom.)
But it is also true that each person should have knowledge about and respect for water, and I’m happy to see two-page large flyers, with photos, about ocean currents, rip tides, waves and other beach hazards available free online, produced by the Eastern Long Island Coastal Conservation Alliance. (I urge you to go to www.ELICCA.org)
Always watch kids constantly when they are in or near water. Regarding water, ignorance is definitely not bliss. For more on safety rules, and venues where people can take swimming instructions, call the East Hampton Recreation Dept. at 324-2417; the Township of Southampton at 283-6000; the Red Cross at 1-877-2767.
RICHARD GAMBINO believes each parent should be able to say of his kid, he or she “swims like a fish.”