When did swimming become a universal skill?

From my readings of history it seems like swimming was never a skill that it was expected most people would have. Even sailors in the British wooden navy were not expected to have any swimming ability. Women back in the day were tested for witchcraft by dunking them in a lake and seeing if they drown. So when did it become a common skill for people to have?

Swimming goes back to ancient times.


In most of Africa, nobody goes in the water, because of Bilharzia (Schistosomiasis), which is transmitted by mere exposure to standing fresh water where certain snails are vectors… Ten percent of the world;s population lives in areas prone to Bilharzia, and it is second only to Malaria in mortality incidence.

As for sailors, there is an adage: “Sailors and fishermen never learn to swim – it takes too long to die”.

Sailors (like in the Royal Navy example you gave) intentionally did not want to learn to swim. It was superstition mainly. If I learn to swim, I’m admitting that my ship may sink, or that I may fall overboard. If I can’t swim, I’ll be sure not to let those things happen.

Also, I’m not sure about the assumption that everyone knows how to swim. According to this Red Cross survey, out of 80% of people who claimed they could swim, only a little more than 50% met the standards the Red Cross had in place for “knowing how to swim.” The Red Cross survey was in the US. Wonder what percentages of people who know how to swim compares in other countries?

Is it?

This Slate article from 2010 states:

I’ve done no more research than that at this point, but I’m guessing the overall numbers are similar for other wealthy Western countries.

I’m always surprised at how many Thais cannot swim. The wife can’t. In her case, her mother would not let her near water. Something about water demons. Really. Her mother was Chinese, not Thai – and I mean, a Chinese national to the day she died – so this seems to have been more a Chinese than a Thai thing. Dunno the other Thais’ excuse.

I tried to learn to swim when I was young–but I kept sinking!

The most difficult part for me was getting out of the bag. Pretty easy after that.

Perhaps worth noting here that all animals can instinctively swim to safety, right from birth, even before they can walk to safety. Humans can, too, and South Pacific Island children could swim quite well before they could walk. Their parents just threw them in the ocean, bhe babies would instinctively keep their heads above water and avoid taking any in, or very quickly discover how to cough it out.

So the answer to the OP’s question is that humans have always been able to swim, but learned fear of water in childhood and rejected swimming as a notion. Or were simply not exposed to opportunity to acclimate themselves to water until aversion to the medium solidified.

I learned to swim at the Villa Flora Hotel in Bangkok. It was pretty close to our compound and we had several Thai friends that would meet us there. If I recall there was another place with swimming privileges called the Capital Hotel.

This was 1965 or so.

Everyone (who is whole in all their parts, not paralyzed, etc.) can swim, right now. They just don’t know it! One of the causes of drowning is panic, where the victim thrashes around madly, instead of holding still and paddling steadily.

Quicksand is also nowhere near as deadly as it seems, but people who fall into it have a tendency to kick madly, just making the goop less able to support weight.

Now, as to falling out of airplanes, I got nothin’…

It’s like swimming to shore. Humans will instinctively fly down to the ground.

It’s nearly impossible to drown in wet quicksand (but it does happen).

“Dry” quicksand however, or basically any large pool or pile of small loose particles like grain, under the right circumstances does act just like the classic movie quicksand; any space created by moving around or even breathing causes the particles to rush into that space, which will suck you in deeper and deeper. Its existence in nature was doubted for quite some time, possibly even still is, but this same effect occurring in grain silos is well documented.

I don’t recognize either hotel name but found this for the Capitol. It says it was supposed to reopen in 2009.

My grandparents had a small place on the Magothy River, and pretty much every Sunday from June to September was spent there, swimming, boating, whatever. Plus there was a public pool within walking distance of home, and some of my friends had above-ground backyard pools. None of us were good swimmers, but we could move thru the water and float - to me that was normal.

Imagine my surprise when I was in Navy bootcamp and a good many of my fellow recruits couldn’t pass the very basic swim test - tread water for 5 minutes and swim 50 yards (or was it 50 feet? Can’t recall.) I do remember that one of the girls who was terrified of the water was from NYC and apparently she’d never been in a pool or any large body of water in her life. Who knew??

Yep, that was it. The top floor had an open air balcony and they would show movies
on a screen. Good times. Thanks for the picture.

I was always amazed by how many people cannot swim. I grew up doing it in the nastiest water possible and I am just as comfortable or even more in the water than I am on land. However, it really is a cultural trait and it takes time to learn. I have a senior year photo of me in high school with all of my fellow classmates who were roughly half black and half white. My white classmates were in the pool while none of the black classmates would not even walk into the shallow end because they were scared of water despite many of them being stellar athletes in general. That isn’t racism; it is an observable fact. They just never learned despite being around water their entire lives.

The worst case I ever encountered was in Oahu, Hawaii when my brother and I asked an Asian lady about 50 years old where the best nearby beaches were. She told us that she didn’t know anything about beaches because she had never been to one. Then she conceded that maybe she walked on one when she was much younger but didn’t like it so she never went back. God Bless Her but that is a special kind of dedication when you live on one of the most popular islands in the world for half a century or so and you don’t know how to swim or anything about the beaches.

I have very little patience with non-swimmers. It is something that everyone should know intuitively even if it takes practice. I have a pool even though the season is limited around here and I have thrown my kids into it since they were little because they have to know how to swim. I have had to jump in and rescue them a couple of times but they know how to swim very well now. It is better to learn it that way rather than falling off a boat and drowning in the Atlantic ocean.

Yeah but as it has been said, the issue comes from their parents, from the environment they grew in. Or even sometimes from lousy swimming teachers. It’s like a conversation I had with one of my end users yesterday “ohmygod, you must be so sick of me!” “no, I’m sick and tired and angry with the people who came up with this shitty process and those piece of crap manuals! It’s not your fault!”

I’ve got breathing problems. All through childhood, “the girl breathes wrong”, then I’d ask “ok, so how do I breathe?” and the fastabulous answer would be “normally! Right!” Yeah dude that’s such a wonderful explanation. It wasn’t until I was 40 that I found out I’ve got allergic rhinitis and that the area where I grew up happens to trigger it constantly. Thing is, my swimming teachers would jump to the crawl as soon as possible, and for me that was a horror show to the tune of “the girl breathes wrong!”. How did I learn to swim? By falling into the middle of a deep pool, freaking out, then thinking “ok, if you’re going to drown at least drown with some dignity”, stopping and discovering that holy shit, if I didn’t fight I actually floated. Moving from dog paddle to breaststroke was a matter of a few hours, but I still can’t crawl.

I did the Red Cross programs, though, and they are pretty demanding. The summer camp I went to required them, and I was put in the Beginner’s group my first year, even though I could make it from one end of the pool to the other using a crawl stroke. I didn’t breathe with each stroke, so I “failed.” After I stopped going to camp, I continued with the Red Cross program, and completed the highest level they had for kids. We had to swim freestyle for 10 minutes without a break, and underwater for 20 feet, and do a certain distance using the crawl, with correct breathing (this was very important), in however much time it took us. We also had to jump off a 20 foot high platform fully clothed, and alternate floating and treading water for a certain amount of time, I forget how much. I was 13 when this was expected of me.

There are a lot of people who can do a rescue dog paddle, or even something that resembles the crawl, except with their head up, who would be considered “non-swimmers” by the Red Cross.

However, I think it is true that the 1950s were the beginning of the organized children’s activities, where kids had lessons all the time. It increased every decade. Swimming lessons go back a pretty long way. Pretty much to the Salk vaccine and the end of pools and beaches closing due to polio fears. Since then, swimming lessons have been a part of most people’s childhoods. I had them in the 70s, and I’m almost 50, that means that going back about a generation before me, people had swimming lessons. Both my parents were American-born, and good swimmers.

Back in the 40s and 50s we weren’t allowed in a pool for fear of polio. I don’t know if the chances of catching were greater in a public pool than, say, in a movie theater, but mothers certainly believed it was. My father taught me to swim in the best possible circumstance: in the back bay behind Atlantic City. Salt water for buoyancy but no waves. I am perfectly comfortable in water over my head, but I do not do the crawl well. Mostly I use the elementary backstroke, slow and steady and I can do it forever.