Martha’s Vineyard swimmers take to the ocean

Annie Mechur conducts a lesson with John Bassett at Pay Beach in Oak Bluffs. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

With the ocean lapping at our doors, it is not surprising that Martha’s Vineyard is home to skilled swim instructors who share an almost mystical reverence for swimming in saltwater.

In recent conversations, four well-known Island swim instructors talked separately about their approach to swimming in the ocean.

Corinne de Langavant wears many different hats, or costumes, depending on the activity. She is in turn a dancer, singer, guitarist, voice instructor/therapist, clown and figure skater. She also teaches swimming.

Ms. de Langavant said she has been swimming since the age of three and teaching swimming since she was 15. She teaches at the YMCA as well as in the ocean.

She works with the self-described “polar bears,” a group that swims off the Inkwell Beach in Oak Bluffs most every morning in the summer.

“I like working with non-swimmers,” Ms. de Langavant said. “They don’t have bad habits or patterns.” She said that working at the edge of the water where there is a gentle slope to deeper water is a wonderful place for many new swimmers to learn. She pointed out that the added buoyancy of saltwater may make it easier to learn in the ocean.

“I am always surprised by how easily most people learn to swim, once they relax.” Ms. de Langavant said. She uses an ABC approach to teaching. A, attitude: She tries to instill a positive attitude about a student’s ability to learn to swim. B, breathing: She teaches students to relax so they can become more buoyant, which she said comes only when they learn to breathe while in the water. C, coordination: combines breathing, floating, and relaxed movement. She emphasizes low resistance swimming.

Annie Mechur of Oak Bluffs is the dean of swim instructors on the Island. She has taught swimming since 1966, mostly in pools until she developed sensitivities to chlorine and other pool additives. Now she works exclusively in the ocean.

“The ocean is great,” Ms. Mechur said. She works now as a medical intuitive, helping people with what she calls energy medicine. She has cut back considerably on the number of people she teaches since the days when she taught daily classes, but she said she loves to teach, and her students seem to love it as well.

Ms. Mechur works with only two or three students in the summer and only in the ocean. She meets with each student two or three times a week giving them time between lessons. “I like them to have time in between sessions to work on their technique,” she said.

Her current group of students all swim so she is helping them refine their strokes and strategy, helping them to train for distance swims. “It is something they are doing for fun and I am all about making it fun for them,” she said. “That’s the way I have always taught.”

She considers one of her specialties working with people who have had near drowning experiences or who have other fear-related water aversions that have kept them from learning to swim. She said when referring to open water swimming there are definitely pre-“Jaws” and post-“Jaws” swimmers.

Ms. Mechur and her husband, Ron, try to go to a warm water area for up to a month in the winter and they swim every day. She said, with a laugh, that “inevitably someone comes up to me on the beach after a swim and says ‘could you show me how to do’ whatever it is they saw me do. You know, we all have a path in life.”

Michael Wooley teaches swimming at the YMCA, in private pools, as well as in the ocean. He has taught kids and adults to swim for more than 20 years. He began as a lifeguard and as an assistant teaching life-saving when he was 15 in White Plains, N.Y. “By the time I was 18, I was teaching swimming,” he said.

A scuba diver, Mr. Wooley spends a lot of time under the sea. “The ocean is my blessed space,” he says. “It is where I go for my personal swimming. It is where I get my total joy and relaxation. In a pool there is a wall you have to keep bouncing off of.”

Mr. Wooley said he was swimming recently when a huge school of striped bass swam under him. “I swam with them for a while. I saw an eight-inch pipefish [a straight relative of the seahorse], which is pretty long for around here. I got a piece of seaweed and went down and played with it for a couple of minutes.” He said he always finds mystery in the ocean that he never finds in a swimming pool.

Mr. Wooley said he has about a dozen students swimming in the ocean this summer including young kids and triathletes and just about everyone in between. He is fully booked until early September. Some of his students are year-round Islanders who swim in the ocean during the summer and move indoors in the off-season.

Robert MacLean teaches only in the ocean. He swims in the ocean between a mile and two miles every day in the summer to bring his core temperature down, to bring his energy level up, and to “still the chattering vine.”

“I confess to feeling physically, emotionally and spiritually taken by the ocean,” he said. He grew up in Hawaii “inspired by the water.” He has worked as a swim guide and in-water coach since 1997 and operates Inner Vision Ocean Swimming.

Mr. MacLean said he uses a multi-step approach to teaching. He characterizes his approach as a synthesis of a number of things: ocean swim skills, understanding the strokes and breathing particularly as it relates to ocean conditions; adapting to ocean conditions, currents and tides, using one’s body to work with the ocean; and an introduction to oceanography, a course he says he just took himself but which he thinks is an important part of learning to respect and enjoy the ocean.

He describes swimming as a low-impact, full-body workout, but there’s more. “The best thing about ocean swimming is getting outside of yourself — merging with your environment,” he says.

For more information, call: Corinne de Langavant, 508-423-9566; Ann Mechur, 508-693-9540; Michael Wooley, 508-696-8874; Bob MacLean, 508-560-1300.