Stingray recently sat down with Coral Owen, a Clearwater based open water swim coach, to put together some must know tips for ocean swimming. A 5-min read might just save your life!
Open water swimming is a fantastic opportunity to take your fitness to the next level while also tapping into your innate sense of adventure. Before you get wet, there are a few important things to consider. Knowing what conditions to look for and planning accordingly can make the difference between an enjoyable training experience and a harrowing one. Below are a few factors to consider. If you are unsure of how these points affect the conditions, be sure to connect with your local swim coach, open water swim group or beach lifeguard to learn more.
Weather and storms:
While swimming in the rain can be quite enjoyable, swimming in a storm is extremely dangerous. You may set off in beautiful sunshine only to find yourself in life threatening conditions 20-mins later. A storm can not only bring in lightening, but also water spouts (tornados over the water) and large waves. Always check the forecast and more importantly always check the storm radar. It could just save your life!
Onshore winds (from the water towards the land) will create surface chop and potentially waves. Offshore winds (from the land towards the water) will result in flatter, calmer conditions which will certainly lead to a more enjoyable swim. Consider downloading a phone App that will give you an accurate wind direction guide. Windy is one we like to use. If you are a novice, swim with off shore winds but stay close to shore.
Tides, whether incoming or outgoing, can have a significant impact on the currents, waves, and exposure of hazards in the water. Swimming at a time when the tide is not turning and in a place where the tide is less aggressive is certainly safer. For example, swimming in an estuary or channel when the tide is turning can be very dangerous. As with the wind, there are many good phone Apps that will tell you exactly what the tides are doing. Tide Alert NOAA is a really good one!
Currents and riptides:
Currents can move the water in many different directions. The most concerning currents to be aware of are riptides which can pull swimmers away from the shoreline very quickly. If you are caught in a rip then fighting it and trying to swim back to land is the worst thing you can do. It’s easier said than done but relaxing and letting the rip take you out is the best way to stay safe. Once out of the rip you may swim easily back to shore to the right or left. The trick is not to panic and have the confidence you will be ok. Below is a good example of what a rip tide looks like and you can clearly see the break in the surf.
Checking for submerged rocks, reefs, old docks, and other dangerous objects is exceptionally important, especially at low tide. Never jump into water you are not familiar with and diving should be avoided at all costs. It's just not worth the risk. Even at high tide there can be protruding objects so always be careful. This safety tip is often overlooked.
Fog, sea mist, low clouds and even waves can greatly reduce visibility. This is an important factor to consider for swimmers when sighting buoys, swim lines, and other points of reference. However it is more important to remember that watercraft cannot see you in these conditions. Always swim with a bright swim cap and swim safety buoy to enhance your visibility, as this is often the only way watercraft will see you. Swimming in a group and having several people paddle board or kayak close by will also greatly increase your safety.
If you are a novice swimmer, always learn to swim in calm conditions first. Once you become comfortable you can work on becoming proficient in more challenging swim situations. A swim group can make all the difference when venturing into open water. Established groups will have experienced swimmers from whom you can learn about the water conditions where you will be swimming, but there’s also a greater level of safety and often coaches on hand. If you don't have access to a group then always swim with a buddy, and download those iPhone Apps!
Coral Owen is a USAT Level 1 and IRONMAN certified triathlon coach who has been swimming, surfing, and saving lives in open water for over 20 years. She is based in Clearwater, Florida where she hosts free, weekly open water swims with Team BABE Athletics and Sunshine Open Water. If you have questions about open water swimming or are interested in training with her, drop her a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.