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All in the family: Teaching an Island to swim

Among the shared memories that many Baby Boomers on the Island cherish, swimming lessons at Louis’ Beach with instructor Jack Wroble is high on the list.

A bit south of the lifeguard’s stand — a spot now marked by a plaque in his honor — he’d take groups of Coppertone-slathered novices and turn them into confident swimmers. For more than 40 years, he taught summer after summer, starting little ones out with the “Dead Man’s Float,” then adding strokes and kicks.

“Flutter kick on the Dead Man’s Float” still rings in the ears of those who now bring their grandchildren to the beach.

For those grandchildren, and other kids lucky enough to spend their summers on Island beaches, Mr. Wroble’s legacy continues, in the person of his granddaughter, Nell Lowell. Three days a week, under the auspices of the Town of Shelter Island and the Red Cross, she gives group lessons at Wades Beach. In an interview with the Reporter, she recalled that her grandfather had moved his swim lessons to Wades Beach for the last few years that he taught, because the Red Cross required lessons to be taught in front of a lifeguard, and Crescent Beach would be too crowded.

The plaque at Crescent reads “In loving memory of Jack Wroble, who on this beach, from 1948 to 1993, summer after summer, taught an island to swim.”

Ms. Lowell began teaching around the time her grandfather finished his years in the post, so there wasn’t a time when children couldn’t learn to swim in Island waters.

Although she was an accomplished competitive swimmer in her youth, when she moved to Shelter Island for high school, she wasn’t able to continue, since the Island, ironically, has no swim team. She did put her talent and ability to work, though, when she became a swim teacher. She earned her bachelor’s degree attending LIU Southampton and then UMass Amherst, with a degree in communication disorders; she then earned a master’s in education. During the school year, she is a special education teacher at Pierson in Sag Harbor.

Ms. Lowell’s lessons, in addition to the time in the water, always include some time on the beach to teach safety. Speaking of safety, she said there’s an important lesson she wants to impart to parents: “Drowning is silent,” she said. Parents may assume they’re monitoring their child safely in the water by listening to them, even if they look away for the moment.

“You need to have eyes, not ears,” on the child, she stressed. And to the children, she says, “when your parent tells you to get out of the water, don’t argue. Get out of the water.”                                 

Asked if she’s noticed any changes in the water and weather conditions at the beach, she said the absence of jellyfish so far this year has been notable. She likes the “hot, hot” days best because the water is not too cold and the children can stay in longer. “Once they start shivering” in cold water, she said, “their muscles tighten and it’s hard to swim.”

The lessons offered at Wades Beach serve children from age 4 up; three-year-olds may participate if their parents come in the water with them. Asked if any age group is more challenging than others, she said it’s not a question of the child’s age, but some are “too talkative” to absorb the lessons properly. Her proficiency with children of various ages comes from her own experience in parenthood, as well as teaching; she’s the mother of four children.

Each child who completes a course gets a certificate saying that they’ve done so. If a child passes a test to complete a level, they will get a card showing that they have joined a long line of swimmers who got their start off Island beaches.