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Sport: Recreational Open Water Swimming

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The difference between swimming laps in a pool or playing in the waves at the beach and open water swimming is the same as eating canned asparagus and picking it at the farm. As John Walker writes, “Open water swimming is to pool swimming as trail running is to track running.” The experiences are totally different even though the strokes are basically the same. Most references from Yahoo and Google are about open water, competitive swimming. The most popular recently is the triathalon. Otherwise the articles tend to be about the history of open water competitions such as swimming the English Channel. Our interest is about open water, distance swimming for fun, therapy, challenge, beauty and meditation. That may not equal competitive sports for some but it does count in the years you have to live and the pleasure of living them..

There are a few interesting links to sites and blogs about open water swimming. There are many more but they tend to concentrate on training and strategies for triathalons and ocean competitions.

There is a guide to swim tours and events at Ocen Swims

A U.K. blog shows an expressive love of the sport at:Wild Swimmer.

About.com even has a site for swimming but they have a site about most everything. See:
About Swimming.

Open water swimming is not to be taken lightly nor to be entered into without practice and training. It is one thing to be no more that 4 lanes (an olympic lane is about a meter wide) from the side of a pool and another to be half a mile from shore in some swells. The open water ( I don’t echo the term “ocean swimmer” as we swim and have swum in lakes, ponds, a Yucatan cenote (86 meters deep) and, mostly, in the fresh water lagoon in front of our house. It is our favorite spot since it has a cenote in the lagoon about 1/2 mile in diameter and is 60 or more meters deep). Sadly it has changed in the past two years from relatively quiet to buzzing with motor craft, jetskis, pontoon tour boats and lines of cruise ship tourists in small, high-powered speedboats.

I also grew up near the Gulf of Mexico and, after Red Cross classes (Bravo, Red Cross!) I learned to swim in it as well as to play in the surf. There were also pools and a summer camp way up north in the Carolinas that I thought much too cold but I swam it anyway. Therefore open water only scares me occasionally. Recently the danger comes from the two legged creatures with motors behind them. Before that there was the possibility that the family of alligators from the island nearby would bother with us but they are lazy creatures. In the ocean all manner of creatures lurk but normally leave a swimmer alone. The predators, like sharks, prefer things old or sick or weak and flailing.

However, this sport can be dangerous if you don’t follow at least some rules:

First, there is the depth. Don’t even think about it until you are very comfortable with being a long way from any place to put your feet down or grab hold of something. They just ain’t there.

Second, know the water you swim in or take great care in strange waters until you know the bottom, the obstructions, currents and places to enter and leave.

Third, talk to locals. Are there dangers? Predators? A waterfall just outside of view. Contamination. rocks, etc.

Fourth and the hard part for some of us. Try not to swim alone. If you do, be very aware that there is no one to help you and know the techniques to rest: floating, treading water and downproofing. It is best to have another swimmer near you because they are a lot closer (and probably more trustworthy) than any lifeguard.

John Walker writes in his blog on Open water swimming from Maryland which can be accessed at Open Water Swimming:

“Visibility of less than 2 feet. No stripe to follow on the bottom. Unseen creatures lurking under you. Seen creatures kicking you and flailing their arms all around you. Choppy water trying to splash in your mouth on every breath. Cold water. Flotsam and jetsam….

Seriously though, open water swimming can be a wonderful activity. Open water swimming is to pool swimming as trail running is to track running. It is a chance to get out and simply enjoy your surroundings. You can stretch out your stroke and get into a rhythm that you can’t achieve when there are walls every 25 or 50 meters…

Even if you have tried to prepare for every possible problem, it is always possible that something unexpected will happen and you find yourself needing help. That is not the time to be alone. If there are lifeguards, let them know your plans before you start swimming. If there are no lifeguards, then swim with someone else (keeping an eye on each other and knowing lifesaving will both help).

Make Yourself Visible.

Along those same lines, make yourself easy to see. Not only will it help people find you if you need help, but it may also help boats see you and only come close instead of running over you. Those bright swim caps they make you wear at races aren’t just for decoration! The only times I ever wear a swim cap are in open water and cold water (like when the heater goes out in the pool)..,”

He goes on to write of currents, waves and the sea: “…the trick is to get beyond the breakers as quickly as possible, swim around out there, and then get from the breakers back to shore again as quickly as possible. When getting past the breakers or back into shore, the biggest thing to remember is not to fight the water! It will win. Don’t be afraid to let the water push you around a little – it is better to give a little than to break. There are lots of tricks that can help keep your body intact when getting past the breakers.

Go under/through the wave. I list this first because I think it is probably the most useful technique. Just before a wave breaks, you can dive under the wave or through the vertical wall of water and go through the wave. You can actually just stand there (preferably sideways so it doesn’t have as much to push on) and let the wave go around you. If the wave has already broken, don’t try to go through the whitewater that results. That is another good way to become an involuntary bodysurfer. Instead, go under the wave. ..”

He goes on in his very useful site for would–be ocean swimmers. Check it out before you dive into heavy (or light) surf or just the lake or lagoon.His site and this excerpt ©John F. Walker. 1995.

Calmer waters like the lagoon (not counting sudden storms and heavy winds) and the quiet cenote still hide other dangers besides depth and hidden tree branches. We have met snakes galore in different spots. We share the waters but try to keep our distance. They usually have a straight line from point A to B. I am quite willing to change course and let them by.

The pleasures are immense. Exercise, sunshine, cooling off (especially here in the tropics) and the meditative relaxation of repetitive rhythms of the strokes and breathing, and the challenge of swimming further or better than you have before.

I do include a short “fiction” about swimming with alligators that I wrote some time ago. It can be accessed at Fiction

This has been outside of the competitive sports model let alone the spectator sports; but, it is something wonderful to do that can be done into your venerable old age. Like all sports: take good care of yourself, know your limits, and be aware of lurking dangers.

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  • Aaman

    Very interesting and important reading – I’ve swum in about 4-5 oceans, and faced terrible under-currents only once, but know it’s tough and dangerous