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Open Water

Safety Tips for Open Water Swimming

Get out there and have some fun, safely!

Yvette McKechnie , Coach | September 3, 2013

I prefer open water to a pool any day. It doesn’t mean I don’t have a healthy fear of the critters below or other variables, I do. (I could go on and on about lifeguarding drills, feeling nudges in the water, seeing shadows while surfing, and so on.) But one thing is certain, it hasn’t stopped me yet! I love the open water and you can embrace it, too, but not without sturdy safety practices and a few basics.

Here are some basic safety tips and key points to employ when you’re planning a swim with some friends or heading to a race or event. This list is not exhaustive, but it’s a place to start.

Even if you’re participating in a race or organized swim, it’s still best practice to remain aware of personal basic safety at all times. Just remember to have fun, keep calm, and create a positive atmosphere for you and those around you. Nature is unpredictable, but unnecessary swim-related accidents can be prevented.

Basic Safety for a Casual Swim with Friends

  • Never swim alone. First and foremost, never under any circumstances ever swim alone. Did I mention never-ever? Would you SCUBA dive alone? Of course not! Whenever you’re in the water, always swim with a buddy, even if there is a lifeguard. A lifeguard cannot be considered a buddy because his primary duty is to protect and prevent hazardous situations for all patrons, not just you.
  • Check water conditions before entering. Is it safe for everyone to swim? Are there hazards not immediately visible, such as potential boat traffic? Is the water quality poor or dangerous? Are there any indications that signs could be missing? Could those have been signs warning of a “No Swim” area? Survey the area before you enter and know what to look for.
  • Have a plan for emergencies. What is your plan should something happen to you or your buddy? Does someone else know where you’re going? Will someone be watching from shore, ready to take action in the event you need assistance? Plan for everything and eliminate as much uncertainty as possible.
  • Understand currents, rip currents, and such. Currents are another variable of open water swimming versus pool swimming. Sometimes you won’t know how strong or which direction the current pulls until you get in the water. This topic alone warrants a whole article, but for now, keep the following tips in mind:
    • If it looks quick, it is. Be careful, exercise extra caution, and be smart about deciding whether to get in the water.
    • Ride it ‘til it weakens. If you get caught in a rip current—strong columns of water that rush out to sea and can carry a swimmer a great distance from shore very quickly—your best bet is to ride the current until it weakens, then swim out of it, parallel to shore. Once you’re past the rip, you can turn and swim back into shore. If you try to fight the current or swim against it, you will lose.
    • Stay calm, be safe, and be aware. Currents happen, and your best defense is to always remain calm and aware.
    • Know your surroundings. Be acutely cognizant of your surroundings. Boats, swimmers, marine life, variable weather and water conditions, and a lot of other elements can threaten your swim. Stay vigilant and get out of the water if you feel threatened.
    • Watch the weather. If the forecast calls for rain or thunderstorms, it’s prudent to not swim. That said, meteorologists are rarely 100% spot-on and weather changes frequently. Double check credible weather forecasting services before you swim. If you hear thunder before or during your swim, get to shore and a safe environment immediately. You do not know how quickly a storm might be moving or where it’s headed, so remove yourself from the water and take cover. Then apply the USMS weather safety plan.

Basic Prep for an Open Water Race or Event

  • Always be prepared. The more prepared you are, the more confident you are and less likely to be overly excitable. Pack the night before so you’re sure to have everything.
  • Be confident. We’re all human and despite our feelings that some skills need work or that we’re not perfect, this shouldn’t stop us from exuding self-assurance. As Nike says: “Just do it!”
  • Go for it from the start but stay calm. It’s good to remember when you’re getting in the water, either by a running start from the beach or an in-water start, to always remain calm. If you enjoy the crowd, then create a positive, confident energy other swimmers can contribute to and feed off of; it makes it more fun for everyone. If you’re too nervous or just need to avoid crowds, then do your best to place yourself at a safe distance from the crowd. It might be hard to avoid if you’re participating in a race, but remember to breathe and keep calm. Some folks feel more comfortable letting an official or someone affiliated with the race or event know that this is their first race or that they’re new to open water. The official or volunteer might be able to offer something that could provide comfort, even if it’s a few encouraging words. Some events also rely on “Angel Swimmers” to guide and assist nervous swimmers. They aren’t at every race, but ask an official if you can have a dedicated buddy for your swim.
  • Remember to breathe. If you’re starting to panic or breathe faster than normal, rein yourself in by taking slow, deep breaths and thinking about something that calms you. If you’re in the water when panic strikes, roll over and float on your back until you feel you’re ready to engage again. Always keep an eye on land and be aware of your surroundings. You can also look around for a safety kayaker or other support crew and ask for help or a moment to hang on the boat until the panic subsides.
  • Know the drill when drafting. Drafting is permissible in open water swimming, but it can be tricky to do well. You never know if the person in front of you is a good navigator or someone you’d rather not follow. You might catch up to them and get a hello from their foot in your face—ouch! Just be aware of your direction and those around you; it’s OK to draft off another swimmer for a bit, but if you’re getting too close, pass and move on to your next target.
  • Sight land and buoy targets carefully. Know the buoys or the next point you’re aiming for and adjust the frequency of your sightings based on wave and water conditions. If it’s choppy and there’s a current, then you most likely will have to sight more frequently than if it you’re swimming in a calm lake or pond.
  • Talk to yourself! Freaked out? Talk through the situation out loud—only the fish will think you’re crazy. Sometimes just hearing yourself talk through the scenario gives you insight as to how best to alleviate the problem. You might even be able laugh at yourself, which is the best remedy. Channel Dory from Finding Nemo, when she reminds herself to “Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming.” I have found this strategy to be helpful in a few situations.
  • Relax and play! Got waves? Keep calm and do your best. You might even consider taking on the persona of a dolphin. But, above all, be sure you’re safe. There is nothing wrong with heading back to shore if it’s just too much. It’s better to recognize what you might need to work on before getting into a situation that can turn what should be a joyous day in the water into a nightmare.

These are just a few of many tips for making your open water adventures safe and fun. I look forward to seeing you in the great outdoors!

USMS Wave Seperator

About the Author—Yvette McKechnie

Yvette McKechnie is a Level 3 Masters coach who has been a part of the popular DCRP Masters Swim team in Washington, D.C., since 2006. When not in the water, she can be found coaching a variety of athletes from first-timers to iron-distance triathletes. 

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