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by Scott Bay

April 28, 2015

Into the Great Wide Open

The weather is getting warmer and so is the water

Many of us have done it: We look at a body of water and think to ourselves, “I wonder how far it is to the other side?” Or, “I wonder what the water is like?” Or even, “how fast could I get to the other side?” If these thoughts have ever crossed your mind, chances are you’re either an open water swimmer or you should be.

Pool swimmers enjoy the comfort of a routine and like the idea that so many variables, such as distance, temperature, and time, are controlled. Although open water swimming incorporates many of the same skills as pool swimming, it really is a whole new world of swimming waiting to be discovered.

Open Water Swimming is Fun

There are many things that make open water swimming attractive. First among them is just being out in the natural world. Swimming in the open water is often about noticing all of the things around you and appreciating the environment, far away from the clock and intervals. In open water, there’s no pressure from the pace clock and many open water swimmers will occasionally stop to take it all in.

Being out in the elements also provides a nice mental exercise—without a black line below you showing the way, you have to navigate yourself. Other factors, such as wind, current, and water temperature increase the challenge—and sometimes the fun! Despite the potential difficulties, getting from one side of the lake to the other, swimming across the sound, or crossing the English Channel under your own steam, offers an enormous sense of accomplishment. 

Play it Safe

Most of the pools we swim in are well supervised, and there’re is a great comfort in that.  The open water can often be a different story. If you’re swimming in a park or public waterfront there might be supervision or a lifeguard on duty, but many other open water venues have no such safety precautions in place. This is where good judgement and rational thinking are your best pieces of safety equipment.

Some bodies of water may simply be unsafe to swim in. Avoid rivers with fast moving currents and those near industrial sites or water treatment plants. Hazards such as chemicals, pollution, and bacteria can cause some severe health risks. Always check with the local authorities before swimming anywhere that’s not supervised or designated as a swimming area and, of course, always obey no swimming signs. And never swim in a body of water that is someone else’s private property without their permission.

In addition to considering water conditions, you should also consider what other creatures might call a body of water home. Dolphins, for one, are beautiful and fun to share the water with, but other animals, such as jellyfish and alligators, can be hazardous. Again, check with local authorities before jumping in to make sure the venue is safe. And, it should go without saying, but never swim alone.

What to Expect

Most likely, you’re going to feel really good after you complete that first swim, and it’s just because of the endorphins from a good workout. Open water swimming is an empowering experience; being part of the environment, rather than trying to control it as we do in most of the rest of our lives, offers a special kind of buzz. Even if you’re a sprinter and think you’d be bored swimming continuously for anything longer than a minute or so, there are plenty of things to stimulate your brain while you’re out there. Better still, open water racing provides a whole new set of skills—drafting, race strategy, sighting—to learn, which will help you grow as a swimmer.

Whether you learn to love open water swimming for the peace and relaxation, or you decide to enter open water races, open water swimming, in all its incarnations, can provide a welcome change to your swim training.