How To Tread Water Without Hands
Treading is kind of a misnomer when it comes to staying afloat in the ocean. You can’t really “tread” on the water like you would on a lawn; you have to be able to support yourself completely by pushing off from something solid — which means putting one foot in front of the other. But that’s exactly what people do in the pool as they swim laps or play water polo. They put their feet down, then lift them again and repeat. That’s called propulsion, and you need both your arms and your legs to propel you forward through the water.
Propulsion works so well because it’s based on inertia – our tendency to stay still unless we are forced out of equilibrium. Inertia keeps us from floating away even if our bodies aren’t moving at all. When we start moving, however, there’s no longer any resistance against the motion and everything changes. We feel lighter and more buoyant, and we float away until we’ve moved far enough to get back into balance. The same thing happens when you tread water. You’re propelled along by inertia, but once you float upward for long enough, you’ll find that your bodyweight isn’t enough to hold you up anymore.
The best way I know how to describe this phenomenon is to say that you’re basically walking on water. Even though your body is floating, your weight is distributed fairly evenly between your head and your feet. This allows you to walk around easily without sinking. It also lets you rest your upper body comfortably, since your chest doesn’t have to support much of your weight.
There are two ways to go about walking on water: holding onto something or using your hands. Both work fine, but they each have drawbacks. Holding onto something restricts where you can walk, while using your hands makes you very vulnerable to getting pulled under.
If you want to learn how to tread water, let’s first look at how you might use your hands to help you stand. Most swimmers don’t use their hands quite this way, but it illustrates the principle nicely.
Let’s assume that you’re sitting in shallow water, waist deep. Now imagine that someone pulls your shirt over your head and ties it behind your neck. What will happen? Your torso will rise straight up, your chest muscles will tense, and your shoulders will roll forward. At the same time, your hips will sink downward. All this effort goes toward supporting your upper half. As soon as your head rises above the waterline, your lower half drops out of the picture entirely. Now you’re essentially treading water using only your arms — but that’s swimming, not treading.
What if you tied an elastic band around your wrists instead of a shirt? Same result. You’d probably try to pull your hands free, but that would cause your body to twist sideways. There’s nothing keeping your torso from rolling forward again, and your hips would follow suit. Once your head clears the surface, your entire body twists downward into the water. Again, all this effort goes toward propelling you forward.
But if you had grabbed handfuls of water and wrung them out, you could stand up straight and hold your fists underwater. Then you wouldn’t have to worry about twisting your body to propel yourself forward. Instead, you’d simply push your fists upward and let gravity do most of the work.
This method has several advantages. First, you can walk anywhere, provided there’s some grip on the ground. Second, you won’t waste energy trying to bend your elbows, which are stiffened by swimming. Third, you can grab on to things underwater without worrying about losing your grip. Finally, you won’t have to worry about pulling others down with your weight, because the water exerts equal pressure on everyone.
Does this technique make you waterproof? Not necessarily. Let’s say you’re lying face-up on the beach, soaking wet after going surfing. Someone grabs your ankles and drags you out of the water. Are your fingers likely to slip out of their grip? Probably not, but you never know for sure.
Now let’s consider another approach to standing on water. We’ll talk about its strengths and weaknesses next.
Waders are boots designed specifically for wading. Their sole is flat, similar to a hiking boot, and made of thick rubber or molded plastic. The inside of the boot is lined with foam padding. Waders usually come with ankle straps that wrap around the bottom of the boot, providing extra stability.
Most importantly, waders provide good footing underwater. Since the bottoms of wader soles are flat, they provide traction underwater even if the sand is slippery. The foam lining provides additional cushioning and protection.
They’re heavy and cumbersome. Waders are typically worn with sturdy pants, which add bulk and drag. Also, the added weight increases the amount of effort required to move around. For this reason, many surfers prefer to wear short wetsuits instead of bulky waders.
Another major problem with waders is the danger of slipping off your foot. Sand gets everywhere, including between your toes, and it sticks around. A thin layer of moisture may form between your socks and boots, making your feet less sensitive to uneven surfaces. And since the soles are flat, you can’t always tell when the ground slopes downward, especially in soft mud. Slipping off a slick rock can mean a painful fall.
Still, waders remain popular among fishermen who spend hours fishing in rough water. They may not be suitable for every situation, but these boots are worth considering if you plan to fish regularly.
So now you understand why walking on water is such hard work. Next, let’s see how a pair of flippers might change the equation.
A flipper is a device used by divers to increase the efficiency of their strokes. Typically, they consist of a flexible material attached to a large ring. Some flippers feature blades of varying widths to distribute your bodyweight more effectively. Others have handles that allow you to turn your wrist backward, turning your hand into a rudder.
You can paddle almost effortlessly across the surface of the water. Flippers require minimal muscular effort, meaning your body doesn’t expend much energy. This leads to greater stamina and endurance, allowing you to stay underwater for longer periods.
Because flippers are relatively small compared to your body size, they offer limited control over direction and speed. Unless you’re a strong swimmer, you’ll often have trouble steering properly.
Also, flippers can be dangerous to wear if you have poor vision. One of my friends wears glasses, yet he uses goggles equipped with infra-red light filters that prevent him from seeing clearly underwater. He says he sometimes misses rocks lurking beneath the waves.
Finally, you should avoid wearing flippers in cold water, because the lack of muscle movement will slow your stroke. This gives the current more room to flow past you, resulting in a loss of momentum. On the positive side, flippers are ideal for warm weather activities, since they allow you to move freely without expending unnecessary energy.
To recap: Walking on water requires lots of strength and stamina, but you can improve those attributes by wearing proper footwear. Flippers can give you increased control of your movements, but they’re not great for beginners. In addition, they’re awkward to wear during the day. So for casual situations where you’re mostly concerned about being comfortable, flippers may be better than anything else out there.
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