Floating decreases blood pressure and cortisol levels, reducing anxiety, addiction and enhancing memory and creativity. It is also the key skill we must master to be good swimmers.
From floatation tanks in Hong Kong’s party district to teaching people who have had near-death experiences to swim, Simon Holliday from Splash Foundation shares his thoughts on floating.
Francis ‘Kiko’ Valenzuela Santiago was finishing his shift cleaning the decks of the Norwegian Getaway, a 145,000 tonne ocean liner cruising in the Gulf of Mexico. Like other Filipinos, Kiko had spent much of his career on cruise ships. It can be lonely work, being away from loved ones for weeks at a time and confined to decks and quarters.
It was just after lunch when he plunged into the depths of the Gulf of Mexico, some 28 miles north west of Pinar del Rio, Cuba. It’s not clear whether Kiko jumped or fell, but something kept him alive for the next 22 hours alone in the vastness of the ocean with no raft or life jacket. Perhaps it was stoicism that only those who have been at sea for so long develop. Or fatalism. Or devotion to God. Or perhaps it was a determination to see his daughter again. As US Coast Guard spokesman Jonathan Lally said at the time: “One of the things that the coast guard could never calculate when it comes in to search and rescue is the person’s will to live.”
Help miraculously arrived from another passing cruise ship. Only a small number of people who fall from cruise ships survive. Of the 314 people who have gone overboard between 1995 and 2016, just 57 have been rescued, according to Professor Ross Klein of Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada.
Was Kiko holding on or letting go? It’s impossible to say for sure (he declined to be interviewed for this article). What we can assume is that he didn’t attempt to swim for safety – if he had, he may have died of exhaustion. As the Stoic doctrine goes, willpower gets you so far; accepting your circumstances and letting go gets you further. Kiko chose to float. That decision, and incredible fortune, ultimately kept him alive.
As the Stoic doctrine goes, willpower gets you so far; accepting your circumstances and letting go gets you further.
Perhaps it’s because I’m a swimmer, but the state of floating seems unerringly positive. It’s the first stage of swimming. A force that might save your life one day. It’s even a therapy. Conversely, I hear people talk about ‘a sinking feeling’, or a struggle to ‘keep afloat’ or to ‘keep their head above water’. The global pandemic is bringing us down, not holding us up.
I am a co-founder and coach at Splash Foundation, a Hong Kong-based charitable organisation running free learn-to-swim programmes for adults and kids from low income communities. Splash was expecting to teach 1,500 people swim in 2020. We’ve barely completed a programme all year. When the swimming pools closed, we moved some of our programmes to the beach. Now the beaches are closed with no sign of reopening.
Fortunately our funders have been supportive and given us breathing space. Not running programmes has enabled us to improve our infrastructure and engage our community in new ways. Ultimately we need to get back in the water. But to get through this difficult period we – all of us – need to float. Keep calm and carry on is easy to say and print on a mug, but hard to do in practice because it requires us to let go. To live from moment to moment and accept what we can’t control.
Although ordeals like Kiko’s are rare, many [participants] have had near-drowning experiences as kids – slipping into lakes, ponds or ditches, or being dragged out by ocean tides and currents… the fear of never surfacing runs deep.
Splash’s adult participants are mainly migrant domestic workers from The Philippines and Indonesia. Although ordeals like Kiko’s are rare, many have had near-drowning experiences as kids – slipping into lakes, ponds or ditches, or being dragged out by ocean tides and currents. But they are a determined group of (mainly) women, and for many learning to swim has been a life-long ambition. But the fear of never surfacing and water entering the lungs runs deep.
To swim effectively, we first need to float. According to Archimedes’ Principle, a body floats if the weight of the water it displaces is more than the body’s own weight.
Two forces are at play – gravity (weight) pushing the swimmer down; and buoyancy pushing the swimmer up. As our bodies have heavy bits and floaty bits (which vary according to gender, age, body type, etc) each force acts at a different point (or centre) in the body. Most people’s centre of gravity is between the hips, and the centre of buoyancy near the lungs (lungs are like a pair of swim buoys).
In good swimmers, the centres of gravity and buoyancy tend to be close together, allowing them to be horizontal on the water. The opposite occurs in poor swimmers with the body aligning towards the vertical. But although being diagonal does no favours for your swimming, it will keep you afloat with little or no effort.
Increasing surface area (or volume) by spreading arms and legs is another floatation aid. Swim coaches have told me that tension is a third factor. But it’s the effect that tension has on the body, rather than a direct cause of sinking. Tense muscles curl up, contorting posture and reducing surface area. Let go of tension in the mind and you let go of tension in the body.
Positioning and posture, helped Kiko survive for 22 hours in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s most likely that he held his head back to create an airway, maintained long and steady breaths, a diagonal position, and made himself big by pulling back his shoulders and spreading his arms and kicking his legs in a gentle tread. For this to happen, he will have had to let go.
We ask participants to repeat these exercises until they are calm and comfortable to do so unassisted. Quiet determination invariably gives way to wide smiles and laughter.
The first few weeks of our programme is all about floating. Participants blow bubbles underwater; lie on their backs (“like you’re lying in your bed”); and later step into deep water. In these situations we see bodies preparing for fight or flight. Breathing quickens. Heads tuck into torsos. Limbs move inward protecting the vital organs. We ask participants to repeat these exercises until they are calm and comfortable to do so unassisted. Quiet determination invariably gives way to wide smiles and laughter. They are the most positive people I’ve ever worked with.
One of our participants last year was Alha, originally from West Java, Indonesia where there are many lakes. So many lakes, she tells me, that they aren’t named. It was only when she met Endah, a fellow Indonesian also working for a family in Hong Kong, that she confronted a fear she had held as a little girl. Neither Endah nor Alha had the opportunity to learn how to swim. No one in their families knew either. Endah taught herself by hanging out with boys at the lake. The gang would cut down a banana tree, hollow out the trunk and use it as a raft. When Endah inevitably slipped from the precarious craft, she had the rare presence of body and mind to float. From there, she picked up a rudimentary form of crawl.
Many kids are less fortunate. Some 320,000 people drown every year – most are kids and most live in the developing world. Drowning is the third biggest cause of accidental death in kids under 14.
Alha was nearly one of them. “I remember slipping on a stone and drowning in the water. I was scrabbling at the bottom trying to find Auntie’s ankles or to stand, but my body was too small”, she says, cupping her face.
I often hear people describe a time they drowned. Technically, to drown is to die through submersion in and inhalation of water (or another liquid). What they mean is that water seems close to entering their lungs, but the linguistic error is revealing of how visceral the memory is.
Auntie eventually found her and pulled her to the surface gasping for breath. The experience left an indelible fear of the water.
That began to change when Alha met Endah. “I wanted to stop seeing water as this strange habitat… this scary thing. I wanted to swim in the ocean with my friend, Endah. She would try and teach me. But every time I put my face in the water the same fear came back.” So she applied to Splash. Indonesians can be reserved, especially compared to Filipinos, but Alha bursts into life. “I struggled to float those first few weeks”, she recalls. “I thought about the water on my ears, nose, eyes, legs, every small detail of the body – it counts. When I floated [for the first time] my body felt light. It was amazing to lay down on the water finally. It was a whole new world for me… I mean it.”
The turning point for Alha was letting go of her negative thoughts and immersing herself in the experience.
Floating is not just about survival in Kiko’s case, or the building blocks of swimming like it was for Alha and Endah. It’s also a form of therapy.
In between waves of COVID-19, I visited Hong Kong’s first floatation therapy centre. I’m shown to my room by Ciaran Hussey, the refreshingly down-to-earth founder of Float On. A bar manager by background, he was desperate to escape the chaos and craziness of the bar scene a few streets down in Hong Kong’s party district, Lan Kwai Fong. After the briefing, I clamber into a large oyster-like jacuzzi and into the reassuringly warm (34.5C) and shallow (15 inches) salt water solution. I nervously pull down the hydraulic hood – like it’s the door to my coffin – and open it again to check I’m not nailed in and will die a slow death of Epsom salt asphyxiation, or worse. I’m reassured that only one person has ever died in a floatation tank and he had physically paralysed himself with a whacking dose of ketamine.
I usually find balance in the ocean where the water is refreshingly lower than my body temperature. A few hundred metres from shore, I turn onto my back and look up at the clouds floating on high. For a moment, I let go.
‘Isolation’ or ‘Sensory deprivation’ tanks were developed in the 1950s by John C. Lilly, a scientist who later combined floating with psychedelic drugs to isolate the brain from normal perceptual experience. Better marketing (they are now usually referred to as ‘float pods’) and research into the benefits has eventually brought Lilly’s idea to the mainstream. Studies indicate that floating decreases blood pressure and cortisol levels, reducing anxiety, addiction and enhancing memory and creativity. Similar claims have been made about the impact of meditation. The difference, I found, was that floating allowed me to completely let go of my body. Because I was being held by water there was no need for my muscles to engage. With no hard surface to rest on, I stopped feeling them. My only awareness was activity in my brain gradually slowing and quietening. Our bodies are mostly gently heated water with traces of salts and minerals. Floating in similar waters felt like I was merging with the solution. There was a blurring of parameters, unsettling at first and then quite natural.
I have returned to the floatation centre for more therapy. But I usually find balance in the ocean where the water is refreshingly lower than my body temperature. A few hundred metres from shore, I turn onto my back and look up at the clouds floating on high. For a moment, I let go.
The pandemic will eventually come to an end. But for now, perhaps the best we can do is let go, float, and see where it takes us.