Can you actually swim?

A lot of people use their ability to swim as an excuse for not wearing a life jacket.
But can you actually swim?
Here is an article on how the Red Cross defines whether you can swim or not.

I’m betting a lot of people that call themselves swimmers can’t do these things.
I don’t consider myself a swimmer, and I’m pretty sure I can do most of them. All of them, with a little practice.
Over estimating your abilities can kill you.


I thought I could swim as I already had a SCUBA divemaster rating but wanted to be able to do the timed distance requirements for an instructors rating.
I took my dad and we signed up at the local pool for adult swimming class telling the instructor we could swim but just needed some pointers and really didn’t need to join the little old ladies group. After all I grew up with a pool in my backyard.
He asked us to swim across the pool and then announced we didn’t know how to swim and to join the ladies.
It didn’t take long to acquire a great new skill that made it much more fun to be around the water…
Lessons are highly recommended no matter your age…


The two best things I’ve retained from Boy Scouts is a knowledge of knots, and swimming the elementary backstroke, aka “survival backstroke”. Sort of like the breaststroke but on your back it allows you to make slow forward progress with your mouth always out of the water, and using minimal energy. I believe it may have saved my life as a teenager when I was swept offshore by the undertow at an ocean beach. I didn’t panic, but just aimed my self toward shore and slowly did the rescue stroke. Looking up at the sky, I could use the clouds to help me keep moving in the right direction. (BTW, I didn’t know at the time that swimming parallel to shore is the fastest way to get out of an undertow.)


Really nice article…thanks for sharing.

The skill of getting out of pool water without a ladder equates to doing a scramble/cowboy/cowgirl with kayaking.

And the spinning about in the water tests orientation in a stressful situation.

It is good to see an article highlighting minimum basic skills explained clearly.

I could swim pretty well when I was a Senior Life Saver in 1966. I always wear my PFD when paddling.

1 Like

Have been swimming all my life. I can float for however long I need to in fresh water and salt. Salt water is easy. I can orient under water, and did a lot of free diving as a teen. I wear a PFD because cold water, current, rough water, or injury can change everything.

At my age I am not as strong anymore, so my endurance isn’t as good. When 18 I swam about 100 yards out to an island, and dove 10 feet in dark water to find a man that drowned. Pulled him up to the surface, but needed help getting him to the shore of the island about 30 feet away. He wasn’t revived, though several of us took turns until the rescue folks got there. I’m not in that kind of shape anymore. I am still confident in the water, but show it respect. Wear a PFD!

Ex Lifeguard Instructor, Advance Swiftwater Rescue Instructor, and Canoeing Instructor.

I have always worn a pfd whenever/wherever I paddle. I still do; every time, no excuses!

Occasionally someone asks me, “Why are you wearing a life jacket”?
My retort is always the same; I can’t swim.
That is usually enough to satisfy the “drunk river dorks” who never wear a pfd, and are prone to asking stupid questions.


P.S. It’s too hot to wear a pfd!!! That is BS excuse!!!
Pull over, take a dip, chill in the shade for awhile, stay well hydrated, paddle in the cool of the day.

1 Like

We grew up on Chesapeake Bay before air conditioning was popular and were on the water every weekend. My two brothers and I swam competitively which is a great way to perfect ones strokes. We belonged to a private pool and spent most of the summer there.

We started running rivers at age 10 with the Boy Scouts. Practicing rescues and swimming in moving water made the advantages of PFDs seem obvious. They became a lifelong habit. A few bad swims have made them a necessity.

I took a SCUBA class a long time ago. The instructor did not want to take anyone in the ocean that was not a competent swimmer. About 2/3 of the class did not pass the swimming test.

I have spent the last 50 years in the West where the water is almost always cold. We learned the importance of wet suits and dry suits for water contact by water skiiing, surfing, wake boarding, and running rivers during snowmelt. When you are giving the safety talk to a group for a river trip, have them stand in the water at least thigh deep. They will quickly figure out whether they to wear a wet suit.

I just remembered an incident where I was pinned on a rock ledge under the tube of a raft. The water level was at my chin. The guy holding the straps of my lifejacket was a good friend that used to swim for UCLA.

I easily meet that and much more. I wouldn’t call that criteria swimming either. Always wear my PFD. I even keep it on while pulling up on floater and then over bulkhead. The best thing I have going for me is I never panic in any situation. It does ZERO to help any situation.

Yes. Very much so. One night in a third world country I was caught in the washingmachine where big waves collapsed on the beach. No one can swim in that. Can’t do anything but relax, expel what’s in your lungs a little at a time and hope you surface.
Then when you feel a lightness of no water around your head, blow out and take as big and deep breath as fast as you can because the last 2 times that happened you could barely inhale before a wave crashed down upon you and you were in the washing machine again.
Eventually you will be brought to the place where all the wave water goes, then goes back out to sea. Doesn’t matter if you’re dead or alive, you’ll wind up there if you are lucky.

So I found my self out in the quiet, black ocean. My eyes were a bit blurry from the saltwater washing I had, but I did a 360 to figure out where I was. Far in the distance, I saw a tiny red light. I had no idea what that was, but I knew that was land. I thought about swimming paralell to the beach until I was out of the big wave area, but wasn’t sure how far that was, if I would get caught in any more rip tides, and I was pretty beat up, so figured the light was my best bet.

I looked up at the stars for guidance, but figured the little red light was better, so no floating on my back using the stars, gonna have to be sidestroke to keep my head above water and keep oriented towards that red light.

I swam parallel to that light for a while as I didn’t want to try and swim back where I was washed out, against that current. So after a while, I turned 90* to point at that light and began the swim back. I had no idea how long I was swimming, how far out I had been, nor was at that moment, but I thought it’d be ironic if the sharks ate me, then the indigs fishing would catch one and bring it to the beach where people would buy it for food.

I was finally able to hear the rythmic clap of the big waves as they collapsed upon the shore. I knew this would be my only shot, so I kept swimming. Soon I felt my self going up and down, so I was getting near the beach. The thunderous claps of the waves hitting the beach grew louder. This was it, going back into the washing machine, but I ain’t going out w/o a fight.

Swells kept getting bigger and bigger, as was the thunderous crashes of waves. Timing, timing would be the key. When I was about at the apex, I swam like hell. Timing. I was going higher and higher with each swell until suddenly the water fell out and was replaced by air. I took a big gulp of air and curled into a ball for the crash. Went under, around, sideways, not sure where up was, but then as soon as the ‘lightness’ of lack of water hit, I blew out, took a deep breath and swam like hell away from the waves coming behind me. Then I was picked up and tossed through the air again. Rinse, lather, repeate.

I don’t know how many times this was done, but suddenly I heard a voice asking me if I needed any help. I turned, looked and saw a guy standing there in mid thigh water while I was swimming next to him. “You can stand up” he said. It took me a couple of tries to stand up as my feet would give way and my body and brain would immediately revert back into swimming mode. I finally made it to shore, where I knelt in the sand and looked up. That red light was some radio tower in the distance.

So yeah, I can swim. I have no fear of water, day or night, shallow or deep. I do greatly respect fast water though as it’s stronger than I am, even back when I was in my prime. You have to learn to work with it, take what it gives you, read it, make it your friend.

Because I can’t walk on water.

1 Like

I’ve done a lot of on-water safety support for triathlons and other swim events. A good percentage of these people think that they are competent swimmers, but have only swum in pools. When in an open water venue a number of problems arise. Without being able to see the bottom, panic attacks are common. A great number of the people that DNF the swim portion, fail in the first few hundred feet and have to be pulled out. Without bottom painted or floating lane markers many cannot swim in a straight line. A number of people cannot maintain a normal swim stroke for more than a few hundred feet, revert to a backstroke, and invariably begin to swim in circles without the lane markers.

People have had no experience with waves and often become seasick. It’s not uncommon to have people throw up on the bow of your boat. Others cannot breathe properly when swimming in waves and end up swallowing a lot of water and choking. People unused to current are frequently swept off the course.

It’s interesting that people that take part in triathlons will practice bike riding and running all year long, but never think to practice swimming in conditions that match the event that they are going to compete in.


I learned to stay under water longer by doing just that. Expel a bit of air, but save enough to do it a few more times when you have the urge to breath. With Practice you can hold your breath a lot longer than you think.

I doubt I could hold mine half as long as when I was free diving. Collected marine topicals off the Atlantic beaches and reefs from Singer Island to the Keys It was profitable, but I did it because I loved it. Of course when doing that I had the advantage of fins, mask and snorkel. With them you become a marine mammal. I also had 2 fine mesh fish nets with 18" wood handles to catch the fish, and a large plastic bag attached to a belt around my waist to put them in. I would spend hours in the clear Atlantic water.

Having lived a mile from the Atlantic until 13, I then lived on a freshwater lake until 18. Mom would check us for fins, and say we would turn into fish we spent so much time in the water. Didn’t wear a PFD until I started canoeing. I wear mine sailing, canoeing, and kayaking now, and will in power boats too which I never did in my younger years.

1 Like

I also don’t consider myself a good swimmer.

I can certainly pass the test above, and I’ve been a PADI scuba divemaster for over 40 years, but I would absolutely never paddle my kayak without wearing a PFD.

1 Like

80 pounds and 45 years ago I could swim to the side of the pool, kick and get out of the pool in a lot easier motion than I can now.

I could swim up to a canoe, reach the mid thwart, kick and be in the canoe without much water (swim suit drips)

I used to surface dive to the bottom of the pool and make a recovery. Now, I start floating up halfway down.

I can’t do those things any more. My mind remembers it but my body has a different picture of capabilities. I think most people remember what they could do it 25 better than what can be done now. Likely because they don’t practice those things.

Especially guys.

…the further we get from our youth, the better things were back then, especially ourselves.

The elementary backstroke is nice for easy swimming in calm water, but IME it’s not so good in even small waves. Face looks upward, eyes do not see well what is approaching, and wave throws water into nostrils.

My favorite stroke is the sidestroke. It is almost as restful while still providing better vigilance for approaching waves. Also for maintaining course.

I can swim. That doesn’t put me in the same category as lifeguards or real exercise swimmers. I also dislike the crawl.

I can swim crawl, side stroke, resting back stroke, and breast stroke relatively well although I will admit that I have not been in a pool for a couple of years now because of the virus pandemic.

If you are swimming and having to self-rescue with a kayak or canoe the side stroke is usually the most effective stroke to use. The resting back stroke is good for the defensive swimmer posture but does not allow good downstream visibility.

Crawl and breast stroke are important for when you need to get somewhere in a hurry to avoid a downstream obstacle or to break through an eddy line. Most people have more power with the crawl but breast stroke can better keep your head out of the water and affords better visibility.

Being able to swim well in a pool does not necessarily prepare you for swimming in swift current and big rapids.

Unfortunately, as we age so does our skills. Being prepared for the unexpected is the only way you have a fighting chance of not becoming a statistic. You could have been someone who burned up the local pool or maybe spent your summers as a life guard. If you get clocked in the head as your kayak or canoe rolls over what then? or you take a huge gulp of water at the first dunking? Things can and do go south very fast and sometimes under ideal conditions. I can swim, I can also sink, one reason I wear a very nice PFD every time I am on the water.