There are many situations where applying the skill of swimming is very useful. Say, for the sake of winning a bet. Recovering lost or damaged property. Saving someone whose life you care about. But there is one situation where no person in their right mind should ever try swimming, for any reason.
That is when the character in question does not actually have the physical ability to swim.
This trope is usually used as a gag. Usually a prideful or heroic character will quickly make a snap decision to swim without thinking through all the ramifications first. They're just that focused on the immediate goal. We as the audience can laugh at them for their own foolishness in being so forward without bothering to plan correctly.
Conversely, this trope can be played for major tragedy if as a result of all this someone is actually seriously physically hurt. Even worse if the only person around was the one who made the leap, and thus also incapacitated themselves and made even more trouble for the eventual rescuers.
Note that, name notwithstanding, the activity in question is not necessarily swimming, much like Forgot I Could Fly. If they actually do swim very well in the attempt, the reminder that they can't is invoking the Reminder of Impossibility, while questioning how they can swim so well can lead to Centipede's Dilemma.
- Happens to Nagisa from Animal Detectives Kiruminzoo in the second episode.
- In Azumanga Daioh, in the first volume, Chiyo can "sort of do a doggy-paddle," but that doesn't stop her from jumping in and proceeding to sink. Of course, this happened during swim class and had many people monitoring her, so teaching her was kind of the point. (She improves as the series progresses; by the time they go to Okinawa, she's been SCUBA diving.)
- In Boarding School Juliet, Inuzuka being this trope when he tries to save a drowning Percia is what convinces Hasuki that his feelings are true...although he isn't the brightest bulb in the box regardless.
- In Digimon Adventure Jou (Joe) saves Takeru (TK) from drowning before going under himself. Thankfully, his actions cause his Crest of Faith (Reliability) to glow, evolving Ikkakumon into Zudomon and saving both of them.
- In DinoZaurs, Rena jumps into a hippo and crocodile infested lake in Africa to try to goad her friend into jumping in as well. He jumps in, but only to save her when she nearly drowns.
- Nobita from Doraemon is a good example to this. While saving a friend, a character usually states that he couldn't swim. Realizing that, he drowns, usually ending up being saved by another character.
- Ryugazaki Rei in Free! falls victim to this after joining a swim team. He promptly belly flops and nearly drowns during his first practice.
- In Fushigi Yuugi, Tasuki gets thrown overboard when the party's ship is in the middle of a storm. Knowing that Tasuki couldn't swim, Miaka heroically dives in after him... only to be reminded by Tamahome that she herself couldn't swim any better.
- Again, in the second OVA series, Tasuki is reminded that he couldn't swim by Chichiri, after he revives Miaka from almost drowning.
- Golden Boy has Kintaro try to impress an Olympic-level swimming instructor with his skills. As seen here, it leaves a lot to be desired.
- Early in Kodocha, Sana challenges Akito to a bungee contest, since she knows that he's afraid of heights. Meanwhile, she forgets that although she loves high places, she has no idea how she'll react to falling from them — as it turns out, with abject screaming horror. This is in character.
- One Piece:
- Anybody who eats a "Devil Fruit" gains some kind of fantastic power, such as an elastic body — at the cost of gaining Super Drowning Skills. Not only do they lose all buoyancy and sink like an anchor, should they fall in the water they become paralyzed as well. Since almost the entire cast of One Piece are pirates and live on the ocean, this is a pretty big deal; yet, they don't seem to get the "jumping in the sea" reflex out of their system nearly as fast as they ought.
- It's a Running Gag that Luffy, the elastic main character who ate a Devil Fruit as a kid, falls into the ocean and begins to drown. (Truthfully, he couldn't even swim before he ate it.) In one episode where it happens, Chopper and Brook valiantly leap in to save him... But they're Devil Fruit users, too. All three of them are then saved by one of the other crew members who're understandably pissed at their thoughtlessness. Luffy himself never forgets, likely due to his lack of swimming ability before.
- Ping Pong: Peco, after meeting Sakuma on the beach.
- Pokémon: Misty's Psyduck is prone to this. And this is despite him being a Water-type Pokémon!
- The Quintessential Quintuplets: At one point, Fuutarou falls into a lake and the Nakano quintuplets all jump in to save him. Nino, the second sister, is the only one who can't swim, forcing him to rescue her.
- Ranma ½:
- Akane first establishes her Super Drowning Skills with this gag, jumping into the ocean to save Ranma from Cologne's attack, failing to remember that she is utterly helpless underwater.
- In a very similar joke, Ryoga once dives into the pool to save a drowning Akane, completely forgetting that he'll turn into a small black pig in contact with the cold water. Ranma even lampshades this mid-dive.
- During the Pantyhose Taro arc, this antagonist kidnaps Akane and takes her to a remote temple in the mountains, then leaves to confront Happosai. Akane escapes, comes across a river, and leaps in... only to splash and sputter her way back to shore. She even says "Oh no! I forgot I can't swim!" afterwards.
- In Samurai Harem: Asu no Yoichi, the title character was raised in the mountains and never learned to swim, but when a side character falls into the water and is unable to swim because the bad guys are creating waves preventing him from doing so, Yoichi heroically jumps in to save the other. After several moments, he surfaces and splashes about. The original water-bound character is eventually saved by a third character who can swim (though no one knew that) while Yoichi gets a life preserver tossed to him so he can distract/fight off the opponents.
- In one episode of Sgt. Frog, Keroro falls into icy water and starts to drown. In a display of friendship, Fuyuki forfeits a match to jump in and save him. However, previous episodes have made it plain that Fuyuki can't swim, and when Keroro points this out, he starts to flounder, even shouting out the trope's name verbatim.
- In Yoake Mae Yori Ruri Iro Na, Feena jumps into the river to save a drowning puppy despite the fact that she herself can't swim. Luckily, Tatsuya is there to rescue her.
- Yu-Gi-Oh! GX has a somewhat comical example as well. Jaden wins a duel against a pirate duelist, but gets kidnapped and is forced to join the latter's crew, only to escape and return to the Academy at the end of the episode. His boat, however, almost doesn't make it, and Syrus dives in to help him, literally forgetting he couldn't swim until Jaden asked him about it.
- Disney Mouse and Duck Comics: Played with in a story where Mickey Mouse and Goofy are tied up and about to be thrown overboard from a boat so that they will drown. Goofy comes out with the gem "But I can't swim". Later, he and Mickey (having escaped their bonds thanks to some plot-handy sharp coral) are treading water calmly discussing their next move when Goofy suddenly starts panicking and Mickey asks what's wrong.
Goofy: "I just remembered, I can't swim."
- The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past: When the Water Palace begins to flood, the Taurus grabs onto a Hinox, gasping that he can't swim. The Taurus's armor ends up dragging them both underwater.
- In the Marvel Universe, the Taskmaster can copy any ability he sees perfectly. When he was little, he used this to perfectly mimic a dive when he was unable to swim and almost drowned as a result.
- In a Spider-Man story, the Gibbon and the Grizzly try to go straight and become good guys, and the Gibbon is actually able to fix up a Cool Car for them... But the Grizzly tries to drive it into the bay, thinking that the Gibbon had told him it was aquatic, which it is not. After they call a tow truck, the Gibbon says he had been thinking of making it aquatic, but it turned out to be too expensive. (Whether it was his fault for not explaining it more thoroughly or the Grizzly's for not listening isn't exactly clear.)
- In a Star Wars one-shot comic, Boba Fett is hired to track down the man who killed a crime lord's son and kill him. Turns out, Boba Fett was the one who killed the boss's son, and the job was a setup to allow his other son to get revenge. After fighting against hordes of scrapyard droids, Fett douses the guy in oil and lights him on fire. Naturally, he runs screaming into a nearby pool to put himself out — remembering immediately afterwards that he can't swim. As he watches him drown, Fett aptly remarks "No smarter than your brother."
- In Chapter 3 of the Undertale (Fan Novelization), Frisk considers swimming across the river to avoid a puzzle. The problem, realized only after coming up with the idea but fortunately before trying it, is that Frisk can not swim.
- The Second Try: In Chapter 4 "Love", Asuka is swimming in a lake while Shinji is fishing. She tries to encourage him to go for a swim as well, but he says he can't swim. Suddenly, Asuka screams that she is drowning, and Shinji gets into the water unthinkingly. He paddles rather clumsily, but he manages to pull her out of the pond.
- In The Little Mermaid (1989), after learning that Prince Eric's bride-to-be Vanessa is actually the sea witch Ursula in disguise, Ariel dives into the ocean to reach the wedding barge...and then remembers that she doesn't know how to swim with legs.
- A rather painful version happens in the first Toy Story. After seeing the moving van ramp nearly crush Woody, Buzz and RC, Slinky Dog hastily decides to jump on the ramp himself attempting to pull them on board. Unfortunately, the batteries run out, dragging him 40 feet wide. It's a wonder how he ever returned to his exact shape.
- In The Gamers:
Game Master: Aren't you forgetting something?
Game Master: Your character's crippling fear of water?
Ambrose: [out of character] Oh, right. [in character] Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!
- Not so much 'forgot' as 'not wanting to lose face', but in Jungle, Kurt agrees to Kevin's suggestion of building a raft and travelling downriver. He even claims to be an expert rafter and insists on steering the raft. However, after their first encounter with rapids, Kevin deduces that Kurt is terified and actually cannot swim. This leads to the argument where Kevin and Yossi decide to continue downriver and Kurt and Marcus decide to hike back to Apolo.
- In Son of a Gun, JR is so Distracted by the Sexy when Natasha strips off and goes Skinny Dipping that he strips off and follows her; even though he can't swim.
- In Summer Camp Nightmare, a 1980s adaptation of The Butterfly Revolution, Donald Poultry, one of the campers of Camp North Pines, is told to come out of the water to be checked for a skin problem by the visiting nurse from Camp South Pines, only to be told that it was a heat rash. He quickly goes back into the water, only to find himself drowning when he realizes he couldn't swim. Franklin Reilly, one of the counselors-in-training watching the events going on at the lakeside, looks at the adult counselors being too busy with their own things to notice that somebody is drowning, then goes in and saves Donald by bringing him back to shore.
- Subverted in Time Bandits, when, after declaring as he struggles in the Atlantic after the Titanic sinks that he can't swim, Fidgit the Bandit discovers to his sudden delight when transported to the Time of Legends that, for no adequately explained reason, "Hey! I can swim!"
- In X-Men: Days of Future Past, Wolverine forgets that his '70s body doesn't have adamantium on his bones or claws several times; he's surprised when he doesn't set off a metal detector and tries to cut a Sentinel prototype, even though his uncoated claws have points but no edges.
- In one Animorphs novel, the group comes across a drowning man. Rachel, in her bald eagle morph, decides that they should try to help them, and since she knows that eagles are fishing birds, figures she's in a perfect position to do so. This leads to her learning the lesson, "Eagles may dive, but that does not make them ducks."
- In Anne of Green Gables, Anne starts a writer's club. She writes a story in which two women fall in love with the same man, and the man falls in love with one of them. The other woman gets jealous, and eventually pushes her friend off a bridge into a river. The man they were fighting over jumps in to rescue her, but he can't swim, and both of them drown.
- In Rod Allbright Alien Adventures Book 4 (Aliens Stole My Body) by Bruce Coville, the main character has had his brain transferred into the body of an alien. He talks the alien whose body he is sharing into going for a swim, only to realize that's not a good idea when you breathe through your skin...
- The protagonist of F. Scott Fitzgerald's short-story The Swimmers forgot that he couldn't swim and tried to save a drowning girl. Later it played a mayor part in his Character Development.
"This is the man who didn't know whether he could swim, because he'd never tried."
- Lightsong in Warbreaker has Laser-Guided Amnesia and can't remember anything before he came Back from the Dead, which means he's forgotten that he has no idea how to use a sword. This comes back to bite him.
- In one Degrassi Junior High plot, one boy makes a bet with the girl swim team that the soccer team can beat them at swimming. He does this in spite of the fact that the rest of the soccer team clearly has a look on their faces that this is a very, very foolish idea.
- The Dukes of Hazzard: Rosco is unable to swim, admitting as much in "The Ghost of the General Lee" (when he's asked to help search a lake for two submerged bodies he fears may be Bo and Luke). Unlike most examples of this trope, this is played dramatically.
- Family Matters: The sixth season episode "Sink or Swim," where Urkel's ability to pass physical education — and graduate from high school — rides on his ability to pass a simple swim test... and (predictably) the nerd can't swim. But Carl can — and this naturally leads to plenty of comedy.
- Seriously Weird: In "Harris and the Mermaid", Harris foolishly challenges Wayne to a swimming race, oblivious of the fact that he doesn't know how to swim.
- In one episode of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, the Terminator Cromartie jumps into the sea after John Connor, forgetting that he's too dense to swim. He has to walk ashore.
- The song Swimming in the Pool by the Belgian group The Radios ends:
Cupid really made me stupid (Stupid so it must be him)
I forgot I couldn't swim
So I terrified my baby (Guess it wasn't very cool)
Yes I made myself a fool (Lying to my baby)
Someone should explain her maybe (Now the story is getting cruel)
Why I drowned in the pool
- A Sesame Street bit features the Ten Little Greeblies, who one by one meet tragic fates, including "Four Little Greeblies, Swimming in the Sea, One Forgot How! and then there were three..."
- In Schlock Mercenary, one arc has the titular mercenaries take a job as mall cops. As part of the contract, they have to leave behind all their military-grade gear, including armor that can let them fly. When what appeared to be a thief started jumping from balcony to balcony, Captain Tagon jumped from his balcony intending to fly and follow. Only on his way down did he remember that he couldn't fly because he wasn't wearing his suit and promptly crashed into someone's dinner table, taking a fork in the eye for his trouble.
- In one episode of Codename: Kids Next Door, Numbuh Four dives at an aspargus sea to chase what he believes to be a cheeseburger, and then he remembers he can't swim.
- In an episode of Danger Mouse, Count Duckula dives 500 feet into a glass of water. Guess what he says just after he makes the jump?
"Oh no, I just remembered, I can't swim!"
- Dastardly and Muttley in Their Flying Machines:
- One of the many ridiculous plans to catch the pigeon is flying a diving board plane with Dick Dastardly on it, so when he is directly above the pigeon, he will dive, catch the pigeon and land on a plane carrying a huge tank of water. Before the squadron takes off, Dastardly remarks, "OK... but I still think we're forgetting something." Remarkably, Dastardly actually catches the pigeon, but suddenly says, "Uh oh! Now I remember! I CAN'T SWIM!", sinks beneath the water, lets go of the pigeon and once again begs for Muttley to rescue him.
- In an episode where Dick Dastardly goes on vacation, he dives at a pool but, because of another attempt from his squad to catch the pigeon, we never get to learn if the trope would repeat or if he had already learned by then.
- In Magnificent Muttley segment episode "The Marvelous Muttdini", a Muttdini fangirl jumps into a river to rescue him only to remember she can't swim. Fortunately, Muttdini escapes his danger by himself and rescues her.
- In an old The Fantastic Four (1967) cartoon, when the Fantasticar is shot over the ocean, the Four manage to bail onto an island. Johnny Storm turns into the Human Torch to go recover the submerged car. Think that one through, since clearly he didn't.
- Varation: Freakazoid! is using his super-car to distract Longhorn, a redneck minotaur in a super semi-truck. They race all around the country till they get to the ocean, and Freakazoid thinks, "Let's see him follow me under water!" Longhorn's truck has a scuba mode. The Freakmobile doesn't.
Freakazoid: That was important and I forgot it!
- Futurama, "Fry and the Slurm Factory":
"I'll just swim around and drink as much as I want! Ha! (Beat) Help! I can't swim!"
- This happens to Garfield in the animated special Garfield's Halloween Adventure. (Of course, he and Odie were running from a mob of Ghost Pirates, so it's hard to blame him.)
- A vehicular variation shows up in Kim Possible: Kim contacts her brothers Jim and Tim and asks them if they added aquatic capability to her car. They said "sure". She drove into the water and asked which button to press, to which they replied, "Oh, we thought you said could you add aquatic capability."
- Pepé Le Pew:
- In one cartoon, Pepe sees Penelope on a cruise boat and runs after it. As he sinks he calmly tells the audience, "Silly me, I forgot I cannot swim."
- In another cartoon, however, he not only can swim, but can do so very well, claiming that, "When you're a skunk, you learn to hold your breath a long time."
- Phineas and Ferb: after Perry the Platypus switches bodies with Candace he once still tried to give a slow-motion tail-slap to Dr. Doofenschmirtz, but just span around pointlessly because he didn't have a tail anymore. After getting mocked for this, he then starts beating Doofenschmirtz with a purse from nowhere.
- Happens a few times to Bullwinkle in Rocky and Bullwinkle, notably in the Maybe Dick story arc where he's submerged head first. He uses his legs to spell out "Save me" in semaphore to Rocky.
- In the very first arc, "Jet Fuel Formula", Bullwinkle, with Rocky's help, devises a multi-step plan that relies on him swimming around the perimeter of an island. Somehow he gets through the entire planning phase without recalling this fact, and only remembers in the moment after he plunges into the water to carry out the plan.
- In The Smurfs (1981) episode "Handy's Sweetheart", when Handy has his foot caught in a Smurf-eating clam and Marina the mermaid tries to get help from the Smurfs to save Handy before he drowns, Brainy presumes to do the job by diving into the water, only to find out that he can't swim.
- In The Zeta Project, the titular Do-Anything Robot has a wide variety of tools. A means of flight is not among them, which would have been nice to remember before he jumped out of a skyscraper.
- Real Life Darwin Awards example: This guy literally forgot he couldn't swim, and drowned because of it.
- It's funny when you're on a boat and you pretend like you're about to fall in. It's less funny when you can't actually swim, but do actually fall in. It's downright tragic when two other people who can't swim jump in to try to save you.
- Richard Pryor mentions this in one of his routines. Whilst playing around with his children in his swimming pool, he accidentally jumped into the deep end and only after he was in the water did he remember that he can't swim.
- Real Life example from nature: the highly endangered Kakapo. As Douglas Adams described it in his book Last Chance To See, "not only has the Kakapo forgotten how to fly, it has forgotten that it has forgotten how to fly". Despite being completely flightless, they will throw themselves out of trees to try and escape danger. Combine this with a startlingly low reproductive ratenote and a fundamental inability to understand the concept of "carnivore" as it applies to a flightless bird. Are you beginning to understand why the bird is highly endangered? Granted, the strategy actually works against the predators that it was used to: Aerial birds that use sight to spot prey, such as eagles. Land-bound predators that use smell, such as dogs and cats, are an alien concept to it.
- Any lifeguard at a public pool could tell you from experience that this happens with surprising regularity. People (and especially kids) who can't swim, or who are fairly weak swimmers, often wind up in the water because of peer pressure, alcohol, or getting caught up in the excitement of something fun like a waterslide or rope swing. And then immediately panic and begin flailing and screaming once they realize they're literally in over their heads. Most of these are relatively simple rescues, except for those who've had too much alcohol: being drunk, they frequently don't actually start flailing and instead merely sink quietly beneath the surface. This is why lifeguard shifts "on the tower" tend to be fairly short, as you need to be very alert and paranoid that everyone who gets in that pool may not be capable of keeping themselves afloat.