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How to Paddle a Canoe and Swim

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The racing strokes—Paddling and sailing canoes

It has been said that the human being is the only animal that does not know instinctively how to swim without the necessity of being taught. If we take a dog or a horse or even a mouse and suddenly place it in the water it will immediately begin to swim, even though it has never seen a body of water larger than the source from which it obtains its drink. With a man or boy it is different, for the reason that with all the other animals the motions necessary to swim are those by which they walk or run; with a human being it is entirely an acquired stroke. After one becomes an expert swimmer he will find that he can keep afloat or at least keep his head above water, which is all there is to swimming anyway, by almost any kind of a motion. By a little practice we can learn to swim "no hands," "no feet," "one hand and one foot," by all sorts of twists and squirms and in fact to propel ourselves by a simple motion of the toes.

The first stroke that a self-taught small boy learns is what is called "dog fashioned." This name accurately describes the stroke, as it is in reality very similar to the motions by which a dog swims. No amount of book instruction can teach a person to swim, but a clear idea of the best general strokes will be of great assistance.

Swimming is probably the best general exercise among athletic sports. Practically every important muscle in the body is brought into play, and measurements show that swimmers have the most uniform muscular development of any class of athletes. After we learn to swim, the distance that we are capable of going is largely dependent upon our physical strength. Almost any man can swim a mile if he begins slowly and with the same regard for conserving his strength that a runner would have in attempting a mile run.

Swimming is One of the Best Outdoor Sports Swimming is One of the Best Outdoor Sports
(Photograph by A.R. Dugmore)

However skillful one is as a swimmer, a proper respect for the dangers of the sport should always be present. To take unnecessary risks, such as swimming alone far beyond reach of help or jumping and diving from high places into water of uncertain depth is not bravery; it is simply foolhardiness. A good swimmer is a careful swimmer always. The beginner must first of all try to overcome his natural fear of the water. This is much harder to do than to learn the simple motions of hands or feet that makes us keep afloat and swim. Nothing will help to give us this confidence more quickly than to take a few lessons from some one in whom we have confidence and who will above all things not frighten us and so get us into danger. With a good teacher, a boy should be able to learn how to swim in two or three lessons. Of course he will take only a few strokes at first, but those few strokes, which carry with them self-confidence and which make us feel that swimming is not so hard an art after all, is really half the battle. After we are at least sure that we can get to shore somehow, we can take up all the finished strokes which make a fancy swimmer.

There are a number of strokes used in swimming and especially in racing. The common breast stroke is the first one to learn. In this the swimmer should lie flat on his breast in the water and either be supported by the hand of his teacher or by an inflated air cushion. The hands are principally used to maintain the balance and to keep afloat. The real work should be done with the legs. We learn to use the hands properly in a very short time, but the beginner always shows a tendency to forget to kick properly. For this reason swimming teachers lay great stress on the leg motion and in a measure let the hands take care of themselves. In swimming the important thing is to keep our heads above the water, a simple statement, but one that beginners may take a long time to learn. The impulse is not only to keep our heads but our shoulders out of the water also, and this is a feat that even an expert can not accomplish for very long. If we can allow ourselves to sink low in the water without fear, and if we can also remember to kick and, above all, to make our strokes slowly and evenly, we shall very soon learn to swim. I have frequently seen boys learn to swim in a single afternoon. Another tendency of the beginner is to hold his breath while swimming. Of course we cannot swim very far or exert ourselves unless we can breathe. We should take a breath at each stroke, inhaling though the mouth and exhaling through the nose, which is just the opposite to the hygienic method of land breathing. Whatever may be our methods, however, the main thing is not to forget to breathe, which always results in finishing our five or ten strokes out of breath and terrified.

A great deal may be learned about swimming strokes by practice on land. In fact some swimming teachers always follow the practice of teaching the pupil ashore how to make the stroke and how to breathe correctly. A small camp stool or a box will give us the support we need. The three things to keep in mind are the leg motion and the taking in of the breath through the mouth as the arms are being drawn in and exhaling as they are pushed forward. It is better to learn to swim in salt water, for the reason that it will support the body better. An additional advantage is that we always feel more refreshed after a salt-water bath.

If we take up fast swimming, we must learn one of the various overhand or overarm strokes. The chief difference between these strokes and the simple breast stroke is that the arms as well as the legs are used to propel the body through the water, and this power is applied so steadily and uniformly that instead of moving by jerks we move with a continuous motion and at a greater speed. The single overarm is easier to learn than the double overarm or "trudgeon" stroke. This latter stroke is very tiring and while undoubtedly faster than any other when once mastered, it is only used for short sprints. Most of the great swimmers have developed peculiar strokes of their own, but nearly all of them have adopted a general style which may be called the "crawl."

There are many fancy strokes in swimming that one may acquire by practice, all of which require close attention to form rather than speed, just as fancy skating is distinguished from racing. One of the simplest tricks to learn is called "the rolling log." We take a position just as we would in floating and then exerting the muscles first of one side and then the other we shall find that we can roll over and over just as a log might roll. The idea in performing this trick successfully is not to show any apparent motion of the muscles.

Swimming on the back is easily learned and is not only a pretty trick but is very useful in giving us an opportunity to rest on a long swim.

Diving is also a branch of swimming that requires confidence rather than lessons. A dive is simply a plunge head first into the water. A graceful diver plunges with as little splash as possible. It is very bad form either to bend the knees or to strike on the stomach, the latter being a kind of dive for which boys have a very expressive though not elegant name. Somersaults and back dives from a stationary take-off or from a spring-board are very easily learned. We shall probably have a few hard splashes until we learn to turn fully over, but there is not much danger of injury if we are sure of landing in the water.

A perfect dive A perfect dive

Water wings and other artificial supports are very useful for the beginner until he has mastered the strokes, but all such artificial devices should be given up just as soon as possible, and, furthermore, as soon as we can really swim, in order to gain confidence, we should go beyond our depth, where it will be necessary to swim or drown.

A swimmer should always know how to assist another to shore in case of accident. It is not nearly so easy as one who has never tried it might think. A drowning person will for the time being be panic-stricken and the first impulse will be to seize us about the neck. Always approach a drowning person from the rear and support him under an armpit, meanwhile talking to him and trying to reassure him. Every year we hear of terrible drowning accidents which might have been avoided if some one in the party had kept his head and had been able to tell the others what to do.

I have placed canoeing and swimming in the same chapter because the first word in canoeing is never go until you can swim. There is practically no difference between the shape of the modern canoe and the shape of the Indian birch bark canoes which were developed by the savages in America hundreds of years ago. All the ingenuity of white men has failed to improve on this model. A canoe is one of the most graceful of water craft and, while it is regarded more in the light of a plaything by people in cities, it is just as much a necessity to the guides and trappers of the great Northern country as a pony is to the cowboy and the plainsman. The canoe is the horse and wagon of the Maine woodsman and in it he carries his provisions and his family.

A typical Indian model canoe A typical Indian model canoe

While a canoe is generally propelled by paddles, a pole is sometimes necessary to force it upstream, especially in swift water. In many places the sportsman is forced to carry his canoe around waterfalls and shallows for several miles. For this reason a canoe must be as light as possible without too great a sacrifice of strength. The old styles of canoes made of birch bark, hollow logs, the skins of animals and so on have practically given way to the canvas-covered cedar or basswood canoes of the Canadian type.

A sailing canoe in action A sailing canoe in action

It will scarcely pay the boy to attempt to make his own canoe, as the cost of a well-made eighteen-foot canoe of the type used by professional hunters and trappers is but thirty dollars. With care a canoe should last its owner ten years. It will be necessary to protect it from the weather when not in use and frequently give it a coat of paint or spar varnish.

Sailing canoes are built after a different model from paddling canoes. They usually are decked over and simply have a cockpit. They are also stronger and much heavier. Their use is limited to more open water than most of the rivers and lakes of Maine and Canada. Cruising canoes are made safer if watertight air chambers are built in the ends.

Even if a canoe turns over it does not sink. Some experts can right a capsized canoe and clamber in over the side even while swimming in deep water. The seaworthiness of a canoe depends largely upon its lines. Some canoes are very cranky and others can stand a lot of careless usage without capsizing. One thing is true of all, that accidents occur far more often in getting in and out of a canoe than in the act of sailing it. It is always unsafe to stand in a canoe or to lean far out of it to pick lilies or to reach for floating objects.

Canoes may be propelled by either single or double paddles, but the former is the sportman's type. It is possible to keep a canoe on a straight course entirely by paddling on one side and merely shifting to rest, but the beginner may have some difficulty in acquiring the knack of doing this, which consists of turning the paddles at the end of the stroke to make up the amount that the forward stroke deflects the canoe from a straight course.

In Canoeing Against the Current in Swift Steams a Pole is Used in

Place of the Paddle In Canoeing Against the Current in Swift Steams a Pole is Used in Place of the Paddle
(Photographs by A.R. Dugmore)
A type of sailing canoe A type of sailing canoe

An open canoe for paddling does not require a rudder. A sailing canoe, however, will require a rudder, a keel, and a centreboard as well. Canoe sailing is an exciting and dangerous sport. In order to keep the canoe from capsizing, a sliding seat or outrigger is used, upon which the sailor shifts his position to keep the boat on an even keel. The centreboard is so arranged that it can be raised or lowered by means of a line.


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