Drowning is a leading cause of injury related death in many countries. Strategies to prevent these deaths depend upon characteristics of the victim and the specific circumstances surrounding the event. One preventive strategy that may be beneficial for persons of all ages and under nearly all circumstances is increased swimming ability, through some form of swimming instruction. However, a clear protective relationship between increased swimming ability and the risk of drowning has never been demonstrated. Studies focused on children, suggest that swimming ability may confer some protection, although the data are far from conclusive. This paper (1) reviews the current evidence regarding the relationship between swimming ability, swimming lessons and the risk of drowning, (2) reviews the past and present recommendations for swimming instruction and (3) outlines future research needs.