Free Swim: Teaching Bahamians How to Float

A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon writes about all things ocean.
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Floating is a learned art for people born in the Bahamas. (Photo courtesy of Jen Galvin)

Eleuthera, Bahamas—Named after the Greek word for “freedom,” Eleuthera is 110 miles long and just a mile at its widest. To the east is the occasionally wild Atlantic, to the west a shallow, usually calm Caribbean Sea. The waters on both sides are ideal for swimming.

Unless, of course, you don’t know how to swim. Which is the case for 80 percent of the Eleuthera islanders. Taught to fear the ocean, even some of the fishermen who make their living off the sea can only dog paddle.

A pair of young American women are trying to erase that aquatic inability, founding Swim to Empower, an organization that teaches people of all ages to swim.

Filmmaker Jen Galvin documented the efforts of Swim to Empower in her movie Free Swim and book We, Sea. “Having grown up in the U.S., on Long Island, I was aware of the questions about minorities and the swimming gap and had wondered why some kids in my neighborhood didn’t know how to swim.”

Her documentary has helped expand the program.

“The story promotes discussion about the swimming gap and ignites broader questions about health and conservation,” says Galvin. “For many, swimming translates into a new perspective—a ‘sink or swim’ mixed with a ‘there’s no place like home’ sentiment—bringing a greater sense of freedom with the knowledge that the underwater world exists and can be survived, and even enjoyed.”

Filmmaker Galvin and one of Swim to Empower’s founders, Brenna Hughes, who has been teaching swimming in the Bahamas for eight years, sat down to tell TakePart about persuading water-bound people to make peace with the water that surrounds them.

TakePart: Simple question: Why is that so many Bahamians can't swim, despite growing up surrounded by water?

Brenna:  It's funny that you framed this as the simplest question. In my mind, this is one of the more nuanced questions. There are so many reasons why Bahamians and many coastal people do not swim. Socio-economic, political, cultural, personal... The most formidable barrier to swimming, I'd say, is access to both education and equipment.

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Many of the local fishermen spend their lives on the water, but don&39;t know how to swim. (Photo courtesy of Jen Galvin)

Access to equipment is an interesting matter, as I mean both pools and open water beaches. Nassau residents have access to swim clubs and pools and members of the family islands have access to open water beaches. However, with recent private home and hotel development, this access has become more unequal. Open water areas are quickly becoming privatized. The equipment itself becomes a division between the affluent and poor, those with straightforward access and those without, and has deepened the socio-economic and political divisions between those who can swim and those who cannot.

Jen:  I agree.  It’s a surprisingly complicated question that brings up many loaded, historical harms. When asked to an individual, it’s usually a very personal question. People also define swimming differently. Some think swimming is getting wet up to your knees, splashing around or just taking a soak. I see being comfortable in the water as a node for environmental, economic and social determinants of health—this makes it a deep, rich story, especially for islanders living on such a long, skinny and low-lying island. But there seem to be some practical solutions. The work of organizations like Swim to Empower and the Diversity in Aquatics Program can’t be stressed enough.

You can also distill it down to a basic kid-adult framework. Kids learn to swim from adults (or, older peers). If there are not adults who can teach kids this life skill, most kids won’t learn to swim. Plus, kids tend to spend a lot of time indoors. It’s also an emotional access issue. The real fears associated with swimming shouldn’t be dismissed—especially when it comes to the ocean. Swimming is labeled as a life skill for a reason—it reveals untapped potential for achievement, health, and broader connections with the natural world.

TakePart: What was the hardest part of the project, early on?

Brenna:  The hardest part was creating a program that is self-sustainable and community focused. It was critical to foster genuine connections with key community members. However, this takes time. Although it often felt like we were losing momentum, the time we invested in the community resulted in a successful collaboration. 

Jen: My role as an indie documentary filmmaker was to tell a story that connected ocean health with human health in a personal way. The film and the book document the paradox of islanders not knowing how to swim—and the power of people learning while reconnecting with their coastal home. I originally had wanted to tell this story over several locations globally, but ended up focusing the story on Eleuthera. There’s something powerful about telling a big, universal story that comes from a small place.

Technically, Free Swim was challenging because I was a one-woman crew and my equipment was constantly exposed to the hot sun, sand, saltwater and bumpy dirt roads. Capturing sound during the swimming lessons was a little tricky at times, especially because the wind really can rip.

TakePart: What has been your biggest success to-date?

Brenna: To link the work of the Bahamas Swimming Federation, Olympic Association, and Swim to Empower. Our goal is to create a program run by Bahamians, for Bahamians. We had hoped that students who had excelled in the curriculum would become instructors and perpetuate the program, but teenage pregnancy and the prevalence of drugs have hindered this path. We saw an opportunity to work with the Bahamas Swimming Federation and the Bahamian Olympic Association to access their network of expert Bahamian swimmers. The competitive Bahamian swimmers have expanded the program beyond the original five communities on Eleuthera.

Jen: Teachers, parents, camp leaders, students and organizational leaders are using the guide that comes with the movie. With funding from The Eastman Foundation and the Living Oceans Foundation, I’ve also worked to run multimedia workshops for educators—the first conducted in Nassau with teachers from throughout the Bahamas; the next one will be in Nevis in mid-April.

TakePart: Some on the island have taken up your efforts and are now teaching swimming to their friends and relatives.

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Learning to float is all about trust. (Photo courtesy of Jen Galvin)

Brenna:  Yes. On a local scale, the teacher aides and older siblings in the community continue the lessons when the program is not in session. On a larger scale, competitive Bahamian swimmers from BSF and BOA are now really leading the force. They are returning to islands where they grew up or have a great deal of relatives and are teaching those communities how to swim. It's amazing to see how a program can expand but still stay rooted in community.

TakePart: Do you have favorite memory of the time you've spent on Eleuthera?

Brenna: One day after lessons, one of the young boys, Denero, grabbed the lifeguard tube and started playing it like a drum. The other children gathered around him as a "band," and the class sang and danced our way down the jetty. It was an amazing moment to see the ocean, which had brought so much fear, suddenly produce abundant joy.

Jen: While filming, it was incredible to witness such a consistent, human response when people of any age learned to float. I’ll never forget those faces.


jon_bowermasterA six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon Bowermaster has spent the past two decades circling the world’s ocean, studying both its health and the lives of the people who depend on it. He is the author of 11 books (his most recent, OCEANS, Threats to Our Seas and What You Can Do to Turn the Tide, was published by Participant Media) and producer of a dozen documentary films. His blog—Notes From Sea Level—reports daily on issues impacting the ocean and us. Follow Jon on Facebook.


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