In an island nation, living in fear of the water

In the Bahamas, 80 percent of the population can't swim, despite the fact that in the nation of 29 islands, you're never far from the ocean.

Children at play at Port New Providence, Bahamas.

• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

The Bahamas has 29 inhabited islands, many only a few hundred yards wide. No one lives far from the sparkling sea. Yet by one estimate, about 80 percent of the population cannot swim.

“A lot of Bahamians are afraid of the water. People lost lives in the early history of the Bahamas when they used the water as transport, and the weather was bad and boats would capsize,” says Eleanor Phillips, head of The Nature Conservancy in Nassau.

Brenna Hughes was a Massachusetts high school sophomore on an exchange program in 2003 when she discovered her Bahamian companion was petrified of the water. Ms. Hughes returned to the islands seeking answers. She got a range, from fear of sharks to the effect of swimming on girls’ hair.

But when Hughes went swimming each day, a tagalong band of kids begged to go with her. So she founded Swim to Empower in 2006. Now run by a Bahamian organization, it has trained about 400 people, Hughes said. Another program, Swim for Ocean Survival (SOS), started by national swim coach Ivaniuska Dreke, teaches basic survival skills.

“The first day you get them, they are afraid of the water. In a few weeks, they are floating,” said Simon Frank, a teacher at the SOS program in Nassau.

Fear of the surrounding sea is “paralyzing,” says Hughes. When children master the water, it changes them, she says. “All of a sudden, the kids who said they wanted to work in a hotel in Nassau now want to be airline pilots and doctors. Once they overcome one [obstacle], they decide they can overcome others."

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