A couple of weeks ago I was contacted by the webmaster of 1Vigor.com asking me to write an article for his website on open water swimming. I had a gazillion things going on at the time but what the heck, right? Sure. I'll add that to my list... He didn't give me much direction about what he wanted... Just asked me to write an article on open water swimming. After I wrote and turned in my first narrative article on my personal experience with ocean swimming, I figured out (because he, um, told me) that what he actually wanted was a safety check list for people relatively new to ocean swimming. That wasn't the direction I originally went but after he asked me to edit it to include some safety tips, I did. But I still wrote my own story about ocean swimming and how I came to love it. I knew when I turned in my second draft that it still wasn't likely what he was looking for but I submitted it in anyway. He's the editor and before he published it on his website, he cut out the narrative part that made me sound like an idiot. Lol. But at the risk of not being asked to write a follow up for his website this is my blog and I'll publish what I want here... and you, my readers, know me better than the 1Vigor readers do so you may appreciate this version more than the one that actually got published. :)
(Sorry about the formatting and all the points being 1. Not sure how to fix that? I guess that's why I'm not a real editor.)
Embracing The Ocean
A long long time ago, when I was young and naive and knew a lot less about the ocean, I didn’t think twice about getting in and swimming, alone, in unfamiliar murky water. Not even in foreign countries where I knew no one.
Here’s an example. I was 26 and hanging out by myself on a little Malaysian island named Langkawai for a few weeks. I really wanted to swim, but there were no pools (that I could find) on the island. What the heck, right? The ocean was warm, some might even say too warm, but we’ll just go with warm. I didn’t know anyone and didn’t speak the language but given my young and carefree outlook on everything, it never really occurred to me that maybe it wasn’t the safest or smartest idea to just jump in the ocean and swim. Ok, I will admit that some creepy thoughts did cross my mind while I was out there swimming, mostly because the water was an interesting opaque green color and I couldn’t even see my hands pull underneath me. I wondered if there were any large creatures out there that might be hovering around. I wondered, given that I was alone in this foreign country, how my mom would know that I died if something came and ate me while I was out there. But interestingly enough, that did not stop me from swimming. Shoot, even the sign posted on the deserted beach that said, “Caution, Strong Current” didn’t stop me. (Can I tell you how fast I crossed that bay on the way in?? They weren’t kidding about the current!)
I guess the moral of that story is that sometimes we just get lucky. Ten years later I think back to those times and think, “Man, I was nuts.”
Today I find myself to be a more rational adult. Living in Hawaii gives me ample opportunity to swim in the ocean on a regular basis, and I take advantage of it. Though I will say that I have been lucky in finding other awesome ocean swimmers who have taught me a ton about ocean safety. Not the least of which has been, “Swim with a group.”
If you’re young and naive like I was, you might disregard these rules, but seriously, some ocean swimming safety tips should just be a given.
- Swim with a group, or at least one other person. Ideally that person will be about the same speed as you so you don’t have to be stressed about swimming fast enough to keep up. Besides the obvious benefit of this, there is a less palpable feeling of swimming beside your training partners that will make you feel more at ease while you’re in the midst of such an enormous body of water. Plus, when you stop to tread water and look around, you’ll have someone to listen when you say, “Wow! Isn’t this great?!?”
- Swim in water you ‘know’ or are familiar with. If you are new to ocean swimming, ask around about where the best places are to swim. Local swimmers will know. Ideally the best places to ocean swim will have sandy beaches that make it easy to enter/exit the water, and won’t be known for their strong currents and/or surf. Sometimes the time of year makes a huge difference. Here on Oahu we wouldn’t even think of swimming on the North Shore during the winter because of the world famous surf, but in the summer, it’s typically like a clear calm lake up there and the swimming is the best on the island!
- If you’re not confident in your swimming ability, be sure to swim only in lifeguarded areas, and stay out of the ocean completely until you can swim at least 800 meters non-stop and comfortably in a pool. There are no walls in the ocean and in all likelihood it’ll be too deep to stand up, so the only ‘rest’ you’ll get while you’re out there will involve treading water or floating on your back. If you can find one, a kayaker would be great to have along while you’re adjusting to the feel of the ocean.
The following rules may be a little less obvious if you don’t have a lot of ocean swimming experience.
- Be on the lookout for signs of little animals that might sting you while you’re in the ocean. Some jellyfish infestations are predictable, like the box jellies that invade Oahu’s south shores about 10-12 days after each full moon. If there are signs on the beach that say, “Warning! Jellyfish!” you might want to find another beach to swim from or just skip it altogether for a few days until they make their way out to sea again. If you’re desperate to swim on a jellyfish day, do it mid-day when the sun is warmest (but wear sunscreen!). Box jellyfish tend to want to be where the water is cooler so as the sun heats the surface of the water, they sink lower. If you’re swimming at a beach known for Portuguese Man-o-War, know that they typically get blown in with the wind, so if it’s a windy day, look carefully on the sand for washed up man-o-wars. If you see some, you might consider skipping your swim that day. Man-o-War tentacles can wrap around you and sting pretty badly. I’ve never known anyone who has been hospitalized by a man-o-war sting, but I’ve personally had some pretty bad ones and they are not fun. It can feel like an electric shock through your whole body and then you’ll end up with itchy welts that can last for several days.
- If you’re a confident ocean swimmer, it can be quite fun to swim where there are some waves and swells. The trick to getting into the water is timing your entry right with the shore break. Your best bet is to wait until a white water wave breaks on the sand, then run into the water and dive in as soon as it’s deep enough to do so. Typically, once you’re past the shore break you wont have too many more issues. Though you should be aware that when there is a swell, waves will break when they hit a shallower ocean floor, which isn’t always near the shore. So pay attention to where you see white water waves breaking and know that there will likely be some shallow reef right there. If you’re not interested in getting toppled by the wave or washed up on shallow reef, avoid that area all together. But if you’re up for a little adventure, swim right through it and duck dive under as the wave is breaking (be careful that it’s not too shallow to do this!). Better yet, take a little break from the swim and body surf! Getting out of the ocean where there is shore break can also be a bit tricky. Your best bet is to let a wave carry you in. As the waves are retreating back into the ocean, it can be useless to try to fight against them. Just let them take you out a bit and know that in about ten seconds another wave will come escort you to shore. Let it!
- Make note of your surroundings and pick something big that will not move for your siting. Mountain peaks, tree lines, pink buildings, and churches with big steeples all make for good siting when you’re ocean swimming. Sometimes swells can get quite large if you’re out far enough and in those cases you might have a hard time seeing anything other than something very large on shore.
- When it’s windy, if you’re swimming in the ocean, you’re likely going to be swimming through wind chop. When I first moved to Hawaii and started ocean swimming regularly, I found myself quite annoyed that I had to change up my stroke (shorten it) to battle choppy waters. I would get irritated as I would try to breathe but instead got smacked in the face by white water wind chop. I remember specifically one afternoon, about a mile off the coast of Waikiki, complaining to my swim partner about the chop. I was just OVER IT and irritated that I couldn’t just relax and swim. Instead of consoling me, he laughed at me and said, “Then go swim in a pool.” And he was right. Time to stop complaining. I took a look around, at the Waikiki sky line and Diamond Head in the background, fish under my feet and the challenge of the chop and current... That was a defining moment in my ocean swimming career. At that instant I changed my outlook on the conditions and began to embrace them. Bring on the chop! I can swim through it. Learn to relax and enjoy the conditions rather than fight them.
Let’s focus on the positives for a while, shall we? If you’re smart about it, ocean swimming is an awesome adventure. Pool swimming, while at times providing a nice challenge if you’re trying to nail a set of threshold 100’s on a certain interval, can be rather boring. That same black line all the time and those walls that require flipping before you hit your head on the concrete... No wonder so many swimmers resort to alcohol post workout. The ocean, on the other hand, provides quite nice scenery most of the time (at least here in Hawaii where the water is usually clear and fish and turtles and coral are abundant). Sometimes we actually rate the success of our ocean swims based on how many turtles we saw. “That was a THREE-Turtle swim!!” And on occasion, dolphins will come by and swim with us. Those Spinner Dolphins are amazing. They are playful and fun and total show-offs with their tricks. They’re like little kids. “Hey! Watch me! I can jump out of the water and do TWO full spins before landing on my back in the water!” Good stuff.
And so it goes. If you want to swim in the ocean, you need to be prepared for what the ocean is going to give you that day. Pay attention to your basic safety issues, but don’t let wind chop or swells deter you. Sometimes the ocean will grant you perfect, warm and clear water with dolphins playing nearby. Other times it’ll hand you nasty angry water and you might get yourself wrapped up in a Portuguese Man-o-War. But regardless, with the right mindset, you might just find it more appealing than that boring black line.