June 18, 1979 12:00 PM

Knowing how to swim, says Wetmore, isn’t the same as being safe in the water

Every year nearly 8,000 Americans go swimming, fishing or boating—and don’t come back. The grim toll of drownings is all the more appalling to aquatic expert Reagh Wetmore because he is convinced it isn’t inevitable. “Ninety-five percent of all drownings could be prevented if people learned the techniques of Drownproof swimming,” he insists, referring to his own salvation method. “Treading water, floating on your back or doing the crawl stroke can all lead to panic and exhaustion. In Drownproof swimming, the natural buoyancy of the body is used to conserve energy and control breathing. Practically everybody can learn it.”

Wetmore, 55, swimming coach at Boston University, credits Drownproofing to Fred Lanoue, the late Georgia Tech swimming coach. Lanoue had developed the technique in 1939, after studying how animals stay afloat. Then, in 1961, he and Wetmore were invited to Puerto Rico to train Peace Corps volunteers. “That’s when the technique really got its test,” Wetmore says. “We took a group of poor swimmers five miles out to sea. The waves were 10 to 15 feet high, but they were all able to make it back to shore safely.”

As Wetmore explains it, Drownproofing combines a variety of swimming and floating techniques to sustain a person in the water without stress or struggle. “The first thing anyone should learn, before how to swim fast or anything else, is how to be safe in the water,” he says. Early instruction is aimed at allowing even a novice to swim one mile and stay afloat one hour. Because of differences in bone and muscle structure, body fat and lung capacity, he points out, different folks need different strokes. “The first thing an instructor should do is to determine an individual’s buoyancy, then select a technique for each body type,” he says. Instructors can do Drownproofing techniques with both their arms and legs bound. “They have no problem at all,” says Wetmore.

He blames a shortage of qualified instructors (plus intramural jealousies among agencies that teach lifesaving) for delaying the acceptance of Drownproofing, but hopes to spread the word with a 20-minute instructional film he helped to produce. Wetmore has begun a book on new approaches to swimming, and this month he is conducting a clinic in Hawaii—a start, he hopes, toward making instruction available to every grade-school youngster. Even in Hawaii, he was astonished to learn, 70 percent of children ages 6 to 14 cannot swim 50 yards.

A native Floridian, Wetmore was a self-taught swimmer at 4 and a YMCA instructor at 17. Yet he was always uncomfortable with standard aquatic instruction. “I just didn’t feel my students were safe, even though they had passed all the ordinary tests,” he recalls. After graduating from Acadia University in Nova Scotia, he earned his master’s degree in physical education from Springfield (Mass.) College and coached at prep schools in Hawaii and New England before joining the BU faculty in 1970. First married in 1947, he was divorced in 1966. Though he taught his two children, now grown, to swim at a tender age, his second wife, Leslie, 37, is a nonswimmer. He started to teach her during a Bermuda vacation six years ago. “But we were interrupted by a hurricane,” he laments, “and neither of us has had any free time since.”

He is determined to pick up where they left off. Once, he points out, he taught a legless war veteran to float for several hours without difficulty, and he is convinced he can do it for anyone. “They say some people are so frightened they won’t even go near the water to learn,” he says. “I say they will, and I’ve taught them.”

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