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Don’t wait for the boat, learn to swim

Last updated on February 7, 2012

I’ve never been a great swimmer. But I can move around the water fairly well, so well that I often hear encouraging words from people, such as “Good job, Melvin,” “Nice movement, Melvin,” and “Melvin, I think you’re almost ready to get out of the kiddie pool.”

I don’t want to brag, but I’m quite good at the breaststroke, even better than I am at stroking other body parts.

If you asked me whether I’m a beginner, intermediate or advanced swimmer, I’d have to say that I’m definitely an advanced beginner. On a scale of one to 10, I’m a solid two.

The important thing is, I know how to float. I’m an expert at floating. I can do it for several hours at a time, as long as there’s no leak in the raft.

If it happens to be leaking … well, then I can probably stay afloat by myself for an hour or two. I’m not likely to drown in a body of water, unless there’s a strong current, unless someone drops the radio in. But that’s electrocution, not drowning.

Swimming is a vital skill, as I’m constantly reminded when I read the news. Almost every day, there’s a story of drowning. People drown in all kinds of ways: some fall out of boats, some get caught in floods, some get drunk and think their cars are submarines.

Driver (entering ocean): “How do you like my new submarine, dude?”

Passenger: “Submarine? Who told you this was a submarine?”

Driver: “That’s what it’s called, dude. Submarine.”

Passenger: “Subaru, you idiot! It’s called a Subaru!”

Nearly 3,000 people drown every year in America alone – and most of them are sober. The highest drowning rate, sadly, is among children aged four and younger. They drown in pools, bathtubs, buckets and even toilets. If you’re a responsible parent, you’ll supervise your children whenever they’re around water or other liquids. And if you catch them sticking objects in the toilet, you’ll resist the temptation to say, “What’s wrong with you? Why don’t you use your head?”

Knowing how to swim won’t prevent every type of drowning, but it does reduce the risk drastically. That’s why it’s an essential skill for everyone. It doesn’t matter where in the world you live, unless of course you’re a bushman in the Kalahari Desert, in which case you’re probably not reading this column.

In certain parts of South Asia, including Bangladesh, knowing how to swim is almost as important as knowing how to walk. You don’t need a swimming pool to practice. You just need to stand outside and wait for the rain.

Every year, the monsoons come, and every year, there’s massive flooding. If you’re lucky, the water reaches only your shoulders and you can walk slowly to higher ground, carrying your TV on top of your head. If you’re unlucky, the water is higher than your house and you find yourself sitting on a tree, searching desperately for the most popular guy in your neighborhood – the one with a boat.

You: “Over here, Abdul! Please bring your boat over here! I don’t know how to swim.”

Abdul: “Sorry, there’s not enough space in my boat. I’ve saved Raman and his big TV.”

You: “Tell Raman to dump his TV, so you’ll have space for me.”

Abdul: “Dump his TV? Are you crazy? The cricket match is tonight!”

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