Hang around an ocean athlete or lifeguard and you will hear them tell others that before you show up at the beach you need to “Know before you go,” and in the first segment of the Ocean Wise series we talked about what that knowledge needs to encompass. Once in, on or even near the water the focus shifts from knowledge to wisdom in properly applying what you know and what you see. Situational Awareness is a critical skill for anyone heading into open water, and as conditions change
As athletes in the water the most important thing to understand is the impact various wave and weather conditions can have on anyone in the water. Waves, wind and currents can serve as a performance enhancer for those who know how to work with them. These same conditions can be dangerous and deadly to those who do not respect the power of the water.
To stay safe:
- Ocean Lifeguards – Always make guarded beaches and professionally guarded workouts the only choice for training sessions or racing. Professional ocean lifeguards don’t just know how to swim. These potential rescuers know what to do if and when things go wrong in the open water. If you are swimming without lifeguards, then never swim alone and always take a safety floatation device like a rescue can or Restube inflatable tube with you. https://www.restube.com/
- Tides – Around the barrier islands of South Jersey there is roughly a 5’ tide change every six hours. These tides generate currents that can easily flow faster than a 1:45 pace per hundred meters. Vast bay water expanses may look like a great place to get in a solo open water swim, but if you do not know and understand the impact of tidal changes you could find yourself fighting a losing battle to get back safely from even the shortest planned swim.
- Winds – At best winds can make swimming in a large body of water far more exhausting than the same distance in a pool. Winds can also create dangerous currents and dramatically impact stroke mechanics and navigation. As a general rule winds over 5 miles per hour are strong enough to create surface conditions and currents that will impact a swimmer. As wind speeds increase they have an exponential impact on the water, and on the Jersey shore wind speeds can jump by 10-20 miles per hour in minutes. While you can check wind and beach conditions on numerous apps and websites like NOAA National Weather Service’s http://www.weather.gov, and the critical information is the direction of the wind as well as the forecasted speed. Winds that are blowing towards or along a beach can create challenging conditions for a swimmer. Winds over 15 miles per hour can create dangerous conditions, and if you visit a beach on days with on-shore winds approaching 20 miles per hour you will see yellow or even red flags on lifeguard stands. Another key impact of winds at the shore is their impact on water temperatures. If you are heading to Wildwood, and the wind has been blowing out of the west for a day a ten degree drop in ocean temperature is not uncommon. You might want to pack that full wetsuit for the ocean swim.
- Waves and chop – Whether you are facing small white caps on a lake or ground swell on the ocean, waves can make navigating a swim course challenging and the effort required to complete any swim course much harder. Swimmers watching the water from higher up on the sand are often shocked once they hit the water to discover how much even the smallest waves can impact their ability to see a buoy or flag. To see how things will look before you get wet go to the edge of the water and kneel down getting your eyes as low as possible to the surface of the water. This perspective is going to give you a better read on what you will and won’t be able to see once you dive in. When swimming into choppy conditions a shorter, deeper stroke with a higher arm recovery may help, and by slightly dropping your chin to your shoulder you can create a protected pocket when you rotate to breath.
- Cross beach currents – Rip currents are what everyone may be talking about, but current that run parallel to the beach can be equally dangerous to the unprepared swimmer by keeping them from the shore or rapidly moving them into dangerous deeper water or into jetties or piers. If you find yourself pulled rapidly across the beach do not turn and swim against the current. The goal is to get to safe sand so continue to swim directly towards the beach. If it’s a swim finish arch you are shooting for don’t worry about coming in several yards down the beach. Everyone can run faster than they can swim, and you will be a lot less exhausted if you just focus on getting to the beach.
- Rip currents – These are perhaps the most dangerous beach condition to the unprepared and unaware swimmer. At the same time, “Rips” are what lifeguards, surfers and experienced athletes will seek out if they want a fast path through the waves and further into the open water. Most rip currents are highly localized conditions formed by wave interactions with a specific beach contour that is often hidden underwater. These currents may only be ten to twenty yards wide close to the beach. If an experienced swimmer marks where the rip current begins based on a reference point on land the they can adjust their return path to the beach, so they are not fighting the current.
- Surf Zones and Breaking waves – Perhaps the most intimidating ocean condition for newer and even experienced swimmers are larger breaking waves in the surf zone close to shore. When surfers or lifeguards pull up their favorite surf report wave forecast may call for 2-3’ swell or waist to stomach high waves. What that means once you are standing in waist deep water is that you will be looking up at that breaking wave that will have enough power to easily knock you off your feet and drive you into the sand. If you are not an experience ocean swimmer the safest place to avoid the power of a breaking wave is under them. When you see a large approaching wave, face the oncoming wave and duck underwater, digging your fingertips into the sand below. In a second or two you will feel the wave pass over you. After the wave passes come up quickly and look further out into the ocean to make sure there is not another wave coming behind it. Once you have committed to heading out the faster you move through the surf zone where waves are breaking the more energy you can conserve and the safer you will be. Most beach injuries happen where the waves are breaking, so for swimmers or triathletes in a race this is not a place to hang out. If there is a place where you need to have an extra gear the surf zone is where you need to tap that speed. When you are swimming back in through this zone watching what is happening behind you is more important than sighting on the beach ahead. When you turn to breath tuck your chin to your shoulder enough so that you can look for waves coming up from behind. If you are not experienced body surfing then stop swimming, turn around and duck under the breaking before continuing towards shore. The phrase you will also hear from any lifeguard is “Never turn you back on the ocean.” Before you get too caught up in celebrating the finish of the swim peeling off your wetsuit keep an eye out behind you and know you aren’t really clear of the swim until there is dry sand under your feet.
Whether there is a bike ride after your next ocean swim or just a day on the beach always respect the power of the weather and waves. By staying situationally aware of the water and those around you when you are on, in or near any shore you can insure every ocean or open water experience is positive.
Know Before You Go Resources
- Forecasting and Current Conditions – Apps: Surfline, SwellInfo, WeatherBug, Tides, AccuWeather, Windy, SeaStatus
- Forecasting and Current Conditions – Websites:
- NOAA Ocean Today Full Moon Series: “Wave Safe with Bruckner Chase” – https://oceantoday.noaa.gov/every-full-moon/full-moon-wavesafe.html
From the author:
As a NOAA NWS Collaborative Partner on Beach and Coastal Safety, Science and Conservation I hope this series moves you forward as an Ocean Safe and Ocean Positive athlete and protector for others.