“Swimming in Inequality” –USNI

MOBILE, Ala. Ð Rescue swimmers from Coast Guard Aviation Center Mobile show Luke Wiedeman how to properly inflate his life jacket, Nov. 7, 2011. Crewmembers from ATC Mobile worked with the Mobile chapter of the Make-A-Wish Foundation to help Luke realize his dream of becoming a Coast Guard rescue swimmer. Luke was able to take part in training with the swimmers, navigate high-tech flight simulators and participate in a search and rescue demonstration. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Stephen Lehmann.

The US Naval Institute blog has a short entry that discusses what was, to me. an unrecognized barrier to more equal racial representation in the Coast Guard–the swim standard for OCS.

“… 70 percent of Black children are unable to swim and 60 percent of Latino children are unable to swim. Of the Black and Latino children that say they are able to swim, there also is a large portion that are self-taught swimmers. In comparison, it is estimated that only 40 percent of Caucasian children are unable to swim.”

Was also surprised to see the large disparity in representation between the Navy and Coast Guard.

“As it stands right now, 5.5 percent of commissioned Coast Guard officers are Black, and only 13.5 percent are minorities in total. It is possible that qualified minority candidates see the swimming standards as impossible obstacles to overcome.”

“As of 2017, the Navy reached 34 percent of minority officer representation.”

Sounds like we have a self imposed barrier to recruiting some good people. Certainly swimming is a desirable ability, but do we apply the same standard to all Coastguardsmen? Does the Navy apply it to their incoming personnel? Can we do something to provide this skill to those who do not come to us with the ability?

5 thoughts on ““Swimming in Inequality” –USNI

  1. Unless Minorities in general are family members of servicemen and officers, very few minority families and their children are going to have access to community swimming pools…

  2. Would it be possible to have a separate swimming course for perspective officers? Maybe one, where if you prove competency, you can opt out, but if needed, instruction would be provided. Done in or prior enlistment/recruitment/initial training? Being able to swim for a sea based service is obviously a requirement, but one that could be overcome I think. Also, while it would only be in communities that were close to the water, but could the coast guard do community swimming/water safety classes as a form of outreach to the public and youth in general? Just spit balling some ideas, like I said, I understand the swimming requirement, but it seems with instruction, the lack of swimming competency could be overcome for most of those that cannot swim. Just my $0.02 cents worth.

  3. This is not a new situation. I recall reading similar studies in the 1970s about the Coast Guard being unable to attach blacks because of lack of swimming knowledge.

    Swimming is just no “sea-based.” The majority of Coast Guard people will never go to sea. The large section will be assigned to shore or close to shore units where the likelihood of drowning is more likely. Of the Coast Guard causalities during WWII, over 400 were from drowning.

    When I enlisted in the USN in 1963, there were dozens in boot camp who could not swim. These men were given at least an hour of swimming instruction six days a week. The goal was to bring them to a minimum level of swimming competency – at least for survival. Swimming ability is not about competition or rescue, but survival.

    There is no reason that two hours a day could not be devoted to teaching to that minimum level to include open water swimming.

    Teaching swimming mirrors the WWII literacy goals. The USN and USCG did not draft illiterate men until 1943. These men were sent to a 12-week school, eight hours a day, seven days a week and these men came away with a 3rd grade level of reading and math. There is no reason that swimming competency could not be achieved. The Coast Guard has had swimming instructors in the past and it would not be unreasonable to detail ASTs to this training role. It is, after all, is what they do.

  4. Frankly, I find all those numbers alarmingly low given how dangerous water is to people who can’t swim. I think this might be a problem worth addressing through the public school system to try to bring swimming ability to near-universal nation-wide. A quick check on the CDC’s website (link below) shows nearly 4,000 Americans drown per year with many more non-fatal injuries, so it would certainly be a productive addition to nationwide curriculums even before you consider the benefit for the sea services.


  5. I was a swimming instructor at TraCen Alameda from 1975-77, and it was always amazing to me that people joined the Coast Guard and didn’t know how to swim! My recollection is that most of those were from the Mid-West and Plains, where pools and beaches were few and far between. We did not let a recruit graduate until they could successfully pass the basic swim and survival tasks. What we couldn’t replicate was the effect of cold water on the ability to self-rescue, and we were devastated when one of our graduates was lost to in-port overboard event.

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