Swimming is an intellectual pursuit, and of all the disciplines ocean swimming rewards those who can take a vast amount of knowledge, an intimate awareness of every moment and apply both to moving across the waves. Winter pool time is spent mastering lane etiquette, stroke mechanics and interval protocols beside turbulence decreasing lane lines, but summer is the time to enter the more intimidating world of wind, waves and wildlife. The best open water swimmers are not always the fastest, but rather those that can read, adapt and embrace challenging conditions that can change in an instant. The ocean in particular is not a place to put on headphones, program your watch and just head through the waves. Long before performance becomes a goal, safety and returning to shore has to come first. Making sure every open water session begins and ends well requires planning and awareness with a knowledge base of the environment and indicators of when to go out and when to stay on shore. There is a reason that the mantra of every ocean athlete is, “When in doubt, don’t go out.” Over the coming months the Ocean Wise Series is going to give you the resources, tools and insights that will make every training session, race or family outing to the shore safe and positive. As more small groups, clubs and training partners start looking out at the water as a training venue our starting point is going to be some best practices on evaluating conditions and making those critical plans on shore before getting even one toe wet.
First Be Informed:
- Forecasting and Current Conditions – Apps: Surfline, SwellInfo, WeatherBug, Tides, AccuWeather, Windy, SeaStatus
- Forecasting and Current Conditions – Websites:
- NOAA NWS Rip Currents – www,ripcurrents.noaa.gov
- NOAA NWS Experimental Beach Forecast – www.weather.gov/beach
- NOAA National Data Buoy Center – www.ndbc.noaa.gov
- Ocean Safety, Science and Conservation Education: NOAA Ocean Today – www.oceantoday.noaa.gov
All of the above provides the information to make the call and the challenging part becomes applying all that information to the planned workout at hand. Race and workout organizers should be looking at all or most of these factors long before they set up, but only the swimmer can determine their own limits. There are beach sessions with chest high breaking waves and 15 mph winds that some athletes will love, but these are NOT the conditions for the beginner who just finished their first full winter of pool workouts for their first triathlon. Often a new athlete won’t fully know their abilities until they are in a challenging new situation. Whether that situation is a race or just a training session in a local lake the presence of trained, professional lifeguards capable of making the right decisions and actions are critical.
Next, Be Aware. Especially when the ocean is involved even the best forecasting tools predicting ideal conditions can be wrong. Even if there is no rain / thunder / fog…at the moment lifeguards, coaches and organizers have to anticipate what the conditions may be in an hour when there are tens or even hundreds of people swimming far off shore. Dangerous situations can come up, and this time of year dense fog is one of those. A fog bank can roll in within minutes and swimmers just 100 meters from shore may no longer be able to see land. Any condition that affects visibility not only impacts a swimmers ability to see a buoy, but also a lifeguard’s ability to see the swimmers. Forecasting and information always come down to having the confidence and wisdom to stand by the mantra, “When in doubt, don’t go out.”
Here’s a best practices timeline for making a call before any open water workout?
- Make a preliminary assessment the night before that should represent an 80% degree of confidence.
- Make a second assessment the morning of or roughly 2.5 to 1.5 hours before hitting the water with a 90% degree of confidence.
- Make a final decision at the shore with a 98% degree of confidence leaving that final 2% to the unexpected that may cut a swim short.
- Be prepared for the 2% by adding in some protective factors:
- Always swim near a lifeguard
- Swim with recognized, professional coaches, organizers and race directors with safety protocols and equipment on-hand
- Let people know where you are and when you are going in
- Always have an emergency exit and safe zone plan to get out of the water
- Tow or carry floatation or rescue tubes for visibility and support
- Dress appropriately for before, during and after water time
Open water swimming is like mountain climbing in that no outing is a success unless you make it safely back to home. Ocean Positive wants to help you connect to our oceans and perhaps even reach your endurance potential as an ocean athlete. The key to insuring you can have a long lifetime of positive experiences on the water is to always Be Informed, Be Aware and Be Calm before you ACT in, on and near the water. As a Weather Ready Nation Ambassador and ocean focused foundation committed to positively impacting how we all feel, think and act towards our oceans we hope this series moves you forward as an athlete and Ocean Hero. Watch for more pieces in the coming weeks on our website, in social media to make you the wisest, safest and strongest athlete on the water.
Want to learn more or take part in creating a safer, Weather Ready Nation? Check out NOAA’s Weather-Ready Nation program: http://www.nws.noaa.gov/com/weatherreadynation/