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May 21, 2019 10:37 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Southampton Town's Summer Swim Program Has Been A Mainstay For Decades

May 21, 2019 10:37 AM

As a child growing up in the 1970s, Jon Erwin never got to take the bus to school because he lived too close to qualify. But for several days in the summer months, his mother would drop him off at the East Quogue School in the morning, where he would board a bus with a group of his peers and head to Tiana Bay. It was during those mornings that Erwin, now 54, learned how to swim and further developed a lifelong passion for the water.

Erwin is one of countless people taught to swim by instructors working for the Town of Southampton’s swimming program. For nearly 60 years, children 3 years old and older have found their confidence in the waters of Tiana Bay, jumping off the bulkhead and, later, floating docks, into the calm waters of the bay. Erwin works for the Town of Southampton as its parks maintenance supervisor, and still remembers those lessons. He says they are part of the reason he has always been an avid swimmer and lover of the bay and ocean.

Erwin said he was told by former parks department supervisor Allyn Jackson that the town’s swimming program was started by the Red Cross in the early 1960s at what is now Meschutt Beach in Hampton Bays. The town took over the program later in the decade, when the Red Cross couldn’t fund it anymore, and moved it to Tiana Bay.

The program has endured since then, for the simple fact that it is vital for children to learn to swim when they live in an area that is surrounded by water, and private swimming lessons can be costly for the average family. Erwin worked in code enforcement for the town for 15 years prior to taking his current post, so he knows how important it is to teach children how to swim.

“Part of my job was enforcing pool enclosures,” Erwin said. “I would tell people about gates and fences around pools. It’s amazing how quickly kids can move about 20 feet. They have no fear when they’re young, which is a good thing—but also a double-edged sword. And when small children drown, it’s silent.”

There is an added benefit to learning to swim in the bay, as opposed to an indoor or outdoor pool, Erwin said.

“My wife lived in Center Moriches, and her father worked at Brookhaven Lab, and she took lessons at the indoor heated pool at the lab,” he said. “But even today, my wife won’t go in the bay because she doesn’t like when the seaweed touches her, or the rocks and mud. I grew up very comfortable in the bay, getting crabs and going clamming with my father, who was a bayman. I think the fears that some people have of the bay or ocean, I didn’t have because I swam in the bay.”

Another perhaps unintended benefit of the swim program—and many of the town’s other long-running programs—is the way they bring together children from different villages and hamlets within the township who may have otherwise never met each other.

“I remember making friends with kids from Hampton Bays and other areas that you normally wouldn’t do because you couldn’t ride your bike to Hampton Bays,” Erwin said. “Then, later in life, when you were playing sports, you’d run into them.”

His memories of specific instructors or techniques taught during those swim lessons are a bit fuzzier these days, but Erwin said he still remembers the feelings of confidence they gave him in the water.

“They taught us how to float, which was really cool,” he said. “That was something I was proud I could do: float and breathe at the same time. To float and breathe at the same time is an amazing thing.”

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