Learning to Swim

By Randy Jackson

“The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea.” — Isak Dinesen

A kind of cultural cornucopia can bring fresh perspectives and new insights. When the land, the people, the climate are all different from what we are used to, it’s possible – if we are open to it – to learn new dimensions about something we thought we already knew. Spending time in Huatulco can offer such opportunities. As an example, in my time in Huatulco, I’ve come to appreciate new aspects of swimming.

I learned to swim as a child. As far as I can recall, like most children, I loved every moment in the water. Water meant playing. Amongst my band of childhood buddies, we named a small island (mostly a pile of driftwood) in the Columbia River after me because I was the first one (of us) to swim across the frigid brown spring waters (in doing so contravening all parental dicta not to do that). When I was a teenager, my high school was located within walking distance of a beach on a recreational lake. With our local hot springs pool below a cloud of shifting steam in the winter, and the coarse cinnamon sand beach in the summer, we teens had swimming meetup places free from parents the whole year round. Swimming throughout my childhood and youth remained synonymous with fun and play.

As an adult I decided to enter triathlons. This decision made swimming a more serious undertaking. Rather than swim for play, I swam for fitness. I began a long process of trying to learn how to perform the front crawl efficiently and for longer distances.

The front crawl is a weirdly complex series of motions performed while remaining face down in the water. Of all the swim strokes, the front crawl seems awkwardly unnatural, unlike anything seen in the animal kingdom. Almost all land animals know innately how to swim, moving their limbs while keeping their heads above water. What we call the dog paddle seems to be THE swim stroke of any animal with legs. However, camels, giraffes, porcupines, rhinos and, most notably, apes can’t swim. As an ape species, we humans have to be taught how to swim.

Worldwide, only about 50% of us know how to swim. The World Health Organization estimates that 320,000 people per year drown. Drowning, the WHO report, is the 3rd leading cause of unintentional death in the world. The CDC reports that in the US, on average, 10 people drown every day. Swimming lessons are not primarily intended to teach people how to have fun in the water, rather, they teach a skill set for survival.

As unnatural as swimming is to people, it’s curious that we humans have such a natural affinity towards water. In Egypt, at a place called Gilf Kebir, cave paintings dating back 8,000 years depict people swimming. How, in the eons of evolution, could a creature afraid of water and without an innate ability to swim – learn to swim? Could there be some evolutionary reason for this skill? Well, maybe – there’s the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis.

In 1960, an English marine biologist, Alister Hardy, pointed out that hairlessness is virtually unheard of in the animal kingdom except where the creature spends a good deal of time in the water. He proposed a different evolutionary narrative from that of the mainstream. He suggested that in our evolutionary history, a group of apes were forced, due to competition, to scavenge for food such as shellfish from the sea. This led to certain evolutionary adaptations: principally, to stand erect as the apes would have to do in water to propel themselves and to keep their heads up to breathe. Second, to become almost hairless like other creatures who spend large amounts of time in the water. And third, that humans have an insulating fat layer between their skin and their skeletal system that no other non-aquatic creature has – including the great apes. Elaine Morgan (1920 – 2013), a writer on evolutionary theory, has helped popularize the theory of the Aquatic Ape in her books on evolutionary anthropology (she has a TED talk on this theory – https://www.ted.com/talks/elaine_morgan_i_believe_we_evolved_from_aquatic_apes?language=en ).

In Huatulco, I came to realize that my swimming life, parallel to life overall, had three basic phases. The fun and play of youth, the work and responsibilities of adulthood and midlife, and the quiet enjoyment of things in retirement.

My enjoyment of swimming in Huatulco actually starts as I head out the door for an early morning stroll to the beach. With a towel draped over one shoulder, my swimming goggles in hand, my 3-block journey to the Pacific begins. The street sweepers, the shop owners, and passers-by all smile and greet me knowing I’m off to the beach for a morning swim.

Occasionally, at this beach, I see someone who has outfitted their dog with a lifejacket in the water. This allows pooches, like people in aqua fitness classes, to paddle their limbs madly without much forward propulsion. Buoyancy and propulsion, however, do not necessarily mean swimming. Hippos, who spend about sixteen hours a day in the water, don’t swim. Their dense bodies cause them to sink naturally. Hippos propel themselves by walking or running along the bottom. They have masterful control of their buoyancy by regulating the air in their lungs. They bob along the bottom like astronauts skipping semi-weightless on the moon.

At the beach, the regular morning swimmers are typically returning from their swims when I arrive. Como la agua hoy? Hay medusas? (jellyfish). There is comradery amongst us daredevil adventurers, who, with a bit of practiced swim technique can leave the security of land for that other, and larger part of the planet, the world of water.

This water world offers an engagement with nature like no other. Viewing a beautiful panorama or listening to the crash of ocean waves can be wonderful experiences – except for all the many distractions. For most of us, our minds continue to churn on other things wherever we find ourselves. When immersed in water however, we leave those distractions behind as the “here and now” floods our awareness. And we begin. Reach and stretch and pull and kick – breathe – a rhythm forms – rocking from side to side – breathe – we glide through the water.

Occasionally, I will experience a sense of efficiency and flow that more accomplished swimmers often speak of. For me, those moments are few and brief, but wonderful enough to keep me coming back for more. After all these years, I am still trying to learn how to swim properly. I’m slow and my front crawl needs work, but more than ever before I now understand what I want out of swimming. I seek the quiet thrill of moving through the water smoothly and efficiently. With luck, and more time in Huatulco to practice swimming, I can continue learning new aspects of swimming.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s