Who wants to go the beach?

How in the world, in a country comprised of over 700 islands, can fewer than 20 percent of the children know how to swim? It’s not as though I’m talking inhospitable, cold waters but rather the warm, amazingly clear and blue waters of the Bahamas.

Drowning deaths in the Bahamas are the second leading cause of accidental death with only traffic accidents causing more. The rate of drowning per 100,000 inhabitants is 6 times greater than in the United States and an astounding 17 times higher than in the United Kingdom.

As a lifelong open water swimmer, it is a privilege to be selected as one of the volunteers for the 2019 SwimTayka swim project on the Bahamian island of Bimini. The goals of SwimTayka are straightforward:

Help low resource communities around the world

1) teach children how to swim with the ultimate goal of saving lives and

2) educate children about the care of their open water and preserve it for generations to come.

In its third season, the week-long program is open free of charge to any children who want to participate. This year 35 kids join in, ages 5 to 17, with swimming abilities ranging from “I’m a rock – watch me sink” to marginal at best.

Each morning, the aspiring swimmers sing the Bahamian National Anthem and then break into three groups for a 90-minute pool session. Two of the groups focus on being “drown-proofed,” i.e. learning how to float and feeling comfortable in the water. The third group works on improving swim skills and techniques.

Following the pool session (and snacks which the kids love, love, love) there is an environmental segment organized and lead by Save the Bays – a Bahamian member of the Waterkeeper Alliance. Waterkeeper is comprised of over 300 chapters worldwide whose common mission is to fight for every community’s right to drinkable, fishable and swimmable water. Guest presenters also include members from the Dolphin Communications Project and from the Bimini Shark Lab. The two common themes of each environmental session care for the ocean and beaches and preservation for future generations (hopefully creating a cadre of environmental stewards).

The highlight of everyone’s day (children and volunteers alike) is hearing “Who wants to go the beach?” Without fail the universal response is an excited chorus of “yays and yes’s.” The beach segment includes beach clean-up along with individual and team-building games and activities. But the real treat is hopping in the ocean and practicing pool drills along with having free time.

While my previous swim training has been one-on-one with kids, having a dozen active, enthusiastic youngsters are challenging at first. But as the week progresses I note an improvement in their swimming skills although the boundless energy and excitement and their inevitable tendency to drift towards chaos never abates. After all, I remind myself, they’re in a pool having fun, not in a classroom.

Have we made a difference? Only the future will tell. But there are very proud smiles on everyone’s faces at the awards ceremony – which by the way are handed out by Robert Kennedy, Jr., founder and president of Waterkeeper Alliance

Volunteering with SwimTayka truly is a unique experience and an opportunity I’m so glad to have had.

Gary Emich (SwimTayka Volunteer)