As the rookie lifeguard ran out into the water, she felt good at first. She lifted her legs up high just as the instructor told her. When she got to thigh deep water, she started “dolphin diving” by pushing off the bottom and doing shallow surface dives, propelling herself into deeper water quickly. She even managed to dive over a couple of waves without having them knock her back. Then she took one final dive and pushed off the bottom. And things started falling apart. A wave hit her and knocked her back. She tried to make forward progress through the whitewater “soup” that trailed the breaking wave. She quickly tired, lost her sense of direction, and had to resort to breaststroke to make forward progress.
This is typical for entry level open water swimmers, even those who are really good in the pool. Open water swimming is its own skill set that only roughly parallels what we learn in the pool. And open water swimming in surf is yet another level. But open water swimming that’s quickly taking off, and triathlon has gotten crazy popular in recent years. If you are one of those who are starting or are interested in starting to swim in the open water here are a few pointers.
First of all, you should be able to swim at least double the distance in a pool that you plan on swimming in open water. Second, if the water is cold enough to wear a wetsuit you should. Not only is it faster, but a layer of neoprene adds a lot of flotation which means you essentially are bringing a lifejacket with you. Third, in open water you don’t usually get to touch bottom so you want to go a little slower than you might try to go in a pool. Conserving a little air and strength gives you a margin for error that makes it easier to recover if you hit some chop or get smacked by someone’s foot by accident. The extra buoyancy of saltwater will help as well. Another good trick is that if you’re not a strong swimmer it’s not a bad idea to line up on the side of your swim wave, so you don’t get knocked around when everyone is starting off and not yet spread out. You’ll actually do better as a strong swimmer by lining up in the middle of the pack because if you get behind a group of slightly faster swimmers you can benefit from getting sucked along in their draft. Finally, a great tip is to look up every few strokes as you breathe (eyes first, breath second). Even if this slows you a little, you’ll be faster overall because you’ll swim a straighter course.
For surf you need to add numerous extra skills like diving under waves, using the complicated ocean currents to your advantage, and looking around you when you hit the top of swells. It’s definitely a challenge for our new guards but is an essential component of being an effective ocean lifesaver.