Safety and performance in the wild seas – understanding and embracing wild air, water and waves
August 26, 2021
Orca safety ambassador, and internationally recognized ocean advocacy expert, Bruckner Chase, talks to us about important considerations when open water swimming, whether for competition or discovering new swim adventures.
Live in the sunshine, swim the sea, drink the wild air. From wildlife to weather, hour to hour there are an infinite number of situations that can face any swimmer venturing into the ocean or dynamic open waters, and wild waters are unique in the world of endurance venues. The ocean in particular rewards those who take the time to learn how all the factors that can take a swim from challenging to dangerous. Knowing how to read the water and weather can also create the opportunity for faster swim times without swimming faster. Learn how to stay safe first, and then learn how to let the water do the work.
Perhaps the most important mantra from the surfing and ocean sports world is “When in doubt, don’t go out”. Experienced lifeguards, surfers, water women and ocean athletes know that when conditions look challenging from the beach, they can be exponentially worse at swimmer level in the water. Tides change every few hours and weather can change in minutes at the beach, while dense fog can make shoreline hazards disappear. Wind direction changes can make forward progress a struggle or impossible. Unexpected waves can change a race plan and a life. First let’s keep things safe.
Best Forecasts Knowing the weather before you head to the shore, and just as important is understanding the location and source of the weather report. Heading to the beach with a weather report from even a few miles inland may lead to arriving unprepared to unexpected conditions. Surf reports combine local weather conditions from both the land and water, and surf forecasts will indicate changes in wind strength and direction providing context for an athlete in or on the water. Understanding weather across the region informs you about threats such as thunderstorms to protect you from being exposed and in danger far from shore or far from protection.
Weather Observations Ocean lifeguards consistently monitor the sky and note the direction and strength of wind as they scan the water and everyone in it. They know well that wind strength and direction can change in minutes to dramatically impact conditions on the water. One rule of thumb is model what the experienced surfer would do and adhere to the Fifteen Minute Rule. Watch the water and land for fifteen minutes before you dive in and adjust your swim plan to match the conditions you see in front of you.
Tides Depending on the location tides can shift water level by less than a foot or over a meter all within a 6-hour window. These changing water levels can expose or hide submerged dangers like rocks or jetties. Tidal flow may lead to fast moving longshore currents that increase power near ocean inlets with speeds of over 3mph, or the equivalent of a 1:10 swim pace per 100 meters.
Rip Currents The best-known beach danger is often the hardest to spot and the most misunderstood. They are created when water pushed up against the shore by waves and wind returns to the ocean through a narrow, fast moving water corridor. Rip Currents are typically recognized by a gap in breaking waves or by discolored water moving away from the beach. These currents can be hard to spot, appear suddenly and move along a beach as conditions change. They can be quite dangerous for the inexperienced swimmer attempting to return to shore. The best way to escape a rip is to swim parallel to shore for just a few meters before turning back towards the beach. While Rips can be dangerous to fight against, when used appropriately they can also offer a free ride to a swimmer or paddler racing away from the shore.
Waves – Imagine the weight of a car pressing down on you and driving you into the sand. That is the power a mere 3-foot-high wave can have on an unsuspecting swimmer. Surf forecasts provide the height of a wave, as well as the direction of the swell that creates the breaking wave, the period between the waves, and the wind that can make the water surface glassy and smooth, or choppy and challenging. Any wave needs to be respected. Shore break can cause life changing injuries and even waves 2-3 feet in height can injure anyone unprepared for their intensity. To remain safe, avoid turning your back on the water until both feet are on dry sand, understanding small appearing waves on the beach can be quite challenging to a swimmer in the water. It is also good practice to move through breaking waves by ducking under and not over the white water. Keeping waves in view behind while traveling back to shore is a good practice and may offer an enjoyable ride in. Learn from experienced ocean swimmers and lifeguards how to navigate surf zone and recognize this where most beach injuries may occur.
Wind – Perhaps the most impactful force to challenge or redirect a swimmer is wind. Severe winds in the wrong direction can be the defining factor on whether to even attempt a swim. Winds blowing from the shore towards the water will create conditions that surfers, swimmers and ocean athletes of all types will clamor to. Winds blowing along or towards the beach can create completely different conditions. Winds for swimmers:
• 5 mph – Crowded day in your lane at the pool
• 10 mph – Bumpy and time to adjust your stroke
• 15 mph – Experienced swimmers only and strong enough to make a return trip against the wind very challenging
• 20+ mph – Forward progress will be slowed to a crawl at best and winds this high will also dramatically alter ocean conditions like waves and currents that can become dangerous
Understanding and making the right decisions can keep every swim safe, and that may at times mean the safest swim is back at the pool. For the experienced ocean swimmer challenging conditions can provide a performance boost on perhaps faster pool swimmers who lack their Ocean IQ. Consider learning from highly experienced ocean swimmers to add these skills to your open water swim bag:
• Body surfing
• Stroke tempo changes
• Higher arm recoveries
• Dolphin diving through surf
• Running “Up-Current” along the beach to let the water do the work for a faster swim time with the current
• Body surfing wind swells away from the beach
• Switching your breathing side
• Planning “Down Wind” training swims
• Using Rip Currents to get into the ocean and avoiding them to get back
• Knowing when NOT to go out
Committing to learning weather and water fundamentals and essentials with a respect for the ocean will keep every swimmer safe. Building experience and situational awareness can develop open water challenges into performance enhancing tools, such that any swim can be your BEST swim.
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ABOUT BRUCKNER CHASE
Founder and CEO of BC Ocean Positive, and Professional Ocean Lifeguard Bruckner Chase is an internationally recognized ocean advocate and professional waterman whose athletic accomplishments and adventures include some of the most challenging environments and harshest conditions on land and by sea. His athletic pursuits and innovative, evidence-based initiatives span from American Samoa, to Poland, to the Jersey Shore and provide opportunities to empower, as well as positively impact individual and community behavior towards our shared aquatic environments. He currently works with NOAA National Weather Service as their coastal safety, science and conservation advisor while also working on groundbreaking, inclusive surf lifesaving sports programs for para-athletes. His current project with NOAA, “Wave Safe with Bruckner Chase” is a multimedia campaign that teaches the philosophy, mindset and actions that can protect any person, on any shore.
He loves working in Australia and American Samoa and is always eager to get back to these places he considers “second homes”. Join Bruckner in protecting our oceans, and their inhabitants, and learn more at bcoceanpositive.org.