DISCLAIMER: Open-water swimming is inherently dangerous. Open-water swimmers risk drowning, hypothermia, hyperthermia, heart attacks, panic attacks, cramping, jelly fish stings, fish bites, boat or jet-ski collisions, collisions with floating or submerged objects (including other swimmers), and other calamities that can be injurious, disabling or fatal! The "West Neck Pod" is an informal association of open-water swimmers who swim "outside the lines" with no lifeguard protection, it has no formal membership, organizational structure or legal identity, and its participants, including the author of this blog, make no representations and assume no liability with respect to its group open-water swims. All swimmers who participate in West Neck Pod group open-water swims do so at their own risk. Be careful out there!

Friday, May 24, 2013

Open-Water Swimming Primer: Tips for "Newbies"

The upcoming Memorial Day weekend marks the "official" start of the 2013 open-water-swimming season – and the introduction to the West Neck Pod of a fresh crop of "newbies": newly minted triathletes training for their first open-water event; confirmed "poolies" looking for a place to swim when the local "Y" is closed for the holiday; hard-core open-water swimmers who just heard about the Pod and are looking for swimmers who can challenge them; and a raft of open-water wannabees whose subliminal fear has – until now! – kept them from venturing out into the open water that nevertheless calls to them like a Siren...

For those who are new to the West Neck Pod, or new to open-water swimming, the first experience in the open water can be daunting or even overwhelming. Here are some tips to help orient you, and to ensure that your open-water swims are as safe and enjoyable as they can be...

Know Where You’re Swimming: Make sure you know the body of water you’re swimming in and what conditions you’re likely to encounter. Is it salt water or fresh? (you’re more buoyant in salt water). Is it tidal? (tidal bodies have currents). What’s the water temperature? (is hypo- or hyperthermia a concern?). Is it an incoming or an outgoing tide? What direction is the wind coming from? How deep is the water? Are there any submerged jetties or rocks or other hazards you should know about? Is there boat traffic? Any dangerous marine life? Are the bluefish running? Before you get into an unfamiliar body of water, try to talk to a local about what you can expect...

If you’ll be joining us for the first time this weekend, you should know that the "West Neck Pod" swims out of West Neck Beach in Cold Spring Harbor, which opens on the west to Oyster Bay and on the north to Long Island Sound, and terminates to the south in the Village of Cold Spring Harbor. The tide comes in from and goes out to the Sound, and generally turns about an hour earlier than what the tide tables report. The prevailing wind is from the northwest, but the wind direction can change in an instant. We watch the flag on the beach or the boats in the water to check the wind direction, because the wind is generally stronger than the tide (boats – and seagulls! – usually head into the wind). As a rule, we like to swim against the tide on the way out, when we’re fresh, so that we have a tidal assist on the way back when we’re more tired. But if there’s a strong wind pushing up whitecaps, we’ll plan to come back against the tide and with the wind. We’ve learned through experience that the currents are generally weaker closer to shore, so if we’re swimming against the current, we try to hug the shoreline; otherwise, we swim farther out to ride the current -- but never so far out that we're a target for boats!

Know Your Limits:
If you’re thinking about swimming "outside the lines," you should feel confident that you are a strong, competent swimmer. Unlike in the pool, where conditions are generally pretty static from one swim to the next, the open water is constantly changing. The water can be flat and mirror-like in one minute and whitecapped and roiling in the next. Your confidence as a swimmer will enable you to adapt to the changing conditions because you will know that you can swim through them. If you have any doubts about your swimming ability, you should stick to the pool or stay within (or just outside) the swim lines until you know that you can get yourself out of any situation you might encounter. Taking a life-saving class is a great way to boost your swimming skills and your confidence; many West Neck Pod members are certified as lifeguards.

Don’t Go Too Far!
If you’ve never done any open-water swimming, don’t be too ambitious your first couple of times out. Open-water swimming is more challenging than pool swimming and requires more energy and different techniques. Even if you can easily swim a mile in the pool, a mile in the open-water will feel a lot longer -- and half of that mile will be against the current! Remember that wherever you swim to, you’ll have to swim back, so be sure to keep something in the tank for the return trip. It takes time to build up your endurance and your distance in the open water....At West Neck Beach, you can start off by swimming back and forth outside the swim lines, then to the dock and back, then to the end of the Bath Club property and back, then to the "Yellow Sign" and back, before you do your first "South Buoy Swim" (1/2 mile+) or "Buoy-to-Buoy Swim" or "Sailboat Swim" (1.5 miles) or "New Beach Swim" (2 miles).

What Should You Wear? Whatever you’re comfortable with. If you’re an open-water purist and fully acclimatized to cool water (currently about 55-57 degrees), feel free to show up in just bathing suit, cap and goggles. If this is your first open-water venture, and you’re used to 80+-degree pool temperatures, you should definitely be wearing a full wetsuit, stick close to shore, and keep your swim short. If you’re sensitive to cold, add an extra bathing cap and maybe insulated booties and gloves. If you’re a hardy sort, and only have a sleeveless wetsuit, that will probably suffice – unless you’re worried about the jellyfish that Polar Pod members have reported sighting throughout our May swims....You might want to "accessorize" with SafeSea© lotion to protect yourself against jellyfish stings. If you’re a triathlete training for next week’s race, you should wear what you’re going to wear in competition. At these water temperatures, though, hypothermia is still a major concern – so dress appropriately for your body type and experience and acclimatization level.

Watch Where You’re Going!
"Sighting" is arguably the most important skill for open-water swimmers. Whether you’re swimming for speed or distance or just for fun, it won’t help you if you’re zigging and zagging your way through the water. There’s no line down the middle to guide you as you swim, so just putting your head down and churning away like you do in the pool – or falling into a meditative reverie as you are lulled by the gentle swells – could easily and quickly put you in the middle of the harbor and right in the path of a speeding motorboat. Frequent sighting (more frequent if you’re brand new at this or there’s a two-foot chop) will help you stay on course, close to shore, and avoid any hazards in the water -- like approaching boats or jet-skis, mooring balls, submerged logs or other debris, or even other swimmers. Bilateral breathing helps to even out a tendency to pull harder on your breathing side and keep you swimming straight. And don’t hesitate to just stop swimming from time to time, pick your head up, and look around to see where you are, what’s around you, and where your fellow swimmers are. There’s lots of information on the internet about how to sight in open-water swimming. Here’s a link to my favorite video on the topic: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v0-lP3exIfc.

Never Swim Alone:
Ultimately, we’re all swimming alone. In the open water, even a large group tends to get well spread out, and it’s easy to get caught up in your own little swimming bubble and not pay attention to anyone or anything else. Especially when you’re a newbie, it can be very unnerving when you suddenly pick your head up after a long, delightful reverie, to find that you’re all alone out in the middle of the harbor, without another swimmer in sight. So find a buddy! If you didn’t bring one with you, pick one out from the pack. Try to partner with someone who swims at roughly your pace, and agree to keep an eye on one another...Remember that everyone who swims in the open water does so at their own risk – and it’s up to YOU to minimize the risk!

Be Careful Out There!  Open-water swimming is inherently dangerous (and technically against the law [see, e.g., Town of Huntington Code §159-10]). As the disclaimer on this page recites, the "parade of horribles" open-water swimmers potentially face include drowning, hypothermia, hyperthermia, heart attacks, panic attacks, cramping, barnacle cuts, jelly fish stings, fish bites, boat or jet-ski collisions, collisions with floating or submerged objects (including other swimmers!), waterspouts, lightning strikes and other calamities that can be injurious, disabling or fatal! The massive storm surge of Hurricane Sandy has added as-yet-unknown hazards. Be mindful of the risks, and be careful to ensure that you do not become the Pod’s first casualty (and put the kibbosh on open-water swimming for the rest of us!).

I’m happy to report that other than the occasional slicing-and-dicing of feet on the barnacle-encrusted rocks at low tide, a disorienting head-on collision between an incoming and an outgoing swimmer a few seasons ago, and an unfortunate encounter between the top of Rob Todd’s head and a mooring ball, the members of the West Neck Pod have managed to avoid any serious injuries...and we aim to keep it that way!

Don’t Die of Stupidity:  If you get tired, stop swimming and rest! (wetsuits and "floaty bags" are very helpful in this regard!). Backstroke, breaststroke, or just float until you recover. If you feel that you cannot make it back to the beach, head directly to shore wherever you are and GET OUT! If you can’t swim and need help, take off your bathing cap and wave it in the air to attract attention, and YELL for help! There’s no room for machismo in the open water – your family and friends would never forgive you! Oh, and if you see lightning or hear thunder, GET OUT OF THE WATER! Don’t try to swim back to the beach – head for shore and shelter immediately!

Boat Safety:
Swimming, as we do, in a busy harbor with a lot of boat traffic, with nothing visible but our tiny little bobbing heads, we are acutely aware of how vulnerable we swimmers are to being hit by speeding boats or jet-skis. Boaters don’t expect to see swimmers in the water and they’re not looking for us, so we do everything we can to make ourselves more visible. We wear brightly colored bathing caps, and many if not most of the Pod members now tow what we affectionately call our orange "floaty bags." These inflatable dry-bags attach at the waist and float on top of the water behind us as we swim. They are highly visible to boaters, and also help us keep track of one another in the water – especially difficult when there’s a two-to-three-foot chop! For information about getting your own "floaty bag" from the West Neck "Pod-mobile," email westneckpod@verizon.net, or check out the International Swimming Hall of Fame website at http://www.ishof.org/safety/ssd.htm. You can also buy them online through Keifer.com (http://www.kiefer.com/kiefer-safer-swimmer-buoy-products-279.php).

Watch Where You’re Going:
I know this paragraph heading is redundant, but swimming in the open water is not only about "sighting" – it’s also about "looking." Swimming in the open water offers a scintillating and ever-changing vista of experiences and colors and textures and sounds and movements that make every swim unique and memorable. If you come back for a second and third time, you’ll discover what turned the "newbies" of years past into the seasoned veterans who accompanied you on your first swim with the West Neck Pod: The incomparable sight of the early morning sun bursting through the trees over the eastern shoreline and casting its rays deep into the sparkling, diamond-like water; the untrammelled freedom of swimming endlessly and effortlessly toward the distant horizon; the sense of empowerment and exhilaration in repeatedly testing and exceeding your limits, again and again and again; and the unbounded sense of gratitude that all of this is so readily available to you....

Welcome to the Pod. See you in the Salt!

No comments:

Post a Comment