Training & Tips
What I learned in my first year of open water swimming
by Dick Brewer
I had watched open water swimming and read about the feeling of accomplishment afterwards, so I finally decided I should try it just to see what it was all about. I began easily -- in a pool. I swam my first ever 1650 in a meet in February. I survived and afterwards thought to myself, "All right! Now I'm a distance swimmer! I can do this." I was ready for the open water. I entered my very first ocean swim two months later, a one-mile competition off Miami Beach. I learned some valuable lessons there that weren't obvious from the 1650.
First, when there are three-foot swells and you're swimming parallel to the shoreline, you don't ever want to breathe to the ocean side.
Second, open water is not like pool water. I was prepared for the difference between chlorine and salt, but I quickly realized that in the ocean, unlike a pool, swimmers aren't the only big things that are moving around out there. I swam over a school of Manta Rays, which was cool, so I paused to watch them, and then a little later, I swam into the middle of some jellyfish. Fortunately, they were benign as well as intriguing to look at. But you want to look at what's going on around and below you as well as at what's in front.
Third, I discovered that I don't swim in a straight line when there aren't lane ropes to hold me in and there isn't a line on the bottom to guide me. Those little ripple lines on the sand at the bottom, when you can see them, don't parallel the shore or coincide with the course. Sighting is very important, and it is not an innate behavior. It takes practice, lots of practice, to do it efficiently.
Fourth, I learned that a beach start for an open water swim takes fortitude and courage. For my first one, I stood at the outside and back so I could watch how the experienced swimmers did it. It was really congested in there. And after the race, the really good swimmers in the front and middle of the pack joked about being kicked in the face and rammed at the start. They seemed to accept this as a normal occurence and no big deal. I'm thinking, "These open water people are nuts!" But my respect and admiration for them grew.
Finally, I learned that after an ocean swim, everything from bagels to bottled water tastes very salty. Plus, if you don't shower right afterwards in fresh water, you feel really sticky on the drive home.
With that experience under my belt, I went back to the relative calm of chlorinated pools and during the summer and early fall swam my first 1500 long course, my first 1500 short course meters, and the 3000- and 6000-yard postals.
Confidence bolstered, I was ready for another open water event, so that November I tried an ocean swim in Bonaire, where I learned even more about open water swimming and swimmers.
First, there are currents in the ocean that aren't there in pools or even on courses close to and adjacent to a shore, especially when the swim is from one island to another. One thing I knew from my Miami Beach swim was that I tended to veer to my right in open water rather than swimming in a straight line. So this time, I would be smart and compensate by intentionally swimming a little to the left with the idea that I would wind up in the middle. Good idea on paper, but a lousy idea when there is a strong right-to-left current between the islands! I wound up going way, way to the left.
That's when I learned something else about open water swimmers. Away from those horrid beach starts, they're quite friendly and helpful. Some one swam up, tapped me on the foot, and yelled, "You're going the wrong way."
The final thing I've learned, so far anyway, came the following year in the Gulf of Mexico during my first 5K swim. Check tinted goggles before the swim if different colored buoys mark different races! The general course was marked with orange buoys, with a yellow buoy part way where the 3K people turned to swim back, then another orange buoy before a second yellow buoy marking the 5K turn. But when looking through light greenish-blue goggles, both orange and yellow buoys appear black. Stopping to flip one goggle up to see what color the buoy is does not help maintain a regular swimming rhythm or a very streamlined position.
Lastly, that feeling of accomplishment that I'd heard open water swimmers talk about after a race -- they're absolutely right. It does feel great to swim and especially to finish. That's a feeling I look forward to in my next open water swim.