A few days ago, three St. Thomas high school students captured the spotlight when they saw a vehicle roll across Veterans Drive and plunge into Charlotte Amalie Harbor. Their swift response, plus the ability to swim, helped save lives on a pre-dawn Sunday morning.
The heroic actions taken by Kalan Bernier, Dillon Hodge and Agyei Gregory left an impression on many, including St. John swim instructor Erin Hollander. Since January, Hollander has been offering free swimming instructions, made possible through a local nonprofit.
For Hollander and others whose lives revolve around the water, safety is an important reason for learning how to swim. For those who grew up on St. John, like Senator-At-Large Angel Bolques Jr., learning to swim brings fond memories of younger days.
Bolques and retired Police Sergeant Jimmy Powell were attending a public meeting at the Cruz Bay Legislature when the topic of swim lessons came up in conversation. Powell said he remembered teaching local youth how to swim during his days as a volunteer with the Boys Club. “I taught all those boat captains,” Powell said.
The senator recalled how, as a student at the Julius E. Sprauve School, he would spend his after-school time flinging himself off the ferry dock and into the water for an afternoon dip. But Hollander said she senses a reluctance among some island dwellers to take to the water these days.
“For a lot of people, the first barrier is to help them overcome a fear of swimming in the water,” she said. Hollander said the basic learn-to-swim course represents a revival of a program offered through the group Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park. As a precursor to the classes that began in January, two advanced courses took place in October and November.
One was a water safety instructor program; the other was a lifeguard training program. “Both programs were run through the Red Cross because we wanted to professionalize the courses,” Hollander said.
It was then, she said, that brought one of the most satisfying moments as a swimming instructor. While conducting the water safety course for a North Shore watersports concession, Hollander said she met an attendant who rented equipment to visitors but did not know how to swim. That changed after completing the instruction, and after taking an additional class, the watersports concession attendant became a lifeguard, she said.
“All of my employees are lifeguards now,” said Cinnamon Bay Watersports and Safety Manager Ernest Matthias. “I’m a PADI-certified dive instructor for over 25 years, but I do have a lifeguard certificate. I can teach lifeguards. I’ve also taught scuba divers,” Matthias said.
For those reasons, the manager says he understands how important swimming lessons can be, along with knowing local sea conditions.
“Recently, we’ve been having a lot of ground swells … and you have to be careful. Sometimes when waves break, they break real hard,” he said. Swimmers caught off guard by a breaking wave can suffer serious injuries, including broken bones, the safety manager said.
Matthias said he’d like to see more St. Johnians take swimming lessons to gain a greater appreciation of the island’s natural beauty. But like Hollander, he pointed to the number of work opportunities that open up to those who gain those skills. Some of the local opportunities include eco-tourism guides, undersea photographers, boat captains, certain types of rescue workers, pool managers, and marine biologists.
The Magens Bay Authority hires lifeguards for Magens Bay Beach and Smith Bay Park (Lindquist Beach) on St. Thomas. And those who hope to join the Armed Forces with either the U.S. Navy or the Coast Guard need swimming skills too, Hollander said.
Virgin Islands National Park Superintendent Nigel Fields says his agency is currently looking for ways to return a lifeguard to the park’s most popular St. John Beach, Trunk Bay. “We seed the need and we’d like to assist with meeting the news. We’re searching for a way to find the funding,” Fields said.
“Swimming is easy once you understand the basic techniques,” said St. John Rescue Training Manager Brett Huntley. The all-volunteer first responder group trains members for their dive team and to serve in the marine unit.
“Is it important for my people to learn how to swim? Yes, and we stress that by offering lifeguard courses. Some volunteers at St. John Rescue may be older and maybe some of their skills aren’t up to certification standards. If they’re not, then we teach them other water safety skills that can help in an emergency,” the training manager said.
“Once you understand the idiosyncrasies of the island, then you lose your fear of the water itself, and the oceans and the environment, then you have that healthy respect,” Huntley said.
Those who are interested in learning how to swim can join the classes now being offered on the first- and third- Saturdays of the month from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Free transportation is available for those who need it, Hollander said.
Details about registration are found on the Friends website.
“We are trying to make the program as accessible as possible,” the instructor said. The Friends group is also in discussion with Sports, Parks and Recreation and the St. John Boys’ and Girls’ Club about possibly setting up a summer swim program for youth.