My favorite mile swimmer ever (let’s call him Michael) had been in my lifesaving merit badge class all week. We worked on his strokes for days to give him confidence and technique, and I knew he could finish the mile. Michael took a little more convincing. I was guarding the swimmers from a kayak and moving up and down the line to check on them as they swam. Every time I passed Michael he was explaining to his rescue boat paddlers that this was the hardest thing he had ever done and he was pretty sure he couldn’t do it but he was just going to keep trying and maybe stop once he got to one of the rocks ahead (all that talking probably made swimming harder).
When enough swimmers finished that the rest were covered by the other guards, I moved up next to Michael for the rest of the mile. He was a quarter mile behind all the other swimmers and still trying to talk himself into it. When he reached the halfway point, however, his self-talk changed into “Well, I guess I can’t really give up now; at least I’m heading back to the dock; if I’ve made it this far I should probably finish; hey, this isn’t so bad.” When he finished his full mile he climbed out, sat on the dock, and said “I guess I’m a swimmer now.” By the end of that swim, Michael knew that he could do hard things.
Swimming, lifesaving, and boating of all kinds give kids confidence in themselves. I may be a little biased since I’ve spent almost half my life as a lifeguard and swim instructor, but as far as I’m concerned teaching a child to swim is one of the best things you can do to keep them safe, teach them discipline, keep them active, show them they can do hard things, and help them have fun.
When it comes to swimming and water activities, however, safety is and must be your first concern. The BSA is committed to the safety of their youth, volunteers, and employees, so they’ve provided resources to support safe Scouting. Every Scout leader should take the BSA Safe Swim Defense and Safety Afloat trainings. Drowning is still one of the top six causes of injury death for youth ages 1-18 in the United States, but if everyone followed these safety protocols it wouldn’t be.
The basic steps of Safe Swim Defense will help you keep your Scouts safe in and around the water:
Qualified Supervision—All swimming activities must be supervised by an adult (age 21 or older) who is trained in Safe Swim Defense and willing and able to take responsibility for the safety of the participants. Ideally, this person should also be trained as an aquatics supervisor and/or lifeguard.
Personal Health Review—The BSA requires Scouts to take a physical before coming to camp because sudden illnesses and existing health conditions can turn even the best swimmers into non-swimmers in an instant. You should have health histories for each participant signed by a parent or guardian and should review any recent illnesses or injuries just before the activity so you can adjust the activity accordingly.
Safe Area—Know where you’re going and what you’re getting yourself into. For swimming activities outdoors, Safe Swim Defense lays out specific guidelines for water depth, clarity and temperature, as well as when to wear life jackets and when diving is acceptable.
A word about weather: any safe area becomes unsafe in severe weather. Check the weather forecast before you go, have a plan for a safe gathering point in case of a change in weather, and immediately leave the water and head to a safe location at any sign of lightning, thunder, or strong wind.
Response Personnel (Lifeguards)—Every swimming activity has to be supervised by at least two rescue personnel. When a pool or beach supplies these lifeguards, they will suffice. If there aren’t any guards on duty, you’ll need to provide your own. Two is the minimum and you have to have at least one guard for every 10 participants. If these response personnel are not certified as lifeguards, it is up to the supervisor to train them in necessary scanning and basic rescue skills, provide rescue equipment, and assign areas of responsibility.
The best way to fulfill this requirement is to have all of your Scouts get the swimming and lifesaving merit badges and then have a few become certified as BSA lifeguards. This has the added bonus of teaching these Scouts responsibility and opening up job opportunities for them.
Lookout—The last member of the safety team is the lookout, who monitors conditions, alerts response personnel to issues they see, and makes sure all Safe Swim Defense requirements are met.
Ability Groups—The BSA swim test, contrary to the assumptions of many Scouts, is not an excuse to make Scouts swim in cold lakes to build character (though that is a nice side effect). You need to be aware of the abilities of each Scout and act accordingly.
But don’t stop with the swim test. Everyone should have the chance to learn how to swim. If you’ve got youth who can’t pass the test or want to improve, have swimming activities, find a water safety instructor to teach them, or enroll them in a swimming merit badge class.
Buddy System—Every participant should have an assigned buddy to keep an eye on them. Buddies should stay together and alert response personnel of issues. As a supervisor, do periodic buddy checks to make sure buddies stick together.
Discipline—Rules only work when participants follow them. Tell your Scouts the rules beforehand and make sure they understand why they are important. Every participant should commit to follow these rules and help others follow them.
Author: Maria Milligan | Grant Writer, Utah National Parks Council, BSA