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She feared water after tragic loss. Now a Beaufort Co. woman is learning to swim — at 73

How to survive if you get caught in a rip current

Rip currents are powerful, narrow channels of fast-moving water. Rip currents account for 80% of beach rescues, and can be dangerous or deadly if you don't know what to do. This video from NOAA Ocean Today shows you how to break the grip of the ri
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Rip currents are powerful, narrow channels of fast-moving water. Rip currents account for 80% of beach rescues, and can be dangerous or deadly if you don't know what to do. This video from NOAA Ocean Today shows you how to break the grip of the ri

At her childhood home on St. Helena Island, Leigh Aiken played in the yard with the backdrop of a quintessential Lowcountry scene.

Water and marsh surround Polawana Island, the community where Aiken was raised by her grandparents. The tidal creek was nearby as Aiken played with dolls and ran in the yard, but she never entertained the thought of entering the water.

“Bad things happen to you in the water,” Aiken’s grandparents told her.

The warnings held fast. Multiple events throughout her adulthood reinforced what became a lifelong aversion.

She lost a friend to drowning and later a brother. She nearly drowned herself.

Now Aiken wants to share her story, how she leaned on a trusted group of friends in Port Royal and decided to finally confront her uneasiness at age 73.

“I am not there yet, but I am slowly getting it,” Aiken said. “Everybody on this island should know how to swim, because we are surrounded by nothing by water.”

On Saturday, dozens of swimmers will leap into the fast-moving Beaufort River to travel a little more than 3 miles from Port Royal to downtown Beaufort with the incoming tide. Aiken won’t be among them, but her message is one shared by the Wardle Family YMCA, where Aiken is overcoming her trepidation and which hosts the annual Beaufort River Swim to raise money to pay for swim lessons for those in Beaufort County who can’t afford them.

Did you miss the 11th annual Beaufort River Swim on Saturday morning? Here is what happened, all in 30 seconds!

Aiken’s story feels familiar in this military town.

She left for New York in 1963 after graduating from St. Helena, decided city life didn’t suit her and enlisted in the Air Force. She later became a commissioned officer in the Army reserve, went to work at the Department of Defense as a civilian and worked as a federal aviation official until she retired.

Her first military assignment was at McChord Air Force Base in Washington. While living in the Seattle area, she had taken a rafting trip with friends in the Skagit Valley and enjoyed it. The group returned for a canoe trip the next year, in June 1981.

The water was rougher than the previous year, Aiken remembered. Multiple canoes overturned, including Aiken’s.

While Aiken was able to be helped to shore, a friend’s wife drowned.

Later while still in the Seattle area, Aiken entered a pool to cool off, only intending to walk in the shallow end.

She wandered into a deeper area where she couldn’t keep her head above water. She panicked, and woke up on the pool deck after being resuscitated.

Aiken’s job with the Federal Aviation Administration eventually transferred her to Atlanta and closer to her family in the South Carolina Lowcountry where she could visit often.

She was in Beaufort County for Memorial Day weekend in 2005 visiting family. She remembers hugging her baby brother Jimmy goodbye and telling him she loved him.

James Aiken loved the water.

He spent 23 years in the Navy and later worked as a supervisor in the housekeeping department at Naval Hospital Beaufort. He spent his days fishing and crabbing.

His older sister joked that she would buy him a yacht one day.

Jimmy’s boat was found empty in on the water just a few days after the Memorial Day weekend visit. His body was found four days later, a drowning death at age 52.

Leigh Aiken was nearing retirement in Atlanta when her brother died.

“I had to work another six months just to be around people,” she said. “It was more than I could handle.”

Aiken did eventually retire and moved home to Beaufort County to live on Lady’s Island in 2013.

She joined the YMCA and, as part of one of her regular fitness classes, instructor Jeff Lewis told participants they would use the pool as part of their workout.

“ ’I’m not getting in the water,’ ” she recalled telling Lewis. “ ’Don’t do that.’ ”

Lewis talked her through her it. Her classmates, some of whom participate in the local Masters swim program, encouraged her.

Aiken was back home in the Lowcountry for good, surrounded by water. She decided to at least learn enough to tread water and save herself if she needed.

She began working with a swim instructor.

Now she can go from the end of the pool to the other on her side. She works with a kickboard and flippers.

“I’m trying to work through it,” she said. “I’ve got a ways to go.

“Everyone says, ‘You’re doing great.’ ”