The first care of the intending swimmer is, of course, to find a proper piece of water in which to learn his first lessons. The very best water that can be found is that of the sea, on account of its saltines and bitterness, whereby two great advantages are obtained.
The first advantage is that, on account of the salt and other substances which are dissolved in it, the sea water is so much heavier than fresh, that it gives more support to the body, and enables the beginner to float much sooner than he can expect to do in fresh water.
The other advantage is, that the taste of the sea water is so nauseous that the learner takes very good care to keep his lips tightly shut, and so does not commit the common error of opening the mouth, which is fatal to all swimming, and is sure to dishearten a beginner by letting water get down his throat and half choke him. As to place, there is nothing better than a sloping sandy shore, where the tide is not very strong. In some places the tide runs with such force, that if the beginner is taken off his legs, he will be carried away, or at least that he will have great difficulty in regaining his feet.
We strongly recommend him to walk over the spot at low water, and see whether there are any stones, sticks, rocks, or holes, and if so, to remove all the moveable impediments and mark the position of the others.
Take especial care of the holes, for there is nothing so treacherous. A hole of some six or seven inches in depth and a yard in diameter, looks so insignificant when the water is out that few persons would take any notice o f it. But, when a novice is in the water, these few inches make just the difference between safety and death.
On sandy shores, the most fertile source of holes is to be found in large stones. They sink rather deeply into the sand and form miniature rocks, round which the water courses as the tides ebb and flow, thus cutting a channel completely round the stone. Even when the stone is removed, the hole will remain unfilled throughout several tides.
The next best place for learning to swim is the river with a fine sandy bed, clear water and no weeds. Since that extraordinary river weed has swept throughout our canals and rivers, it is extremely difficult to find a stream that is free from weeds. However, it will be easy enough to clear a sufficient space in which a learner can take his first lessons.
When such a spot has been found, the next care is to examine the bed of the river and to remove very carefully everything that might hurt the feet. If bushes should grow on the banks, look out carefully for broken scraps of boughs, which fall into the stream, become saturated with water, sink to the bottom, and become fixed with one of the points upwards.
If human habitations should be near, beware of broken glass and crockery, fragments of which are generally thrown into the river, and will inflict most dangerous wounds of trodden on. If the bed of the stream should be in the least muddy, look for mussels, which lie imbedded almost to their sharp edges, that project upwards and cut the feet nearly as badly as broken glass.
Failing sea or river, a pond or canal is the only resource, and furnishes the very worst kind of water. The bed of most ponds is studded with all kinds of cutting and piercing objects, which are thrown in by careless boys and remain where they fell. Then, the bottom is almost invariably muddy, and the water is seldom clean. Still, bad as is a pond, it is better than nothing and the intending swimmer may console himself with the reflection that he is doing his duty, and with the prospect of swimming in the sea some time or other.
Of course, the large public baths possess some of the drawbacks of ponds, but they have at all events the advantage of a regulated depth, a firm bank, and no mud.
As the very essence of swimming lies in confidence, it is always better for the learner to feel secure that he can leave the water whenever he likes. Therefore, let him take a light rope of tolerable length, tie one end to some firm object on the bank, and let the rest of the rope lie in the water. Manilla is the best kind of rope for this purpose, because it is so light that it floats on the surface instead of sinking, as is the case with an ordinary hempen rope.
If there is only sand on the shore, the rope can be moored quite firmly by tying it to the middle of a stout stick, burying the stick a foot or so in the sand and filling up the trench. You may pull till you break the rope, but you will never pull the stick out of its place. If you are very nervous, tie two sticks in the shape of a cross and bury them in like manner.
The rope need not be a large one, as it will not have to sustain the whole weight of your body, and it will be found that a cord as thick as an ordinary washing line will answer every purpose.
On the side of a stream or pond, tie the rope to a tree, or hammer a stake in the ground. A stake eighteen inches in length, and as thick as an ordinary broomstick, is quite large enough. Hammer it rather more than two-thirds into the ground, and let it lean boldly away from the water's edge. The best way of fixing the rope to it is by the "clove nitch."
Now, having your rope in your hand, go quietly into the water backwards, keeping your face towards the bank. As soon as you are fairly in the water, duck completely beneath the surface. Be sure that you do go fairly under water, for there is nothing more deceptive than the feel of water to a novice. He dips his head, as he fancies, at least a foot beneath the surface; he feels the water in his nose, he hears it is his ears, and thinks that he is almost at the bottom, when, in reality, the back of his head is quite dry.
The best way of "ducking" easily is to put the left hand on the back of the head, hold to the rope with the right hand, and then duck until the left hand is well under water.
The learner should next accustom himself to the new element by moving about as much as possible, walking as far as the rope will allow him, and jumping up and down so as to learn by experience the buoyancy of the water.
Perhaps the first day may be occupied by this preliminary process, and on the second visit the real business may begin.
In swimming as in most other pursuits, a good beginning is invaluable. Let the learner bestow a little care on the preliminaries, and he will have no bad habits to unteach himself afterwards. It is quite easy to learn a good style at first as a bad style, although the novice may just at the beginning fancy that he could do better by following his own devices.
The first great object is to feel a perfect confidence in the sustaining power of the water, and according to our ideas, the best method of doing so is by learning to float on the back.
We will give a separate paragraph to the important point of floating on the back:
To take care that the cord is within easy reach, so that it may be grasped in a moment, should the novice become nervous, as he is rather apt to do just at first. Take it in both hands, and lay yourself very gently in the water, arching the spine backwards as much as possible, and keeping the legs and knees perfectly straight and stiff.
Now, press the head as far back as possibly can be done, and try to force the back of the head between the shoulder blades. You can practice this attitude at home, by lying on two chairs.
When you have thus lain in the water you will find that you are almost entirely upheld by its sustaining power, and that only a very little weight laid in the water. On reflection, you will also discern that the only weight which pulls on the rope is that of your hands and arms, which are out of water, and which, therefore, act as dead weight.
Indeed, you might just as well lay several iron weights of a pound each upon your body, for the hands and arms are much heavier than we generally fancy. Just break an arm or a leg, and you will find out wheat heavy articles they are.
Now, let your arms sink gradually into the water, and you will see that exactly in proportion as they sink, so much weight is taken off the rope; and if you have only courage to put them entirely under water, and to loose the rope, your body will be supported by the water alone.
These are facts, but we may as well have reasons.
Bulk for bulk, a human being weighs considerably less than water, i.e., at the temperature of ordinary sea or river water. Now, as the lighter substance will float in the denser, it follows that the human body will float in water. If a dead body be flung into the water, some part of it will float above the surface until the lungs get choked up with water, and so the whole body is much heavier than it ought to be.
Now, supposing that a living person in a fainting condition, and, therefore, unable to struggle, were to fall into the water some part of the body would remain above the surface. But as the head, which is one solid mass of brain, muscle, and bone, is much heavier than water, it follows that the head would hang down in the water, and the shoulder blades would appear above the surface, being buoyed up by the air filled lungs. The hands and arms, of course, follow their natural inclination, and fall forward, thus turning the body on its face.
Then this is the natural position of a living human being in the water, provided that he does not attempt to struggle or alter his position. And the knowledge of the fact is the key to all swimming on scientific principles.
A considerable part of the body remains above the water, but it is the wrong part, as far as the preservation of life is concerned. We want to breathe, and it is very clear that we cannot breathe through our shoulders. Therefore, the first point in swimming is to reverse the natural order of things, and to bring the nostrils above the surface of the water.
The mouth may be set aside altogether, because there is no necessity for that aperture in swimming. It is meant for eating and for talking, but was never intended for breathing, which is the only function a swimmer regards.
Swimming, therefore, resolves itself into the ability to keep the nostrils above water, and the difficulty lies in the fact the nostrils are set in the heaviest part of the whole body, and that which is absolutely certain to sink below the surface unless continual efforts are being made to keep it in its right position.
The simplest method of obtaining this object is to reverse the entire position of the body. Let, therefore, the learner be on his back, let him arch the spine in directly the opposite direction, and bend the head backwards instead of letting it hand forwards.
The result of this change of posture will be at once apparent. The heaviest part of the body, the back of the head, will be partly supported by the water, and partly by the air which fills the lungs. The nostrils will then become the lightest part of the body, and will, of course, be above the surface when the remainder is submerged.
Practically, the bather will find this result. If he will assume the attitude which has been thus described, and will be content to keep his lips tightly shut, and his limbs perfectly still, eh will find that when he takes an inspiration the face will rise almost entirely out of the water. At each expiration the face will sink as far as the eyebrows and the lower lip, but no further, the nostrils being always left free for the passage of air to the lungs.
Any one who will give this plan a fair trial will gain more real knowledge of swimming in an hour than can be obtained in a year by mere practical teaching. So powerful is the buoyancy of the water that if any one, whether he can swim or not, will lie in the attitude that has been described, and will not stir hand or foot, he cannot sink if he tries. A cork will sink as soon as he.
So impressed are we with the extreme value of floating on the back, that we recommend our readers to practice that and that alone until they feel perfectly competent that when they lie in the proper attitude, the water cannot fail to support them. If the bather wishes to lie quite horizontally on the surface of the water he can do so by stretching his arms as far as possible over his head.
Their weight will counterbalance that of the legs, and will cause the toes to appear at the very surface. This position is sometimes called the Balance.
The directions which we have given are intended for those who are obliged to bathe in fresh water.
Those who are fortunate enough to bathe in the sea will find the lesson much easier.
The water supports the body so much more perfectly that even during an expiration the face seldom sinks lower than the chin, while a fair inspiration raises the whole face out of the water.
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