Ocean Swimming Techniques
By Jeff David, Ca. State Parks Lifeguard Chief, North Orange County
There are some fundamental differences between swimming in open water and swimming in a pool. There are also differences between ocean swimming and lake swimming. Here I will explain swimming strategies specific to the ocean environment, and how to use the ocean conditions to your advantage.
These ocean swimming strategies are taught in Ocean Lifeguard training, enabling the Lifeguards to quickly rescue struggling swimmers. Every year the Lifeguards must complete a re-qualification swim consisting of a 1,000 yard ocean swim in less than 20 minutes. Granted, Lifeguards are very strong swimmers; however; if the ocean conditions are right, and the surf and currents are strong, it is not uncommon for the them to complete the 1,000 yard swim in under 10 minutes. By utilizing the ocean conditions to their advantage they can often swim faster in the ocean then they can in a swimming pool, and if you follow and practice these techniques, so can you.
1. Prepare for the cold.
Unless you’re in the tropics, the ocean is going to be colder than a swimming pool. Stronger swimmers are in the water for less time, and they can often get away without wearing a wetsuit. If swimming isn’t your strongest suit, wear a wetsuit when ocean swimming. These are the guidelines I suggest when considering the use of a wetsuit in an ocean swim. If the water is over 70, I wouldn’t wear a wetsuit, for fear of over heating. Remember you will be exercising so you will generate heat. Water temperature between 70 and 65, wear a cap. If the water is below 65, wear a thin wetsuit. If itâ€™s below 60 wear a thicker wetsuit, a cap and ear plugs. You should feel comfortable swimming in your wetsuit, and any wetsuit will increase your buoyancy, making swimming easier.
2. Keep your mouth shut.
This may seem like a stupid suggestion; however, the ocean is very salty, and many swimmers accustomed to pool swimming get sick, because they unknowingly swim with their mouths open. When you’re breathing during your stroke get your mouth out of the water, and close it before you put it back in the water. Try to take in as little salt water as possible. There’s nothing like ruining everything you trained for, just because you can’t keep your mouth shut.
3. Check for a long shore current.
Before the race, swim out past the breaking waves. As you float in the water, turn and face the shoreline. If there is a long shore current you will move either up or down the coast. This will give you a feel for how fast the long shore current is moving and if you need to account for it on your way out to the buoy. This is also a good time to practice body surfing (see item # 8, Part 2).
4. Find a rip current
The ocean bottom is uneven and waves break in areas where the bottom is more shallow. The water thrown up on the shore by the surf flows back into the ocean in the deeper channels, creating rip currents. Rip currents tend to recur in these deeper channels. Rip currents are your fastest way out of the surfline. Look at where the waves ARE NOT breaking. Generally there will be a recurring rip current in that area. In extreme cases you can actually see the water flowing back out to sea. By out swimming in a rip current, not only will you have to deal with less white water, but you will also be swimming on a conveyor belt heading out to sea. When you need to get out of the rip current simply turn parallel to shore and swim out. This way you are avoiding the force vector of the current. At the start run parallel to shore to enter the water at the beginning of the rip current. The waves break over anything that creates a shallow. By avoiding the breaking waves, in the ocean, you also avoid hazards.
Stay tuned for Part 2 and 4 more tips!