Thursday, June 08, 2006


click photo to enlarge

"I was much further out than you thought,
And not waving but drowning."
from "Not waving but drowning" by Stevie Smith (1902-1971), English poet

Question: How can you reduce the risk of death by drowning?
Before I answer that question let's consider swimming. There are many good reasons for learning this skill. It's a pleasant pastime that can be enjoyed in purpose-built pools, rivers, the sea, in fact anywhere that offers a safe stretch of water. Swimming is also good for the body, offering exercise to many muscle groups and the heart, and is good for increasing the individual's stamina. It can be either a solitary, exercise-driven pursuit, or a social occasion built around organised games or plain old water-based fun. And then there's the final reason that's usually advanced for learning to swim - it can save your life.

It's that final justification, which is one used by education authorities, swimming organisations and safety groups, that troubles me. I'm not sure that the evidence supports, what on the face of it, looks like a perfectly rational argument. Is it true that if you know how to swim you are less likely to drown? Well no, because most people who drown (I'm taking out infants and toddlers here) are people who can swim and who have deliberately gone into the water! It's a minority who drown by accidentally falling into water. And those who carelessly fall in and save themselves using their swimming skills are also a minority who may well have increased their chances of drowning by taking greater risks near water. It's a fact that those who can't swim tend to have a greater respect (or fear) of the water, and so put themselves in danger less than swimmers do. This isn't an argument that I've seen advanced by anyone, and some organisations have a vested interest in not doing so, but it appears to me to be worthy of serious consideration. So, my answer to the question "how can you reduce the risk of death by drowning", apart from going to live in the middle of the Sahara, seems to be - DON'T learn to swim!

The photograph above is a detail of a sculpture, "Water Wings" by Bruce Williams, on the south promenade at Blackpool, Lancashire. It is a photograph of a child swimming with flotation arm bands, and it has been modified in the style used in printed publications. The artist has imprinted this on a large flat sheet of metal, and then cut out the "white" parts of the print. The rest of the sculpture, which is large - the size of an advertising hoarding - shows rippled water.
photograph & text (c) T. Boughen