Sunday, 23 March 2008

Swimming Through The Ages

From Breakthrough Swimming:
In the ancient world, diverting rivers to protect city-states led to swimming for military purposes. Bas-reliefs housed in the British museum show a river-crossing by Assurnasir-pal, King of Assyria, and his army. When these reliefs were found in the ruins of the royal palace at Nimroud, students of swimming techniques were excited because here, at last, they expected to find evidence of swimming skills used in ancient times.

Nineteenth-century observers thought the reliefs showed soldiers swimming either sidestroke or the trudgeon stroke, while 20th-century observers concluded that the Assyrians were actually swimming the crawl stroke! And so, as always, conclusions are drawn from one’s own vantage point.

The Baths of Caracalla and other baths built by the Romans were enormous, but the swimming tanks set aside for actual swimming were very small.

Above: Impression of the Baths of Caracalla from multimedia software:

Those at Pompei were only 13 feet wide, and Cicero complained that he needed a wider pool to avoid hurting his hands against the wall.

Above: The palaestra at Pompei

However, the baths of Mohenjo-Daro in the Indus Valley were somewhat larger. They measured 39 feet long and 23 feet wide, and were said to have been the birthplace of a form of synchronized swimming that served a religious function (Cottrell 1960). All private houses had excellent bathrooms, so this was used for something other than personal hygiene (

Above: The Great Bath at Mohenjo Daro could have been used for ritual or religious bathing.

Above: Reconstruction of the Great Bath. Global Heritage Fund

Later European In the Middle Ages swimming became unpopular in Europe because people believed water helped spread plague and other common epidemics. When people did swim, they preferred a form of breaststroke that kept their faces out of the water. Not untilo the second half of the nineteenth century was prejudice against swimming largely overcome.

In 16th and 17th century Europe, the breaststroke was performed with the head held high and completely out of the water. Instead of using a frog kick, propulsion was applied with the insteps and not the soles of the feet.

Early in the 19th century, breaststroke swimmers adopted a frog kick in which the ankles were dorsi-flexed and propulsion developed by pressing the soles of the feet against the water.

The Ancient Egyptians as far back as 2500BC swam for pleasure.

"Egyptians were very good swimmers, and they loved to do it. One hieroglyph shows a man swimming; this and other drawings make it look quite likely that ancient Egyptians could swim a style resembling the modern front crawl. Royal and noble children often took swimming lessons, as mentioned in a biographical inscription of a Middle Kingdom nobleman." (

2,000 years later, the Greeks and Romans used swimming as part of warrior training. The Romans also listed diving into the sea from the cliffs as one of their sporting pastimes.

In 1BC swimming competitions were held in Japan.

During the middle ages in Europe (5th - 15th centuries), however, immersion in water was associated with recurrent epidemic disease and therefore swimming was discouraged. Witchcraft was rife at this time, and one test of a witch was whether they would drown if submerged in water. It's understandable, therefore that swimming did not become popular again until the 19th century.

Swimming is now one of the most popular sports in the world.
From Wikipedia:
Swimming has been known since prehistoric times; the earliest recording of swimming dates back to Stone Age paintings from around 6,000 years ago. Written references date from 2000BC. Some of the earliest references include the Gilgamesh, the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Bible (Ezekiel 47:5, Acts 27:42, Isaiah 25:11), Beowulf, and other sagas.

In 1538 Nikolaus Wynmann, a German professor of languages, wrote the first swimming book, The Swimmer or A Dialogue on the Art of Swimming (Der Schwimmer oder ein Zwiegespräch über die Schwimmkunst).

Competitive swimming in Europe started around 1800, mostly using breaststroke. In 1873 John Arthur Trudgen introduced the trudgen to Western swimming competitions, after copying the front crawl used by Native Americans. Due to a British disregard for splashing, Trudgen employed a scissor kick instead of the front crawl's flutter kick.

Swimming was part of the first modern Olympic Games in 1896 in Athens.

In 1902 Richard Cavill introduced the front crawl to the Western world. In 1908, the world swimming association, Fédération Internationale de Natation (FINA), was formed. Butterfly was developed in the 1930s and was at first a variant of breaststroke, until it was accepted as a separate style in 1952.

Ancient times Cave paintings from the Stone Age were found in the "Cave of Swimmers" near Wadi Sora on the Gilf Kebir plateau in southwestern Egypt, near the Lybian border. These pictures seem to show breaststroke or dog paddle, although it may also be possible that the movements have a ritual meaning unrelated to swimming. This cave is also featured in the movie The English Patient.

An Egyptian clay seal dated between 4000 BC and 9000 BC shows four swimmers who are believed to be swimming a variant of the front crawl.

More references to swimming are found in Babylonian bas-reliefs and Assyrian wall drawings, depicting a variant of the breaststroke. The most famous drawings were found in the Kebir desert and are estimated to be from around 4000 BC. The Nagoda bas-relief also shows swimmers dating back from 3000 BC.

The Indian palace Mohenjo Daro from 2800 BC contains a swimming pool sized 30 m by 60m.

The Minoan palace of Knossos in Crete also featured baths.

An Egyptian tomb from 2000 BC shows a variant of the front crawl.

Depictions of swimmers were also found from the Hittites, Minoans, and other Middle Eastern civilizations, in the Tepantitla compound at Teotihuacan, and in mosaics in Pompeii.

Written references date back to 2000 BC including Gilgamesh, the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Bible (Ezekiel 47:5, Acts 27:42, Isaiah 25:11), Beowulf, and other sagas, although the style is never described. There are also many mentions of swimmers in the Vatican, Borgian and Bourbon codices.

The Greeks did not include swimming in the ancient Olympic Games, but practiced the sport, often building swimming pools as part of their baths. One common insult in Greece was to say about somebody that he/she neither knew how to run nor swim. Swimming is an integral part of the tale of Hero and Leander and of the 7th-century poet Arion.

The Etruscans at Tarquinia (Italy) show pictures of swimmers in 600 BC, and tombs in Greece depict swimmers 500 BC. The Greek Scyllis was taken prisoner on a ship of the Persian king Xerxes I in 480 BC. After learning about an impending attack on the Greek Navy, he stole a knife and jumped overboard. During the night and using a snorkel made from reed; he swam back to the ships and cut them loose. It was also said that the ability to swim saved the Greeks at the Battle of Salamis, while the Persians all drowned when their ships were destroyed.
In Ancient Rome, swimming was considered a healthy practice, and swimming races were held in the Tiber River. Julius Caesar himself was known to be a good swimmer.

A series of reliefs from 850 BC in the Nimrud Gallery of the British Museum show swimmers, mostly in military context, often using swimming aids.

In Japan swimming was one of the noble skills of the Samurai, and historic records describe swimming competitions in 36 BC organized by Emperor Suigui (spelling unclear), which are the first known swimming races.

Germanic folklore describes swimming, which was used successfully in wars against the Romans. Swimming competitions are also known from that time.
Middle Ages to 1800Swimming was initially one of the seven agilities of knights during the Middle Ages, including swimming with armour[citation needed]. However, as swimming was done in a state of undress, it became less popular as society became more conservative in the early Modern period. For example, in the 16th century, a German court document in the Vechta prohibited the naked public swimming of children.
Leonardo da Vinci made early sketches of lifebelts.

In 1538 Nicolas Wynman, German professor of languages, wrote the first swimming book Colymbetes. His goal wasn't exercise, but instead it was to reduce the dangers of drowning. Nevertheless, the book contained a very good and methodical approach to learning breaststroke, and includes swimming aids such as air filled cow bladders, reed bundles, or cork belts.

In 1587, Everard Digby[born about 1550 in England] also wrote a swimming book, claiming that humans can swim better than fish. Digby was a Senior Fellow at St. John's College, Cambridge University, interested in the scientific method. His short treatise, De arte natandi, was written in Latin and contained over 40 woodcut illustrations depicting various methods of swimming, including the breaststroke, backstroke and the crawl. Digby regarded the breaststroke as the most useful form of swimming.

In 1603 the first national swimming organization was established in Japan. Emperor Go-Yozei of Japan declared that school children should swim.

In 1696, the French author Melchisédech Thévenot (1620 or 1621 to 1692) wrote The Art of Swimming, describing a breaststroke very similar to the modern breaststroke. This book was translated into English and became the standard reference of swimming for many years to come, and was read by Benjamin Franklin.

In 1708, the first known lifesaving group "Chinkiang Association for the Saving of Life" was established in China.

Benjamin Franklin is credited with the invention of the swimming fins at the age of ten, in 1716.

In 1739 Guts Muts (also spelled as Guts Muth) from Schnepfenthal, Germany, wrote "Gymnastik für die Jugend" (Exercise for the youth), including a significant portion about swimming.

In 1794 Kanonikus Oronzio de Bernardi of Italy wrote a two volume book about swimming, including floating practice as a prerequisite for swimming studies.
In 1798 Guts Muts wrote another book "Kleines Lehrbuch der Schwimmkunst zum Selbstunterricht" (Small study book of the art of swimming for self study), recommending the use of a "fishing rod" device to aid in the learning of swimming. His books describe a three step approach to learn swimming that is still used today. First, get the student used to the water, second, practice the swimming movements out of the water, third, practice the swimming movements in the water. He believed that swimming is an essential part of every education.

More lifesaving groups were established in 1767 (1768?) in Amsterdam by the Dutch, 1772 in Copenhagen, and in 1774 by Great Britain. In 1768 a humane society was established in the United States. In 1796, a (still existing) swimming club, the Upsala Simsällskap, was founded in Uppsala, Sweden. The Haloren, a group of salt makers in Halle, Germany, greatly advanced swimming through setting a good example to others by teaching their children swimming at a very early age.The adults were very good swimers themselves.


Enslaved Swimmers and Divers in the Atlantic World
Kevin Dawson

Long before a single coastal or interior West African was enslaved and cargoed off to toil the length of his days under the skies of the New World, many had become adept swimmers and underwater divers. West Africans often grew up along riverbanks, near lakes, or close to the ocean. In those waterways, many became proficient swimmers, incorporating this skill into their work and recreation. When carried to the Americas, slaves brought this ability with them, where it helped shape generations of bondpeople's occupational and leisure activities.

From the age of discovery up through the nineteenth century, the swimming and underwater diving abilities of people of African descent often surpassed those of Europeans and their descendants. Indeed, most whites, including sailors, probably could not swim. To reduce drowning deaths, some philanthropists advocated that sailors and others learn to swim.

In 1838 the Sailor's Magazine, a New York City missionary magazine, published the inscription on a city placard titled "Swimming." It read: "For want of knowledge of this noble art thousands are annually sacrificed, and every fresh victim calls more strongly upon the best feelings of those who have the power to draw the attention of such persons as may be likely to require this art, to the simple fact, that there is no difficulty in floating or swimming." Similarly, Theodorus Bailey Myers Mason's 1879 pamphlet, The Preservation of Life at Sea, claimed, "The great majority of people cannot swim, and strange as it may seem to you, there are many who follow the sea as a profession who cannot swim a stroke." Mason then proclaimed that, as part of their instruction, all United States Naval Academy cadets should be taught to swim

The history of slavery has largely been a history of fields—tobacco, sugar, indigo, rice, and cotton fields. The most influential works on slavery have properly focused on agricultural bondage and how it shaped slavery's development and defined the majority of owner-slave relationships. A few historians, such as Richard Price, W. Jeffrey Bolster, David S. Cecelski, Michael Craton, and Thomas Buchanan, have studied maritime slavery, the work of enslaved people in sailing, fishing, and whaling.

A handful of scholars have mentioned slaves as swimmers, but there has been no sustained study of their recreational and occupational swimming and underwater diving Although most bondpeople were agricultural laborers, that did not preclude swimming. Most plantations were located near waterways to facilitate the transportation of slave-produced goods to market, and rice plantations throughout the Americas were typically situated on tidal waterways, which were vital to the irrigation of this crop. Thus, large numbers of plantation slaves had ready access to waters in which to swim.

Since the mid-twentieth century, scholars have increasingly appreciated slaves' ability to transmit African skills and practices to the Americas and have examined how cultural retentions shaped the development of both black and white sociocultural institutions. In his 1933 book, The Masters and the Slaves, Gilberto Freyre asserted that slaves "Africanized" Brazilian culture by infusing it with African traditions. Melville J. Herskovits's 1941 book, The Myth of the Negro Past, challenged the assertions of U. B. Phillips and E. Franklin Frazier that slavery denuded bondpeople of their African heritage, arguing that shards of African culture, especially those pertaining to dance, music, religion, and art, were carried to the Americas.

Swimming in Ancient Greece

"Although not recommended by medical practitioners, most Greeks could swim according to Herodotus (8.89), who attributes the large number of survivors from the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC to this fact. The 6th-century Sicilian Olympic boxer Tisander used long-distance swimming for training. References are found to both breaststroke and front crawl, while beginners had the help of cork lifebelts and a fresco of the 5th century BC from Paestum shows a youth diving from what appears to be a diving-tower. There is literary evidence for occasional swimming races"

Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece by Nigel Guy Wilson

Friday, 21 March 2008

Waterlog by Roger Deakin

Brilliant book, a bit of a cult
favourite; can't help but be appreciated by anyone who loves swimming. Roger Deakin was inspired by John Cheever's short story "The Swimmer', wherein a man sets out to swim home from a neighbour's party (it's all a metaphor for life's great struggle, of course - Burt Lancaster ,left, starred in the movie adaptation). Deakin sets out from his moat in Suffolk to swim through the British Isles.

Deakin's swimming is mostly open water - rivers, ponds, his own moat, the sea. As a dedicated pool swimmer, however, I was especially taken by his chapter on searching for the spas of the Malvern Hills, around Cheltenham and Buxton. None exists any longer. Killed off, it seems, by the coming of steam railways and the subsequent accessibility of the seaside.

He does have a swim in several pools along the way, notably Cheltenham's Sandford Parks Lido* , Cirencester, Jubilee pool at Penzance, the rock pool at Dancing Ledge, Dorset, Hathersage and Ingleton in Yorkshire, Highgate Ponds, The Parliament Hill and Tooting Bec Lidos in London, and the Oasis in London.

*pronounced Lie-do, rather than the Italian-correct Lee-do, from whence the British Lido, as outdoor pools are known, gets its name: The Lido of Venice).

“When you swim, you feel your body for what it mostly is – water – and it begins to move with the water around it. No wonder we feel such sympathy for beached whales; we are beached at birth ourselves. To swim is to experience how it was before you were born. Once in the water, you are immersed in an intensely private world as you were in the womb. These amniotic waters are both utterly safe and yet terrifying, for at birth anything could go wrong, and you are assailed by all kunds of forces over which you have no control. This may account for the anxieties every swimmer experiences from time to time in deep water. The swimmer experiences the terror and the bliss of being born.”

“Swimming is often enhanced by company, and sometimes by solitude. The same individual may swim for different reasons on different days. I certainly do. The joys of swimming are sometimes those of silence and solitude, sometimes of communion with nature, and sometimes the more friends who oin you, the merrier…there is also strength in numbers if your right to bathe in this or that particular mudhole is at all questioned” P. 115

Click here for extracts from Deakin about (links will be made as I make posts about them):

Dancing Ledge
Parliament Hill
Tooting Bec

I was inspired by Deakin to think about some memorable non-pool swimming I have done in Australia, and will be making posts on :

"The Res" at Mount Macedon, Victoria
Buchan Caves pool, Victoria
The Blue and Green Pools (former quarries) at Angourie, NSW
Copi Hollow, Menindee, NSW
Blue Lake, Mount Kosciuszko, NSW

Snowy River, NSW
Thredbo River, NSW
Rocky Creek, Upper Horton, northern NSW
Hastings Cave pool, Tasmania
Toowoomba, Qld
Lake MacKenzie, Fraser Island, Queensland

Toowoomba, Queensland

January 1969. Dad had to work in Toowoomba, and being the summer holidays, the family went along. We spent a fair bit of time at this swimming pool. From research, I think it must have been the swimming baths on East Creek. Maybe not?

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Rocky Creek, via Upper Horton NSW

This series of pools was formed by a glacier many many moons ago - 290 million years' worth. A terrific place to swim, between Narrabri and Bingara in north western NSW. When we lived in Moree, teaching, it was a favourite place to take people for a day for a picnic.

Here's a website with some more information.

Monday, 17 March 2008

Lake Mckenzie, Fraser Island

Photos: 24 Jan, 2001
Lake Mackenzie is on Fraser Island, Queensland, the largest sand island in the world. It has been world heritage listed since 1992.

Mackenzie is a "perched" lake sitting on top of compact sand and vegetable matter 100 metres above sea level. Ithas an area of 150 hectares and is just over five metres in depth. The beach sand of Lake McKenzie is nearly pure silica and it is possible to wash hair, teeth, jewellery, and exfoliate your skin. The lakes have very few nutrients and pH varies, though sunscreen and soaps are a problem as a form of pollution.

The beaches along Fraser Island are not recommended for swimming, having plentiful sea snakes and tiger sharks in their waters.

Saturday, 15 March 2008

Snowy River

The walking track between Charlotte Pass and Blue Lake crosses the head waters of the Snowy River, a great place for a cool down on the return walk on a very hot day. January 1988.

Blue Lake, Mount Kosciuszko

January 1988

Incredibly cold water, on an amazingly hot day, with huge, dopey flies lolloping around your face. 1900metres above sea level, and one of only four cirque lakes in mainland Australia. Formed by glacial gouging of the granite rock. The lake is one of the purest freshwater lakes in the country. In winter it is a popular site for ice climbing.

I'm pretty sure that because of its environmental sensitivity, swimming is not allowed. A number of threatened plant and invertebrate species that are restricted to alpine areas are found here.

Sunday, 9 March 2008

Thermal pool, Hastings, Tasmania

In contrast to Buchan Caves’ icy cold pool, the pool at Hastings cave, south of Hobart is lusciously warm. A thermal pool in a rainforest.

I swam here in December 1974.

Friday, 7 March 2008

Buchan Caves Pool

This is one of the coldest pools anywhere. On the hottest of summer days, when the dry crackling heat of a bush summer is accompanied by the slow orbit of dopey, bloated flies, plunging into this pool will guarantee instant cold-induced headache!

The pool is fed by a mountain stream which rises to the surface within the Buchan Caves reserve. The same water I suppose (though I could be wrong) which has shaped the limestone cave formations of the Buchan Cave system.

The caves are west of Orbost in northeast Victoria. Volunteers keep the Reserve in good shape.
I visited here with friends and family in January 1976, when returning from Melbourne.

Town pool at Orbost

Blue Pool, Angourie

I visited here in January 1979 on my first real parent-free “road trip” as an adult. There’d been several with my parents when I was a kid, mainly between Melbourne from whence we hailed, and Sydney where we’d moved when I was ten. But we’d never struck out north. Now. I’d just finished uni, and was travelling north with a couple of girlfriends, in the interregnum between leaving full time study for the first time in 16 years and starting work as a teacher. It had been school then uni, and now, as a bonded teacher trainee, I was guaranteed a job “somewhere in NSW”.

It’s hard to believe today, but you signed a bond at age 17 agreeing to be appointed anywhere in the state, went to uni, and then, being guaranteed a job, got a slip in the mail sometime in the week before school began in late January, and then you were off!

That was all several weeks away as we headed north. One of our number was a long-standing surfie chick and knew all the best “spots” up the north coast. Our ultimate destination was her married sister’s place in Caloundra, Qld. On the way we camped at Angourie, a really sleepy, tiny hamlet known then mainly by hard-core surfers.
Angourie’s Blue Pool was once a rock quarry that transformed into a pool when an underground freshwater spring was disturbed. It is a dazzling blue. I did not, unlike many, jump off the cliffs – never been a daredevil that way! I can remember that it was pretty chilly.

A relatively short walk along a track is the “Green Pool”, another former quarry. We swam here too, and I believe it was silkier and warmer.

Angourie is just outside YURAYGIR National Park and is 684km north of Sydney, 10km south of Yamba, 133km south of Byron Bay.

My photo of The Blue Pool, January 1979:

The Green Pool:

Thursday, 6 March 2008

Copi Hollow, Lake Menindee NSW

Copi Hollow is an artifically constructed lake developed for speedboats, sailing, swimming and water-skiing about 13 km north of Menindee on the Broken Hill Rd.

We were on a summer road trip from Sydney to Adelaide in January 1982. We went via Broken Hill where we spent a few days with close friends who had moved there a year or so earlier. Broken Hill is hot in summer. Water is cool. And Copi Hollow was just what we needed.

The Menindee Lakes have been suffering from lack of water from its feeder source, the darling River, in the rescent drought, and Copi Hollow has been afflicted by a toxic blue-gree algae. Unfortunatley, much of the water from the Darling "disappears" into massive cotton farm way, way upstream. You can read more here.