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NATHANIEL LEE | Teaching survival swimming to kids is crucial to building nation of swimmers

Skill can save a life when in difficulty in water

Children cool-off with plunges into the pool at Moletsane public swimming pool.
Children cool-off with plunges into the pool at Moletsane public swimming pool.
Image: Thulani Mbele

One of my greatest regrets is that I never learnt how to swim. As a person who finds  being around water, be it at the beach or a swimming pool, very uplifting, I find this inability very limiting. Not only is swimming a recreation skill, it is also a useful survival skill which can save life.

I was therefore pleased to read that the National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) had built another survival swimming pool in KwaZulu-Natal. A survival swimming pool is a pool to impart skills to survive an unexpected fall into deep water. Swimming is a life skill and learning to swim early can reduce drowning incidents, especially among children.

The KZN initiative follows the one at Port St John’s in the Eastern Cape and at Riebeek-Kasteel in the Western Cape. The NSRI's drowning prevention manager Andrew Ingram said that they aimed to create a generation of adults who were able to swim.

“It was through fantastic teamwork that we could build the survival swimming centre on record time and deliver it to a school in a low-resource setting. The initiative targets teachers and pupils from schools in poor areas and aims to teach basic swimming skills at Oshabeni community school at Port Shepstone. Under very difficult conditions, it educates 948 learners."

He said that without the support of the local businessmen, getting the initiative off the delivery truck would have been impossible.

The World Health Organisation has identified 10 actions to prevent drowning and the importance of teaching survival swimming lessons to pupils is one of them. Arming children with these life-saving skills can have a lifelong immunisation-like effect against drowning.

According the the NSRI, traditional swimming lessons are still important considering that SA has on average 1,450 fatal drownings annually, of which 450 are children. Ingram points out that this state of affairs places extraordinary pressure on families, communities and search and rescue (SAR) resources.

“Responding to drownings in-progress calls and often having to search for and recover bodies, especially children, is uniquely traumatic for SAR teams. By teaching children and adults to swim, we are creating a culture of swimming in communities that did not have it, thus reducing the number of fatal drownings, the number of SAR responses, and the mental stress to our SAR teams,” he said.

It is a question of prevention being better than cure. The current reality is that there are few places in SA where children can have free lessons, particularly not at schools. There is also a lack of operational municipal swimming pools.

As for the lessons themselves, the fundamentals that are taught include how to hold one’s breath underwater, open eyes, and float and propel at least 5m in the water. The lesson pools are shallow at 1m in depth, allowing young children to stand while still deep enough to swim in easily.

In communities where there is no electricity, the institute uses solar power to ensure that communities which previously had no chance of having a swimming pool to learn to swim in now have such a possibility.

A thrilled school principal from one of the schools which benefited from the initiative, Smangele Msomi-Ndaba, said: “Some of our pupils use bridges that have rivers that tend to overflow when it rains and having these skills of knowing how to get to safety when in difficulty in water, is truly remarkable.”

She said most pupils and teachers at her school had never been exposed to swimming lessons or water safety.

“This not only benefits the school but the community as a whole and our kids, when they are on holiday by the ocean, will be able to apply these skills. This resonates with the NSRI’s purpose, which is saving lives, changing lives and creating futures,” she said.

This is a commendable initiative by the institute which should be replicated in all provinces of SA. Much as it is never too early to start learning to swim, it is also never too late to start. Based on this truism, I guess I will make learning to swim one of my new year’s resolution.

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