Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Could Pirates Swim?

By tradition, most sailors cannot swim. I've checked around and I can find quotes saying this from the 16th century to the 20th century. Some could but most could not. I find this puzzling.

Swimming is a very useful talent if you are working in and around the water. Sometime things have to be retrieved from divable depths. Some emergency repairs at sea can only be done from the outside by divers.

I can understand why sailors who frequent northern Europe and New England would not know much about swimming. Even in the Summer the water in these latitudes is too cold for swimming and in other seasons it would quickly become fatal. But what about the Caribbean and other warm latitudes?

In some centuries swimming in general was thought to be unhealthy. These were periods when washing was thought to remove needed oils from the hair and skin.

There is also the theory that sailors did not want to know how to swim because it would just prolong their suffering if they fell overboard. There might be something to this. Even sailors who could swim never got in the water unless the ship was at anchor or becalmed. A moving ship would leave them behind quickly and they would be hard to spot in high seas. Then there is the problem with the cold that I already mentioned. In most months someone who fell overboard in the northern Atlantic would be dead from the cold before he could be saved.

The problem is finding a period quote to document this. Sometimes when "everyone knows" something, no one thinks to write it down until it is too late.

1 comment:

Stefan said...

Another theory is, that for a very long time the sea was associated with the Forces of Chaos and Danger, so it was just unthinkable to try learning to actually swim in it. It was first in the victorian Age that the people went into the sea for fun - but just inside of the safety of drawn Carts (looks hilarious!). So it was some kind of cultural-psychological barrier to learn how to swim (not to speak of diving!).