Doorways 8. Teach a Girl to Swim.

By Martin Crabbe | May 13 2020

Doorways 8. Teach a Girl to Swim.

Blog Category: Campaign updateBlog Tags: Education

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    I’ve always been fascinated by the shipping forecast. I’d listen eagerly to find out what Grandma and Grandad Kelly could expect to see from their window as they looked out into the Firth of Forth. And, no matter when I listened, there always seemed to be storms blowing in Viking. It wasn’t the weather that I really cared about though. It was the mystical names of each of the regions of the sea around the UK: Faroes, Cromarty, Rockall, German Bight, Thames. I would try to visualise what it would be like to be in those places, out in the water. 

    When I was at school I had a dream of working on a fishing boat out in the North Sea. I pictured myself leaving Hartlepool for the wildness of the seas on a trawler early one morning. I even tried to organise my A-Level geography fieldwork out at sea. Needless to say, real fishermen who worked on real trawlers had a more realistic view of their job and how I might fare. They told me that my Moby Dick fantasies would soon become true if I went out with them (although they didn’t use rhyming slang in Hartlepool)!

    Later on I tried my hand at surfing. And I spent some of my happiest times just floating under the sky waiting for the perfect wave.

    But I also spent plenty of times battling crazy waves, dodging ‘floaters’, surviving freezing conditions and being shouted at by actual, decent surfers. Please don’t let my romantic picture fool you into thinking I was an accomplished surfer!

    The first time I properly understood that I wasn’t in fact the Bodhisattva (i.e. Patrick Swayze in Point Break) was on a surfing trip to the Basque country in northern Spain. I borrowed my boss’s tiny surfboard for it. I found myself way out of my depth, drifting further out to sea, fighting like a crazy elf to catch a wave. And failing. At some point, probably due to exhaustion, I stopped fighting. I tell myself that I became ‘one with the ocean’ and instead of fighting her I listened to the sea. I felt her. I knew her. I accepted that the ocean was the goddess and I loved her for this.

    In reality, however, this version of my truth was probably heavily influenced by both of the following:

    • the blood of Grandad Kelly that runs strongly through my veins (e.g. “what do you want a story or a recitation of the bloody facts?”) 
    • and some strong ‘patxaran*’ that I drank gratefully afterwards and which helped Grandad Kelly’s blood to flow more quickly (*delicious – look it up)  

    By some fluke I did manage to get back to land. And from that point on I have loved ‘open water’, even more. But I have never again exaggerated my abilities. Only my stories! 

    I make no apology for discussing surfing here either on a London centred blog. It was through surfing, not school or university, that I became truly interested in swimming and also in sustainability. When you have nearly swallowed a floating turd it’s amazing how quickly you pay your subscription to Surfers Against Sewage

    So, call me Ishmael, but I am drawn to water. And most of us are. I’m sure some of my attraction was the result of classic stories like Moby Dick and classic storytellers like Grandad Kelly but not all! There is something much, much deeper. Something almost elemental. At the same time hypnotic and energising. 

    It doesn’t even have to be at sea-level. During Lockdown I have started to notice things much more at the micro-level. I’ve rediscovered, for example, the drops of water that stick to leaves after rain – simply amazing.

    And in Lockdown it feels almost ridiculous talking about swimming. In London, unless you are lucky enough to have access to a ‘lockdown-friendly swimming resource’ (private pool or secret wild water) you have to rely on memories of past swimming exploits and fantasise about future possibilities. 

    And London does have fantastic water resources waiting for us. The London National Park City website points out that 2.5% of London is water and encouraged us all (pre-Lockdown) to go out and enjoy its watery side.

    I can’t wait, for example, to go back to my favourite place in London, Tooting Bec Lido. Rain pouring down, ducks watching me safely from another part of the pool. I completely love it! Even swimming there in the Crisis Cold Water challenge last year, when the temperature was 3.5C, was special!

    The lake at Beckenham Place Park – London’s first purpose built swimming lake – is angling to take first place in my list but we’ll have to see. I’m a little ashamed to say that when I’m in the lake I start dreaming of swimming in Red Tarn. When I’m at Tooting Bec Lido, however, I don’t want to be anywhere else. 

    I’ve never taken swimming for granted. Because of an ear operation I had when I was 5 years old I couldn’t swim until I was ten. For most of my teens I lacked confidence in the water. But at some point I realised I loved it. And that changed everything. 

    I have never become an amazing swimmer. I can swim for a long time. Slowly. But I don’t care. 

    Swimming is fun. But it is never frivolous. 

    And people have real and very understandable fears related to swimming and water too. The very rational fear of drowning. The almost spiritual fear of the dark, deep unknown. Or the fear of helplessness. Brought about by your loss of control to a supremely powerful and unpredictable force. If you have a fear of swimming or drowning or know someone that does please see here for tips to help you overcome these

    I started to see water, not as a challenge or a place to do activity in, but as something truly beautiful in its own right. And I saw no disconnect between learning about water and being moved by it.

    Between 2011 and 2014 I was involved (on behalf of London Sustainable Schools Forum) in a project with the Mayor’s Office, the Environment Agency and Thames Water. We wanted to transform London schools’ whole perspective on water. This was started in response to the very real risk of drought in London resulting from the resource demands of London’s large, dense population and the climate emergency. We ran a pilot programme, called Water for Schools (WfS) to retrofit schools with rainwater harvesting tanks and to engage students in water, learning through both practical and academic approaches. This learning was always very much place-based. It accepted the reality of our locality. Something many of us are being forced to do now under Lockdown.

    The programme was challenging and for various reasons didn’t proceed as we’d hoped but it had fantastic vision mixed with practical reality. For WfS Programme Summary see here.

    One of my favourite outcomes from WfS was the ebook created by the Geography Collective called  Mission: Explore Water. The classic opening paragraph says it all:

    “Dear Explorer, This book will change the way you think about water forever. Do not go any further if you are afraid of going on adventures or trying new things. There is also a 99.999% certainty that you will get wet.”

    Luckily for London (and the world) there are other great water projects, not least the wonderful Water Explorer.  And at a later date in the project we’ll promote as many of these as possible.

    But today I want to recommend a project related specifically to this blog and swimming. It is called Teach A Girl to Swim

    Teach a Girl to Swim was started by Malini Mehra. I first came across Malini just over a year ago in her work for London Climate Action Week 2019. She was put in touch with me by someone that I had worked with on the WfS programme. I was simply blown away by her grand vision alongside her sense of practical reality. Exactly the same perspective we had for WfS – but even bigger. As part of her work, she wanted to engage schools in London Climate Action Week and I have been working with her ever since.

    It was a little later that I learned about Teach a Girl to Swim.  So, rather than me paraphrasing Malini, here is some text from her website:

    Drowning is the world’s 3rd leading cause of preventable death in children after malnutrition and diarrhoea. It is the single largest killer of children in Bangladesh and the primary cause of injury death in children aged 1–14 in China. While the world has made unprecedented advances in tackling hunger and diarrhoea, drowning deaths have been largely neglected. Basic survival swimming can save lives but is rarely taught.

    Women and girls are particularly vulnerable due to cultural norms regarding modesty, and often die in greater numbers than males in flood disasters. Climate change is making such weather events more frequent and intense. Paying attention to drowning deaths, and their often gendered nature, must now be a part of climate adaptation in all flood-prone countries and regions. Every country must have a strategy to address this and the skills and resources to implement it. In the words of Indian campaign founder, Malini Mehra:


    Malini is London based now. She is a major figure in London Climate Action Week and London Sustainable Schools Forum are proud to work with her. The work Malini does through raising awareness through Teach a Girl to Swim, and the corresponding lives that I believe she has helped save, is simply remarkable.  Because of  Covid19, drowning (alongside pretty much everything else) is off our radar. That doesn’t mean it has ceased to exist.

    So, I offer it, at the every least, as a thought provoker. Whether you choose to find out more about Teach a Girl to Swim or not, thank you for choosing to go through the Water doorway’. I wish you a safe trip!

    Click here to access: Teach A Girl to Swim

    And just to re-iterate, if you have a fear of swimming or drowning or know someone that does please see here for tips to help you overcome these

    That’s it for this series of blogs. Keep an eye out for the next stage of our ‘Doorways’ project to coincide with Outdoor Classroom day next week on 21st May 2020.

    Background Information on Doorways

    The Doorways blogs are part of a reflective project run by London Sustainable Schools Forum. Please visit our website page here:

    The Doorways project aims to support schools and those that work with schools to consider how to develop a more sustainable approach.

    If you want to dig deeper we recommend that you visit Transform Our World for great resources.

    It specifically supports the following:

    Care for yourself. Care for each other. Care for the environment.

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Martin Crabbe