Swimming in the Atlantic Ocean

I grew up in a house that was 50 meters from the beach in North Florida. We swam from April or May and well into September, and my family and I still return for 3-4 weeks each year. Many of my happiest, saddest, and scariest memories are linked to swimming in the Atlantic Ocean and hanging out on the beach. And in all of the years I’ve spent at the beach, I had heard of a couple of drownings but never once knew someone who drowned.

When my children started to learn to swim in Belgium, I didn’t give much thought to the methods employed, particularly the hours spent swimming laps. After Bavo passed away and I emailed with his mom Caroline, I recalled that the swim training I received was so different from the training my kids got. We learned to swim at a similar age but we spent ages with our faces in the water blowing bubbles and practicing things like the dead-man’s float. We also learned CPR from the age of 7 or 8 years. There was water everywhere and we had to be prepared to save our friends with CPR and ourselves by floating for hours if necessary.

My husband and I have a set of rules that we’ve stuck with for all the years we’ve been going to the beach with our kids and nieces and nephews. These rules were handed down from my parents although I must admit that we’re typical 21st century parents who have been much more protective and enforced them more vigorously. These rules may not be perfect and they’re more appropriate to the Florida coast than to Belgian coast, but they’ve worked for us:

1. Never swim when the lifeguard is off duty and never swim without telling someone where you’re going. If you really insist on swimming without a lifeguard, ask a local about the water conditions. If they say it’s dangerous, believe them and don’t go in the water. Besides, there are other ways to have fun on the beach.

2. Once you’re about to go in the water, choose a landmark on the beach to spot yourself. By keeping an eye on this landmark, you will give a real sense of how strong the currents are and when you’re being pulled away from shore. A lifeguard chair is an easy and safe landmark.

3. Learn about riptides. I’m not scared of sharks in the surf but I am scared of riptides. I know there is some controversy about how to escape one, but moving horizontal to the beach generally works on our Florida beach. I’ve also resorted to body surfing away from the pull of the current but that requires good swimming skills.

4. Keep your eyes on small kids at all times. They run off so quickly! Now that my kids are grown up, I refuse to take my 6-year old nephew to the beach. I get caught up in chatting with someone and forget to watch him.

5. Until your kids can swim well, tell them to go no deeper than the top of their thighs or their hips. This won’t necessarily save them from a strong current, but it keeps them in your sights better. Often such a depth means they’re in the white water, so they learn how to react better to the shifts in the water and the currents and how to jump and dive. Better yet, play in the shallows with your kids when they’re small. Again, they learn to understand how the water drags on them. They’ll be having fun with you so they’ll have no need to venture beyond their depth.

6. If a child wants to take toys to the beach, let them only take what they can carry themselves. Kids often get lost by chasing toys caught in the wind. For instance, when the wind is coming from land, toys and rafts (with people on them) easily get blown out to sea. Also, if you struggle to carry too much, you may be tempted to abandon these things on the beach, which isn’t good for the sea life either.

7. Don’t dive unless you know where you’re diving. I don’t know anyone who’s drowned but I do know a couple of young guys who dove into pools and broke their necks.

8. Don’t swim when there are jellyfish or Portugese man-o-wars (blue bottles) in the water. The shock of the stings can really lower you alertness to riptides.

9. Know your limits: Recognize when you physically limited for some reason. For me, severe adult-onset asthma keeps me from swimming out to sandbars the way I did as a kid. I really miss it but it’s not worth the risk. Someone else, there may be other limits. We love to go to a Florida State Park, Itchetuknee Springs. It’s a beautiful pure spring that forms a river, which you can float down on tubes. The trip is easy and requires only basic swimming skills but getting out isn’t easy and this year my family almost witnessed a drowning when an obese woman couldn’t get out of the water without the help of a number of people.