I can't understand why anyone wouldn't enjoy swimming in open water: low visibility, wetsuits that makes you feel like a beached whale, there's no black line to follow on the bottom, choppy water splashes in your mouth on every breath, unseen creatures lurk beneath you...
In all seriousness though, open water swimming is an enjoyable activity. Unlike in a pool, you can stretch out and find a rhythm without hitting a wall every 25 or 50 meters. Open water allows swimmers to enjoy their surroundings while exercising--but this means being comfortable with your environment. Build your confidence through experience and you'll be able to handle any situation that may arise in open water.
Maintain Your Composure
As a coach for Team in Training, I have seen numerous panic attacks occur in open water. This can even happen to swimmers who are completely competent in the pool, where, between lane lines and the wall, there is always something within arm's reach to grab on to. How far are you comfortable swimming without standing up or holding on to something? If you swallow some water, do you have to grab the lane line or can you breaststroke while you clear your throat and keep moving? Can you swim under water for a few seconds without feeling claustrophobic? These are important questions to consider and practice before heading out to open water.
Although it is not uncommon to feel panicky, it is the worst thing you can do when surrounded by a large body of water. Maintaining composure no matter what happens is a big challenge and can take some practice. If you start to feel panic overtake you, breathe deeply and focus on calming yourself. Turn over and float on your back (as long you're past the surf) while you catch your breath and regroup. Also, races have no rules against doing breaststroke or backstroke. Remember, your wetsuit will keep your afloat, so if you need to, take a few moments to relax.
Don't Swim Alone
Always swim with a group. Safety in numbers is a good rule of thumb when it comes to open water swimming. Also, let the lifeguards know what you are doing before you head into the water so they can keep an eye on you. Try to wear a brightly colored swim cap so you're visible. White tends to blend in and look like a buoy, and black or dark blue are hard to see. Go with a bright pink, bright green or other very visible color.
Charting Your Course
How do you stay on course and avoid swimming out to sea? Drop your stuff off on the beach near an obvious landmark you'll be able to see from the water. Then jog at an easy pace however far you think you want to swim. For instance, if an easy jog for you is a 10-minute-per-mile pace, start jogging from where you left your bag for five minutes and you'll be about a half-mile away from your belongings.
Enter the water and move straight out until you're past the breaking waves. Before starting your swim, turn and familiarize yourself with the beach. Look for landmarks such as brightly colored buildings or lifeguard towers and their relation to where you have chosen to swim to.
Next, pick a fixed object straight ahead of you to keep you on track. This is called "sighting." Pick the end of a pier or a bright house or building. Boats don't always work, for obvious reasons. Stay relaxed with your head in the water. Every few strokes look up at your landmark to be sure you are still going in the right direction.
You can practice sighting in a pool. Put a brightly colored object at the end of the lane. Every few strokes, lift your head up to find the object. This will drop your hips, thus creating drag and slowing you down, so it's a good idea to practice this before a race.
Don't look for too long when sighting. Quickly peek up, look and then put your head back down and keep swimming. If you didn't see your object, continue your stroke and look again on your next stroke cycle. Being in the trough of a wave can limit your view. Instead of keeping your head up until the wave goes down, get back into your rhythm and look again on your next stroke. The less you have your head out of the water, the better.
Waves, Currents and Riptides...Oh My!
In a previous article, "Survive the Surf," I discussed entering the surf and how to get through the breakers. Once you're past that stage, there are still some ocean conditions you need to be aware of.
All bodies of water have waves and chop. Waves (also called swells) travel in one direction. Chop is usually the result of wind creating lots of little waves with no direction to them. These can affect your swimming technique and breathing. It's a good idea to be able to breathe on both sides of your body in case you come up for air on one side only to realize water is forcing you to go to the other side. Also, having high elbows and a high arm recovery will work better in wavy, choppy water.
Current is water pulling in one direction, usually parallel to shore. You won't change your technique to swim in a current, but swimming against it will make your swim much tougher. The easiest way to find a current is to feel if there is pressure pushing in one direction, or you can observe which direction people float. If you know that the current will pull you in one direction while you are swimming, start off down the beach in the other direction so you end up where you want to be.
Riptides and undertows are two conditions that open water swimmers need to be especially aware of. An undertow is when the water from a just-broken wave returns to the ocean underneath the incoming waves. It can be pretty strong near shore, but shouldn't really affect anyone on the surface.
A riptide channels the water into a "river" that runs perpendicularly away from the shore. It moves quickly and can easily carry an unsuspecting swimmer far from shore. It usually appears as a smooth area on the surface of the water. Naturally, the best way to handle a riptide is to get out of one. Riptides may move a lot faster than any of us can swim, but they aren't very wide. Don't waste your energy fighting them; move to its side by swimming parallel to the shore, then head back to the beach in friendlier water.
When swimming in cold water, your body's natural reflex will probably be to resist inhaling or exhaling underwater, making it difficult to achieve a smooth stroke. Before diving in, concentrate on keeping your breath steady and then focus on maintaining this while swimming.
Ready to swim?
The best advice I can give you is to spend lots of time enjoying the water. Be a kid again. Maintain your respect for the water, and remember that this is supposed to be fun. Hopefully you'll start to look forward to your open water swims rather than fearing them.