When talking to different open water swimmers one often find that they may highlight different skills and areas on which they believe it’s important to focus.
Since I’ve written a lot about cold, it’s a safe assumption (and correct) that subject is one of mine. But there’s another I don’t write about enough, parly because it’s not so amenable to written description, and that’s rough water swimming.
Rough water experience is essential to be able to deal with sudden changes in weather and water conditions. It makes for a well-rounded and adaptable open water swimmer, and I think skill in rough water is essential of ongoing safety.
For swimmers aiming for a serious target like an Ironman or first 5 or 10 k swim, I think one should train in as much rough water as you can tolerate, always being aware of the injury potential.
Rough water is a pretty broad description though that varies for the swimmer according to wind direction and swim direction.
Big swell with no wind will not produce rough water, where no swell and wind will. Rough water is a product of wind, usually onshore or cross-shore, and often caused by that much-disliked by open water swimmers phenomenon of wind-against-tide. Swimming into head-on wind is different to following wind and different again from cross wind.
Head-on wind and chop
Head-on chop is both tiring and potentially injurious and will slow you down. It will also affect the normal balance of a stroke making the stroke shorter. With asymmetric short period waves, there will no discernible pattern of waves to the swimmer. Sometimes having cleared one wave, you will crash immediately into another. Repeated impact across the head and shoulders can be the main problem. Also, the timing for sighting and breathing is changed.
More specifically, you need to learn to adjust your stroke. In head-on chop I drop my head lower than normal, and make a point of keeping low and maintaining rotation, difficult in the circumstances, to go partially under some of the chop and small wavelets, which minimizes the impacts. Other swimmers may have different techniques.
As with all open water, try to separate your breathing from your sighting. In head on chop, as soon as you sight, you may have a sudden wave directly in front of you. Try to time your sighting from the top of a wave.
Tail wind and following chop
In tail-chop (a following wind) I am most likely to swallow a mouthful of water. As I roll to breathe a wave can come from behind and swamp me. My solution to this is to focus more on my feet as an indicator of something coming, in essence an early warning system. Like radar but with feet!
I breathe bilaterally (every three strokes to each side). Therefore if I’m about to breathe and a wave arrives from behind, I’ll instead often not breathe and maximise usage of the wave for speed, taking little surfing bursts of speed if I can. This is also a reason hypoxic training is useful, to be able to adjust breathing timing or delay a breathe to account for changing circumstances.
Side chop and cross winds
Side-chop is the most difficult for many. Breathing into side-chop is a big problem leading to both swallowed and aspirated water. The only solution is to breathe to the other side. But even those of us who breathe bi-laterally will have a favoured side. I can’t maintain breathing on my left weaker side for a long period and not start to get tight in my shoulders, neck and biceps. However water is rarely so rough that I can’t least maintain some kind of irregular bilateral breathing to relieve that strain.
As with so many other aspects, there are often local effects to complicate things further.
In Tramore Bay onshore winds drive chop and waves along the side of the bay, whereas in Sandycove onshore winds run directly into the outside of the island. The Guillamene is mostly deeper and it’s possible to swim further out, but behind Sandycove we swim closer in, choppy waves are reflected off the back of the island and the shallower bottom to make challenging water conditions. In Sandycove however the rough water is only a portion of a lap, whereas in Tramore Bay there’s no shelter from onshores and the bay also has a couple of spots where the water conditions changes, (passing the Colomene, outside Newtown Cove, and just inside Newtown head.
Not wishing to belabor the obvious or subdivide further, there are also diagonal winds and chop. A diagonal wind and chop direction can present even more problems as you may not see nor feel it arriving. The above are just ways of using experience to adjust to the situation. With practice and experience you will discover your own methods to minimise, where possible the difficulties of rough water, but it will still always be rough and therefore more tiring.
BTW, on an unrelated note, I’m not 100% about the new site layout. Any thoughts? Yea or nay? Options to adjust individual items I’d like to change from they are limited. Stay with it or go back to the last layout?
- Understanding rough water, Force Three (loneswimmer.com)
- How waves can interfere with swimmers and cut down on their speeds (loneswimmer.com)
- Beaufort wind scale, an essential observational skill for swimmers (loneswimmer.com)