Can You Swim and Should You Swim

by Bebe Bryans | Mar 01, 2007
The shore is so close, and you think you can make it. Your boat swamped with no coach launch in sight, and you can’t get back in.

The shore is so close, and you think you can make it. Your boat swamped with no coach launch in sight, and you can’t get back in. Your choice is to stay with the boat or swim for it. You’re getting a little chilled in the water ... This scenario is common enough to cause a fairly high percentage of deaths in our sport and brings to mind two related safety subjects: Can you swim and should you swim.

I like to joke that our rowing athletes are on the water, not in the water; but that in case they find themselves on the wrong side of the hull, they need to know how to keep themselves afloat long enough for help to arrive. Since there is absolutely no guarantee that any one athlete won’t go for an unexpected dip, everyone in the boat and in the coach launch needs to know at least how to tread water, which brings up the “can you swim” question. 

There are many ways to determine whether or not someone is capable of swimming enough to keep themselves safe in an emergency. Having your athletes sign a waiver saying they can swim is not one of those ways. Whether they are embarrassed that they can’t swim or are worried that they won’t be allowed to participate, many athletes will flat out fib on a waiver form, putting themselves, their teammates and you in potential danger. 

So, that leaves some form of swim test. There is no one way to do a swim test – what you choose to do is dependant upon your circumstances and your venue. The athletes don’t need to be able to swim well, but they do need to demonstrate an ability to keep their heads above water with a fair amount of ease for a predetermined amount of time. Some programs have their rowers jump into the lake, swim to a predetermined point, tread water there, put on a life jacket while treading, and make their way back to the dock. This is good because they show that they can stay above water for a while and put on a PFD in a somewhat realistic situation. Other programs have their rowers do the swim test in clothes, while still others have a timed tread in a school or municipal pool. If you have athletes that can’t swim but still want to row or cox, there are inflatable PFD’s available that are very low-profile, yet still effective, which would allow everyone to participate.

There are probably as many ways of doing swim tests as there are programs. The one thing that all methods should have in common is: 1) Have enough lifeguards on hand to ensure the safety of all those in the water; 2) Actually do a test that every new rower must participate in; and 3) Have a member of the coaching staff on hand to see what actually goes on so you all know who may struggle in the water. Not sure how to make it work for your program? Call a Collegiate program near you, or contact someone on the USRowing Safety Committee, and they will be happy to give you suggestions.

Question number two – “should you swim?” This one is much easier, and the answer is a clear NO. No matter how strong a swimmer you are and regardless of the conditions, your chances of getting yourself into grave danger are quantitatively higher leaving the boat than they are staying with it. The USRowing Safety DVD goes into detail on how to self-rescue, including how to get on your boat and paddle it to shore, and is worth a review at the beginning of every rowing season. The best offense is a good defense here – know what you’re getting into before you go out. Check the weather, the traffic, the water, and the wind, and it is always a good idea to attach a cell phone in a waterproof bag to your boat if you are rowing without a coach. Accidents happen no matter how well you plan, but you can minimize them and eliminate the needless ones with some good planning and prepwork.

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