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How Europe Learnt to Swim (historytoday.com)
86 points by pepys 5 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 80 comments

In Belgium at least, swimming proficiency is rapidly declining. Can't remember the numbers, but many children can no longer swim. Some schools have changed their programmes and have lowered the bar from the traditional 1KM in breast stroke or front crawl and are now basically teaching kids how not to drown.

The cause, from what I remember, is a serious shortage of public pools. Many older pools have had to close because they can't meer water quality/hygiene standards, and hardly any new pools are being built.

The sad result is that kids are now horrible swimmers.

Same in Austria. Schools have no more access to a pool nearby and just not enough funds to the basic swimming course are a massive problem.

Deaths of swimmers, from children to young people their twenties are in the austrian news weekly if not daily.

On hygiene standards, not much a problem here or in my native Germany, but instead it's a unwillingness by the local administration to fund those public pools. Among the richest countries in the world yet the focus is on some other shit.

> Same in Austria. Schools have no more access to a pool nearby

That sounds like there used to be a time when that was different. In my experience, apart from maybe very few private or sport oriented schools, Austrian schools never had a pool. But in Vienna school groups would go to a public pool, of which there were and are many. Not sure if they stopped that, but if they did, it's not for reasons of access. More likely because doing anything outside school grounds is an "excursion" and organizing it probably comes with more and more bureaucratic nightmares.

Immigration doesn't help. Swimming isn't really something people do in Iraq or Afghanistan. And boys and girls can't swim in mixed groups.

Every summer is now filled with news of kids drowning- we are back were we started a hundred years ago.

> Immigration doesn't help. Swimming isn't really something people do in Iraq or Afghanistan. And boys and girls can't swim in mixed groups.

? It is completly irrelevant, the proportion it represent is next to none.

For your reference

> The largest group of immigrants and their descendants in Belgium are Italians, with more than 450,000 people, which is well over 4% of Belgium's total population. The Moroccans are the third-largest group, and the largest Muslim ethnic group, numbering 220,000. The rest consists mostly of French-speaking people from Brussels, Turks, Kurds, Dutch, French, Portuguese, Spaniards, Greeks, Bosniaks, Algerians, Congolese, Vietnamese, Poles, Indians, and Guineans (around 23% of Belgium's population is of non-Belgian origin).

Moroccan people swim just fine.

I really do wonder how can people have that idea on their mind at all time even in cases like this where it doesn't even begin to be in scope.

Because swimming is no longer publicly funded and mandatory at schools. Which leaves it at the discretion of parents. Is it racist to point out that asylum seekers and migrant children are over represented in drowning? Swimming is something that needs to be taught.

No but it's stupid to claim a nation's overall proficiency at swimming (what this thread is about) is affected in any meaningful way by migrants that doesn't even represent a percent of their population.

If you don't think that's what you were saying, I invite you to re-read what this thread is about, and your comment to it.

The fact that these few people in particular might drown more often proportionnaly is 1. not what this is about, 2. unsourced, especially since as the article state culture who don't know how to swim are scared of it and don't try to do it, unlike culture like ethnic belgian who aren't scared of it and thus have more chance to drown by effect of not being afraid of going into the sea despite not knowing how to swim.

I downvoted you even though I admit, people is the countries you named have less chance to learn swim. But we are talking western Europe and if society (that includes everyone of us) wants to prevent unnecessary deaths in our pools, then WE as a community of humans must act regardless of migration backgrounds.

I've seen people blame immigration for some improbable things, but I think this one takes the cake.

Ah shhh unexpected consequences of hygiene regulations .. quite sad.

It's more about budget cuts. Public pools need to be maintained and modernised in the same way as commercial ones. Here in Germany communities decided to save money by closing or privatizing public pools. When I was a kid there were enough public pools around where schools could offer swimming lessons. Those are now either gone or replaced by much more expensive private ones.

I see. Still very sad.

I have lived my entire life never more than a 10 minute drive to a beach.

I can barely float. But once you reach a certain age the social stigma of it will prevent you from even trying, I have been looking to learn but most places I found are oriented towards very young kids and nothing for the 20-something people that need to catch-up

I used to teach swimming, I had a class where an 81 year old woman sign up for the 8 week course, while she didn't have the mobility to do front or breast stroke she became very comfortable floating on her back and doing very slow widths of the pool, its never too late. I also have a work colleague in his late 50's who only learned to swim four years ago and completed an Ironman last year. I would recommend signing up for course of 1:1 weekly lessons with a certified coach, and practicing between the lessons, you'll be amazed what 16 hours over 8 weeks would do for you.

Thank you for this. As a 50-something, I've swam my entire life but never mastered the breast stroke that seems to be required for "serious" swimming. Instead I backfloat, paddle, and swim underwater. It's always seemed to work well-enough. I've even got a SCUBA certification. But I always wanted to learn better technique. I thought that there wasn't a lot of options for older folks.

I don't do breaststroke either, find it too hard on my back even though I regularly do up 3KM open water swims front crawl. Do whats comfortable and enjoy it

I highly recommend learning to swim. It's an experience you don't get anywhere else. Just like learning programming though, it's frustrating to start.

I know one guy who couldn't swim, took lessons, and now does scuba diving - which, by the way, is something people should try at least once, it's like floating into another world.

> But once you reach a certain age the social stigma of it will prevent you from even trying,

Are you sure about that? There are a lot of people who worry about going to the gym , concerned that everyone else will be staring at them. No one [except for the very rare hole] is bothered about what you're doing, they are just getting in with their workout. I'd expect swimming to be the same.

Our local pool has various sessions for beginners, both young and old. Normally the pool is separated into three lane sections, fast, medium, and splashing around.

Any 'stigma' you do perceive isn't worth bothering about - it's their problem and not yours.

The stigma is internal I know.

But usually beach time is with friends and acquaintances, people that know how to swim and don't understand at all my experience.

But those are not the ones that will be around you when you're in a class learning. You can learn in a class with people you've never seen before and you'll never see again, and when it's over, the problem is solved. Nobody needs to know that you went to classes, you don't have to tell anybody.

The only "difficulty" is that you have to not care what complete strangers think about you trying to learn. Your actual friends and acquaintances won't know anything.

I would think if you said, "I don't know how to swim, so I'm going to learn," good friends and acquaintances would be massively supportive?

Yes of course, but that puts me under the spot and everyone becomes an improvised teacher. Its just a combination of social pressure and stress with a stressful situation.

My guess is to make it more sterile and professional by learning alone with a coach.

My 27 year-old girlfriend just took a swim class at the YMCA. In her class of 7, one other person was older than her while the rest were in their teens. She's way more comfortable in the water now and can swim the length of the pool and back which would have been impossible before.

Don't let anxiety hold you back from learning this!

...everyone becomes an improvised teacher.

Swimming isn't actually hard. It's easier than a lot of things that people teach themselves to do. If multiple people offer to help you, pick out the person who seems pretty chill about things and follow her advice.

Check out Tim Ferris who learned as an adult: https://tim.blog/2008/08/13/total-immersion-how-i-learned-to...

Is there no swimming pool (with a shallow part and not too many people) around where you can learn on your own?

youtube got you covered. https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=learn+to+swim

but don't learn to swim in the sea. and do look up on rip currents once you go swim at the beach.

A common tragedy in Australia is recent migrants, going to the beach, not understanding "the rip" and drowning.

These migrants can come from anywhere. Africa, Asia, Europe. The commonality is that they have at best, 25m or 50m swimming proficiency. They have never swam in open water, experienced tidal pull, waves, uneven rocky shorelines.

At various times, there have been campaigns to get them trained up. Its a short, sad life to emigrate, hit the beach and die.

(a second common fatality is rock fishing without an anchor or a life vest but thats Off Topic)

Sadly it happens with tourists in the Portuguese coast as well, which never got to swim with the Atlantic waves or sudden change of underwater currents.

As an Italian, having spent all my life up to that point bathing in the tame and shallow coasts of the Mediterraneum, I remember vividly when pluging the first time in the Atlantic in Figueira da Foz :)

Even in a tourist beach, the strength and sudden depth of the ocean was so different from what I was used to.

The waters surrounding Europe are varied; in from England so I was taught about rip tides and strong currents, but someone from near the Baltic or Mediterranean Sea might simply not know.

I once had an Danish teenager tell me "tides are an old viking thing". We were on a beach with a 6cm tide, I'm more used to several metres.

I'm used to the Atlantic but I had one of my scariest moments on an Algarve beach and I've since heard others say the same.

I remember being impressed by how strong the wave were and also how cold the water was, compared to the air temperature.

Also in California.

Two common scenarios:

People get knocked of cliffs.

People walk on beach, get too close to the water or wade in a little too far.

People underestimate the powers within oceanic beach waters, particularly how powerless you are if you are caught within a rip (As far as I remember: do nothing, try not to drown, eventually the rip will "leave you be"). It comes down to where they live; either because of geography or of cultural issues keeping people from gaining much swimming experience.

If you live on the Cimbrian Peninsula e.g. you're in a position to experience how vastly different open waters can be (calmer baltic sea or the stronger north sea shores are never more than 1h away). But most of the time, people only have one option of open waters.

Anyway, here is a video by the surf rescue Australia explaining how to spot rips https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PuAlDTC_gIQ

I was born in a landlocked country with plenty of lakes, and was taught to swim simply by jumping into a deep river. I've learned how to deal with otherwise deadly whirpools by letting them drag you to the bottom then swimming along the stream. I knew how to efficiently swim against a fast stream if needed. I knew how to navigate the muddy water. I've crossed a spring flood once when I was young and stupid.

I was sure that seas with their salt waters are no problem. Boy was I naive; in my first real sea swim I nearly died to a current dragging me a couple miles into the sea through a flock of jellyfish.

> how to efficiently swim against a fast stream

How does that differ from just swimming fast?

Plain rivers in the place I originally from are usually either deep or fast, so to go through a rapid you can dive to the bottom where the stream is slower, then swim some time underwater, usually at some angle. A series of dives was much more efficient compared to surface swimming.

Not OP, but the current is slower in eddies and at the very bottom. If you actually need to get upstream rather than just have fun playing, you can just walk on the bank. ISTM the only absolutely necessary technique for fast streams is the ferry. Speed is definitely helpful for that, although it isn't entirely "swimming against".

Sorry, what does "ISTM" and "the ferry" mean here?

Ferrying is crossing a river, by propelling oneself (either swimming or in a boat) diagonally across and against the main current. In e.g. a canoe it's easy to do so without being pushed downstream at all, while when swimming you will lose some ground. The skill is knowing the best angle to take.

"ISTM" is "it seems to me", in any online discussion. b^)

The thing about rip currents, all you have to swim are those 25m or 50m sideways and the waves will wash you back to the beach.

Sometimes it seems that all the warnings and caution about rips actually make them worse. Most rips will eventually move you sideways, so relaxing and going with the flow is a fine response. Even those that just move you away from shore are easily handled as you observe. Yet lots of capable swimmers have been surprised by a rip, remembered all the dire warnings, and panicked.

This is very visible on TV shows like Bondi Rescue. I'd wager 80% of the people they save are either on holiday from Asia or recently migrated from there.

Often the rescued people will comment afterwards that they didn't have any swimming experience prior to coming to Australia, let alone experience in strong rips.

In Spain people used to the Mediterranean sea often get down a beach in the North, tides come and they can not get out as they did not planned for it.

What happens is that in the Mediterranean Sea tides are very small.

As a diver I have experience getting into bigger than 10kms/hr currents and thinking for myself: Wow if I had not the Cylinders I would probably instantly experience panic here.

What is the problem exactly with this "rip"? I often go swimming in the ocean although not in Australia.

This is fairly good [0]. Note that knowing the "swim parallel to the shore" advice is solid, but that doesn't stop it being seriously scary if you get caught. You still need to be a good swimmer and you can still panic.

I usually have a quick chat with a lifeguard if there is one, and/or check out what flag system they are using (usually pretty obvious like red/green but it can be different depending where you are). Research a beach on the internet for a few minutes before you go.


Search for something like "dangers of rip tide" and do some reading as it may well save your life one day.

Thank you. I will read up on it.

Rip is where there is a current taking you out and people try to swim in against it, get exhausted and drown. The solution is to swim parallel to the shore until you get to beyond the rip

> The solution is to swim parallel to the shore until you get to beyond the rip

But how do you know when are out of the rip, so you'd know when to stop swimming parallel?

Usually rips are only 10m wide. At special locations in the middle of a sandy beach, you can calculate, if you know the trick and angles.

As surfer we call them lift. They take you out for free, and then it's easy to step out, just as on a lift. But to a swimmer who has no idea they are usually deadly.

You can focus on some constant points, like the surf or some rocks, but usually it's easy to step out, and you feel it immediately.

I've never been in that situation. I think I seen recommendations where you should swim diagonally toward the shore rather than parallel, maybe that's the logic there. The thing is that there is an current toward the shore on either side of a rip, maybe you can sense the change in pull? Rips only go out so far before the water recirculates back to shore.

When you're swimming parallel and not moving further away from the beach, you're no longer being ripped away from the beach.

If you're already 100 meters out, and there are some waves, are you really able to tell whether you're moving away from the shore or not?

The pull is pretty strong, and you can feel it pulling you out. When it's not pulling at you any more you can feel it. You can be quite a long way offshore before you're out of it.

You can't feel or see it much when you're just floating in the water. It's like the phenomenon of a complete lack of wind while riding in a hot air balloon: You're immersed in the fluid which is moving, so you feel no relative motion.

You can feel it easily if you can touch or swim down to the bottom. Also, it's often possible to see where the sand bars and reefs that are next to the rip are located either by seeing the color of the ocean floor or by seeing the waves breaking; get behind those and you'll be out of the rip.

Is it really worth while to try and pinpoint a time when swimming was forgotten?

My reasoning is that in a world where people are born, work and die in one place there is a smaller chance of them ever needing to swim.

Only coastal people really need to swim and even then, as the article states, mostly if they harvest aquatic resources.

So in other words. As long as global communications have been lacking humans have been living very localized lives and not had the need to swim. Why then try and pinpoint a specific time when we "forgot" to swim? Doesn't make sense to me.

And yes I know strontium analysis show that humans could migrate a long way even in ancient times. But they were usually migrating over land. With the exception of small groups of humans during relatively small windows of time who aided in colonizing islands like the british isles or south east asian islands, people who weren't involved in the aquatic industries mostly moved across land.

I guess the article is trying to say that humans moved away from coastlines as agriculture became more efficient. And therefore forgot how to live near the coast.

Why is knowing any history important? The Western Empire's collapse in 476 is considered a major and important event in world history, but it's knowledge is of conceivable value to any future human endeavour. We value it because we like knowing where we came from.

To the question of obviousness - lots of things are obvious but wrong. It was obvious that Earth was at the centre of the universe. It was obvious that heavier-than-air craft couldn't fly. It was obvious that the aether existed. Studying obvious things is important.

As waterways were the only efficient means of transportation before the age of trains, you will find most larger cities in Europe near a river or lake or at least small waterway. And beyond that, there is a plenty of lakes and small ponds. So I would guess rather 90% of the population lives and lived close to a place where they could swim.

This may explain why so many otherwise highly developed non western courtries don’t reach swimming to everyone. England and France were big naval powers of the time and had much more reason than just watersports to mandate swimming skills for the populace.

Historically sailors were actually quite bad swimmers. The thinking was that any man who fell overboard was basically dead anyway, as the ship was unlikely to be able to turn around and get him before he drifted away (sailing boats aren't exactly precision vessels). All swimming enabled a man to do was prolong his suffering, treading water in the middle of the open ocean for a few days before dying of exposure.

More-over, much of British naval strength was press ganged and an inability to swim meant once aboard the men were easier for officers to control. They were stuck there, and couldn't jump ship and swim to shore to escape their bondage.

> Historically sailors were actually quite bad swimmers

It's not just historically. A lot of people who work on the water these days in developing countries are still terrible swimmers. One of my friends was a dive instructor in Indonesia for a few months, and apparently the guys skippering their dive launches couldn't swim. Since it was Indonesia, they also didn't bother with wearing life jackets.

I don't know how they managed to spend their life living on an island and not learn how to swim. Apparently Fijians are also terrible swimmers. It just doesn't make sense to me. Obviously they aren't going to swim between the islands, but it seems like a fairly essential life skill when boats are your main method of transport.

Swimming is overwhelmingly (though not entirely) a recreational thing and mostly found in rich countries. A few professionals in poor countries know how to swim, dive and do all sorts of things. But everyone else has more important things to do than to learn how to swim.

And swimming is something you should either learn to do fairly well, or not do at all. Most poor mothers will let their kids play soccer on a quiet street -- but they will balk at letting 'em swim unless they get real training.

This really depends on the area of origin. Greek sailors , for instance, were really good swimmers on average (recall Greece comprises several islands with "short" distances; fishing and sponge diving were/are also a side job for sailors and swimming was certainly part of a child's entertainment (a good source here is 19 century and later literature).

I am not sure about the argument that falling in the water was a death sentence so that is the reason swimming was unnecessary. Consider that naval life for instance after the 14th century had a high accident rate. In such cases, being an above good swimmer is a highly desirable skill.

I think the main reason for the lack of swimming was British and French sailors were "conscripted" in 18-19 centuries [0], and the average citizen at the time did not leave close to shore. At the time not living in close proximity to the sea practically meant, due to travel being a luxury of time (especially during the pre-enlightenment, i.e. feudalism, era), that you never learned to swim as a kid. That places a high-learning curve on an individual who does not have the luxury for such an investment. (Tried to find some credible research and reference; was disappointed with the material; Here is an article on the learning vantage point of an adult https://adequateman.deadspin.com/an-adults-guide-to-learning...)

Thus my point is that Feudalism [1] essentially removed access to the sea to people in mainland/central Europe during pre-adulthood, by land-locking families and later eras (industrialism) perpetuated this trend. Thus swimming became even more of a luxury, which is inline with the existence of a written manuals (certainly not aimed for the average citizen), that seem to focus on basic familiarity with the water. These seem similar to other luxury manuals at the time, such as fencing. Then the average sailor from these regions did not have prior familiarity with water.

The time period the article focuses on is a post-Byzantium and post Venician era. I think the article kind of jumps ahead and focuses not on Western Europe but only on North and Central Europe. What was the "swimming state" of Roman era Germania or Britain? How can one draw conclusions about Northern Europe from the lack of access to baths in Rome? The reasoning of the article leaves a lot to be desired there.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impressment [1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feudalism

There's one little problem with your argumentation: most of the population was living either along the shoreline or along a river, which would allow access to large bodies of water. And sailor recruitment was massively done in coastal cities.

Check the end of the Basis section (paragraph 5 onward) in the Impressment wikipedia article I cite, it mentions replacing conscripted/pressed seamen with landsmen. Check also the Quota system mentioned.

I have to claim living near a river or lake (and bathing) does not make one a good or even ok swimmer.

It was moslty disagreeing with this proposition in your argumentation:

> the average citizen at the time did not leave close to shore > removed access to the sea to people in mainland/central Europe during pre-adulthood, by land-locking families

And as for France, sailors, including pressed ones were from coastal regions.

> Historically sailors were actually quite bad swimmers. The thinking was that any man who fell overboard was basically dead anyway, as the ship was unlikely to be able to turn around and get him before he drifted away

This may be true, but doesn't pass the sniff test. There are many situations with small boats (to and from the shore, other ships) and when the boat is stationary when being overboard would be easily remedied.

A small boat can stop immediately and recover someone in normal circumstances. Even those who can’t swim should be able to stay above water long enough to be rescued in such a situation.

Even a small sailboat will need to do 3 turns and position itself against the wind when approaching person in water. That takes long enough for someone who can't swim to drown even under perfect weather conditions.

I thought the context was the rowboats used to ferry people to/from ocean-faring ships.

Grew up in a fishing village in north east Scotland - many of the trawlermen could't swim for similar reasons.

Unless in very close formation with other ships, it's no problem to let a long rope trail a big sailing ship. Leaving men overboard to die was only barbarity. They went back for the captain's favorite cabin boy...

Late to this thread, but I loved this article because it put something into perspective for me... my New England boarding school had a swimming requirement, and was proud of its longstanding tradition of requiring all graduates to be able to swim. It makes sense given the context of when it was started and the extent of people's ability to swim.

I have a soft spot for the aquatic ape hypothesis, even if it is rather ludicrous it’s just so entertaining.

It's one of those things you want to be true.

Ancient Greeks were not Europeans. Ancient Greeks were a combination of Levantine and Anatolian peoples. Modern Turks and Lebanese have more in common genetically to ancient Greeks than today's Europeans. The romanticizing of Greeks as European is plain Eurocentric revisionism.

I'm sorry but this is an absurd comment.

How do you define Europeans? North/western only? The continent's name is ancient Greek and, while the eastern borders may have changed, there is no point in time where the greek mainland was not considered part of it even in ancient times.

And what the hell do genetics have to do with a geographic designation?

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