How To Tread Water

In 1953’s Hondo, John Wayne’s titular character helps a young boy learn to swim the best way he knows how—by chucking him into a nearby river. While we hesitate to argue with Duke’s teaching methods, it’s probably best to know some of the fundamentals of how to stay afloat in water before diving (or being thrown) in headfirst. But should you find yourself in water either of your own or someone else’s volition, it helps to know what to do with yourself in order to get back to shore. Treading water is a vital skill, particularly if shore is an unswimmable distance away.


There are plenty of different ways to tread water, but what they all have in common is an emphasis on steady motions that don’t waste energy. Keep your cool and avoid making jerky, thrashing motions that will only tire you out and send you sinking.


One easy way to successfully tread water involves what is called “sculling” with your arms while your feet flutter back and forth to keep you afloat. With your arms completely submerged in water, sweep them in a large semi-circle in front of you with the palms facing outward, as if you were trying to part the water in front toward either side of you. Then bring your arms and hands together as if you were going to clap them, stopping just shy of contact. You should keep repeating this movement for the duration of your time in the water. At the same time, you should keep your legs straight with your toes pointed down. Move each leg back and forth in a smooth motion, paying attention to the position of your feet to make sure they stay pointed down. Together, these motions should keep your head above water where you want it.


If you need a brief breather, float on your back with your legs and arms still submerged in the water. Bend your arms at the elbow and keep your hands flat, palms facing down. Paddlethose hands up and down in a smooth motion while your feet gently kick back and forth. Arch your back slightly and breathe slowly, holding your breath as long as is comfortable. This gives your core a break from staying upright at the cost of spending a little more energy moving your arms and legs.

This post was derived from “The Official Handybook for Men” by James Ellis. For more handy tips, you can purchase the book from our online store.