Most of the 85 children in Provincetown’s recreation program this year don’t know how to swim, according to Recreation Director Brandon Motta.
In 2020 (the most recent year for which data are available), drowning was the leading cause of unintentional injury death among children ages 1 to 14 in Massachusetts. The Independent could not confirm reliable data on how many of these deaths were in Barnstable County or in our towns, nor on whether the numbers are increasing.
“Swimming has become a lost skill,” Motta said. This summer marks the program’s return after a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic. Once again, the kids enrolled in summer rec will barrel down to the water for their weekly swims at the Ryder Street beach.
Although the Provincetown recreation dept. complies with laws governing safety and annual swim tests and works with kids once a week during the summer to improve their swimming skills, this practice does not qualify as swimming lessons, in Motta’s view.
There are not many programs where Outer Cape kids can learn to swim.
Eastham canceled its lessons at Great Pond for the second year in a row because of a lack of teachers. Christine Mickle told the Independent in June that the program offered by her department was one of the most loved, and typically some 200 children participated.
In the four outermost towns, Wellfleet’s summer rec program and private classes at Willy’s Gym in Eastham are the only swimming lessons available. In Wellfleet, spots are limited due to a drop in staffing that coincided with what Rec Director Becky Rosenberg called an “explosion” in demand.
The town’s lessons at Gull Pond have been going on for over 50 years, Wellfleet Director of Community Services Suzanne Grout Thomas said. “If the parents grew up here, it’s where they learned how to swim, too,” she said.
Just 45 spots were available this year in Wellfleet, and only to residents and nonresident taxpayers. This is the first year the department has enforced such a restriction. It costs $125 to enroll a child in the seven-week program, which includes 30- or 45-minute group lessons five days per week. Siblings of children enrolled at the full price can enroll for $65.
“We have six people and a lifeguard,” Grout Thomas said. “If we had 12 people and a lifeguard, we could double the number of kids.”
She noted, however, that the problem is “multi-layered” — not solely due to staffing challenges. It is difficult for kids whose parents work to fit in swim lessons. “It can be very time-consuming for a family to take time off work to drive children to lessons,” Grout Thomas said. “We’re really in quite the predicament.”
Molly Page, a seasonal resident of Wellfleet whose two children are enrolled in swimming lessons at Gull Pond, believes learning to swim is crucial. Swimming “helps kids gain control of their bodies in specific ways and develop strength and agility,” she said.
Page is hoping that after two weeks of lessons at Gull Pond her kids, ages two and four, will be able to swim without “floaties” and will be willing to put their heads underwater.
Willy’s Gym — the only place on the Outer Cape with an indoor 25-yard pool — offers swimming lessons two days per week. Roughly 24 children per week participate in the classes, according to Barbara Niggel, Willy’s owner. Group lessons there are $35 per class or $400 for the three-month season; individual lessons are $100 an hour for nonmembers and $70 an hour for members.
Willy’s employs one full-time swim instructor and one assistant instructor. Although they are busy, Niggel said they are not overbooked. She also says if the demand were there, she would hire additional staff.
Local hotels sometimes offer swimming lessons in the off-season, according to Motta, which is his advice for parents unable to get their children lessons during the summer. But these programs also struggle. Six years ago, Top Mast in Truro provided swimming lessons in September, but once the weather got cooler, attendance tapered off, Motta said, so the program wasn’t sustainable.
The need for young people to have formal swimming lessons is one thing, said Suzy Blake, co-head of the Wellfleet lifeguard program. In her view, children who live on Cape Cod also need to learn other aspects of water safety. For example, Blake said, it’s important for Cape Cod kids to develop experience swimming in the ocean.
Lifeguards, Blake said, “are always on the lookout, no matter what, for anyone who might not be a strong ocean swimmer, which is very distinct from being a strong swimmer in general. It helps a lot to learn about currents and wave action and all of the different types of things oceans can do.”
Tony Jackett, 72, said he grew up taking swimming lessons at the beach by Provincetown’s West End parking lot. But how he really learned to swim, Jackett said, is just by being around the water. He remembers diving off the pier for nickels with other kids. “Some of the guys would be in the water all day,” he said.
When he had children of his own, Jackett employed a similarly experiential approach. Sometimes, he would take the kids out on his fishing boat and “just toss them in the water and tell them to kick,” he said.
Kyle Jackett, one of Tony’s three sons, appreciated his father’s lessons when he got dragged overboard by ropes attached to traps while out lobstering in 2015. It was November, and he was wearing multiple layers and heavy fishing boots, which made swimming to the surface more difficult, Kyle said.
“That was the hardest thing, the kicking,” he said. He credits his varied time and experience on and in the water for his ability to remain calm in that moment.