Into the Deep: Swimming Lessons Cruiser Style

Family snorkel in Bonaire. Photo by Vicki Blank

After three crazy, hot months living and working on the hard, it was a great relief to finally anchor in Chaguaramas Harbour, Trinidad. 

Our three boys, then aged twelve, nine, and five were ecstatic to be on the water like real sailors, and in that hot climate, the water surrounding us beckoned.

Five year old Eden was eager. He couldn’t get his life jacket on fast enough to jump in after big brothers, if not on top of them! We were constantly reminding him to notify someone before jumping overboard; confidence in deep water was not an issue for this little guy!

Friends gave Eden some armband floaties, accompanied with instructions for us to the effect of: 1) letting him enjoy his armbands for a few days, 2) stealthily release some air, letting him get accustomed to the subtle extra effort, and 3) repeat process, till no longer relying on the floaties. 

Meanwhile, strength and confidence in his own ability to swim without assistance, has gradually been increasing. 

During this process, my husband Dave also taught him the importance of relaxing in the float/starfish position on his back. We’d occasionally get Eden to remove his armbands, jump from the boarding ladder and doggy paddle a short, safe distance to reach us. Once comfortable with this, we’d keep just out of reach, not allowing Eden to touch us. If he panicked, inevitably leading to sinking, Dave’s response was “stop panicking, roll onto your back, or you’re going to drown!” Often, Dave would roll him onto his back, telling him to rest and then paddle back. Gradually, he became more at ease with floating on his back.

Lining up to take the plunge. Photo by Vicki Blank

Eden loved snorkeling. With armbands on and face immersed, constant animated squeals funneled up through his snorkel! Alarming at first until we realized he was very excited, talking to no one in particular. His little body twisted and contorted chasing one fish after another, like a Labrador chasing seagulls on a beach!

Later, arriving in Grenada after our first overnight, offshore passage, we found the wonderfully clear blue water a lot more inviting than the dark waters of Trinidad’s Gulf of Paria. 

Snorkeling gear donned ashore, we were keen to investigate the local underwater scene. Eden was snorkeling next to me, contented as ever, but without armbands and the depth was well over my head! This became normal practice. While snorkeling and distracted by underwater wonders, he’d get about confidently and happily in deep water. But just swimming, he’d doggy paddle a bit and then panic.

In Carriacou, late afternoon became beach time with another family, after jobs and schoolwork.

One day I noticed Eden following the older kids running to the end of the jetty and jumping off. With no ladder to climb back up, the only option was to swim a short distance back to shore … which he accomplished, (thankfully) over and over again!

On one occasion, while in Curaçao, the boys had taken the dinghy ashore when I heard a loud stomp, stomp on deck followed by heavy breathing. Investigating, I discovered a wet rat in the form of Eden, and was a little perplexed as to how he’d arrived, given the dinghy and boys remained ashore. He confirmed they weren’t ready to return so he swam the 150ft! A wave of gratefulness and pride washed over us as we dried and congratulated our little guy on his longest swimming feat so far!

In Bonaire, we were moored approximately 300ft off the beach. In the pristine water, the hull of our schooner through a mask looked like she was hovering in an indigo blue outer space.

We were preparing our boat for storage when faint cries could be heard.

Racing up on deck (kids on board makes for quite an active lifestyle), I could just make out our eldest ashore yelling, “he’s not supposed to be here,” frantically pointing at Eden, who is now over three quarters of the way swimming to shore. Determined, he landed and later swam the return leg with some

helpful encouragement from his older brother.

Once again there are stern warnings (after some congratulating) about letting us know before jumping overboard and swimming ashore!

Now back in New Zealand it seemed like an eternity before the summer water was enjoyable and not just very refreshing. Eden’s confidence returned with the warmth.  

On a school day at the local pool, the Principle congratulated Eden as hero of the day when, to the amazement and applause of his friends, he became the youngest and smallest to bomb off the highest diving board (almost 12 feet) and swim to the edge of the very deep pool with ease.

 

Editor’s note: Teaching children to swim is vital to their safety afloat. Vicki’s unconventional approach might not work for everyone and we recommend caution at all times. 

A homeschooling mum of three boys, Vicki Blank, a longtime ocean lover, became obsessed with sailing and eventually dragged  her family from New Zealand to the Caribbean to fix up a boat, live aboard, and learn to sail. Visit: [email protected]