How To: Essential Skills For Every Open Water Swimmer

If open water swimming was as simple or simplistic as is sometimes portrayed I’d long have ceased writing. Olympic or professional open water swimmers who distil the skills associated with open water swimming to a mere “learn to sight, swim straight” have over-looked all the other skills they may have learned along the way. Similarly, amateur marathon swimmers may not have an elite-level speed but may instead have a huge range of environment skills not necessary to those elite racers. For most regular open water swimmers a range of skills are necessary to be a fully-rounded swimmer.

However, I don’t ever want to unnecessarily over-complicate swimming though, because it is certainly also true that sometimes and at some locations you can simply swim and not have to think about anything else.

I’ve previously posited the skills I “carry around” myself as a list of tools. I believe in explicit open water skills other than just stroke technique. By breaking down various aspects of open water swimming into discrete functions, it makes it possible for us all to convey what we already know, and what we can learn from or teach others. This strengthens the community, develops the sport and increases safety all around. So I’m setting out a list of what I think are the requisite skills for a good open water swimmer. There are unlisted items such as speed and technique. It is not essential to be fast to be a good swimmer and some very fast swimmers are not good open water swimmers. Good technique is further along toward an essential skill, not because of speed, but because it assists in making you more capable and adaptable in the water, but I am setting technique aside for the purpose of this article.

This subject overall is something of a distillation of a more extensive idea I have around this subject, and which I hope some day to write much more about and which is actually more extensive that anything else I’ve done, beyond even my critique of Ice Mileing!).

Further, these are not the only skills in open water swimming, but those I consider the minimum essentials. You may find reading the list that you are delinquent in an area, but still consider yourself an experienced open water swimmer. While it’s certainly possible that you could be quite experienced in all but one or two, can you really argue that you don’t need the others? For example if you live two thousand kilometres from the ocean, you may not need tidal knowledge today. But your need to swim means that when at the coast you will likely do so. So some awareness of tides will be necessary.

In building our skillset to make us “complete” swimmers, the analogy is similar to other areas of proficiency; that expertise is not only about well-used skills, but also lesser considered aspects. Because I don’t need a screwdriver from my toolbox today doesn’t mean I only need to own a hammer.

Further down, I’ll link articles I’ve already written on these subjects. Putting this list together and intermittently working on the over-arching idea has helped me see some areas I have not yet covered sufficiently, or aspects of others that I wish to explore further, so the list of articles is by definition incomplete.

This list is not random, but is structured around the thoughts that should go through your head, however subconsciously, prior to and even during an open water swim. When you look at this, you see that every item has a common feature: improving safety.

Nine Essential Skills of Experienced Open Water Swimmers

  1. Willingness to take responsibility for your own safety. We often bemoan an increasing societal trend to make others responsible for mistakes coupled with an increasing obsession with what we perceive as intrusive Health and Safety rules. But too many swimmers neglect aspects of what they should know, and hand the entire responsibility to others. You own your own life and it’s the most valuable thing you will ever own.
  2. Understand the features and hazards of your type of location. An experienced open water should be able to evaluate the general challenges of any new location. While not all hazards are visible you should be able to see such things as rips, or evaluate where currents may be stronger.
  3. Understand the weather. I don’t mean having predictive meteorological skills, simply that you should appreciate the current or imminent weather that will change or impact the location and/or a swim, including strong winds, lightning or fog. The most simple example is that new or non-swimmers imagine we are most constrained by temperature or season, whereas the most important regular determinant in open water swimming is wind.
  4. Planning a route. Just because there are two or more people swimming doesn’t mean one does not need to understand or plan a route.  This circles back to item one above, where you can see the interconnectedness of these skills. An inability to estimate coastal, river or lake distances has gotten more than one swimmer in trouble. An experienced swimmer should be able to make an estimate of a distance and the time it will take them to swim such, and any major considerations that may be relevant. Sometimes this can mean deciding against a swim if there are too many unknown variables, and building up gradual experience with an area. Sometimes, because it’s impossible to plan all routes accurately, it may mean reacting and changing the plan.
  5. Appreciate the local tides (or hazards) . Again, you don’t have to be a marine expert as there will be very experienced fresh water swimmers who have no coastal access or knowledge. But tides are so important and vary so much by location that some knowledge is essential. If you are from Southern California or the Mediterranean with a tidal range of less than a foot height, it will be amazing to you to see the effects of a tidal height of four or five meters if you have never experienced it.  And you don’t have to have charts or tide tables for skill. The most elementary understanding can be done by reading the signs on the coast of high tide debris lines, angles of visible beaches, and the colours of exposed reefs. For those who swim mostly fresh water, you should appreciate the important local hazards or constraints. This is different from the general understanding of locations in number two above.
  6. Planning an exit. Other skills on this list seem more intangible that this very specific skill, and I mention this when I don’t mention specific any particular swimming ability. Because an experienced open water shouldn’t be getting in the water if they don’t have an exit planned. It’s not so much the rough water that gets people, it’s the sudden hammering by the rough water into the rocks as they try to exit in unsafe conditions that gets them. I’ve been mentioning this essential skill for years but nothing I’ve ever said illustrates it as forcefully as the way Sam Krohn’s dramatic Christmas Day rescue story does.
  7. Swimming in different conditions. It is an open water swimming adage that no two days are ever alike. One implication of this is that unlike a swimming pool an experienced open water swimmer must be able to handle some range of conditions, which means being able to deal with changing weather, especially swimming in choppy water. While it’s not necessary to be able to swim in Force Five winds, an experienced open water swimmer should be able to light wind and some amount of chop from different directions.
  8. Ability to stay calm. Panic is the most useless and dangerous baggage you can take into the water with you. On the day when something goes wrong, as is always a possibility in open water swimming, then panic could you in serious trouble. Panic smothers your ability to make quick rational decisions and to execute them. Panic is also closer if you don’t understand your own ability. So incrementally increasing experience is the tool which you use to control panic.
  9. Experience in understanding cold. I don’t mean being able to swim extensively in very cold water. I also don’t mean asking yourself what are your preferences. Rather I mean being able to understand your own capabilities in this area and to swim according to them. Heat loss is one of the defining features of open water swimming. Whether your location is a tropical mid-twenties Celsius, or a scrotum-tightening 8 degrees, you need to understand your own physiology, experience, and acclimatization. It may be as simple as knowing that since you’ve never swum in water under 18 degrees, you should expect significant shock and inability to place your face in the water if attempting a ten degree swim. I know for example that if I have been swimming open water every week right through the winter, I can swim an hour at nine degrees in the last week of April, and I also know if I haven’t been swimming every weekend, then I not should try to go for the hour, regardless of what others may do or say.


The list is not designed to make you go faster or further, as many swim gurus focus exclusively on. Everything on this list is instead there to enhance your safety in the water, and as such, your enjoyment. The freedom of open water swimming that we all love and speak of is not merely being unconstrained by a wetsuit or a lane rope. It’s more about having the skills and experience to fully immerse ourselves with awareness and confidence in our preferred environment.


Previous articles related to the essential skills.


  1. How To: Be Responsible For Your Own Open Water Swimming Safety – Two Guiding Principles
  2. How To: Advice for Christmas or New Year swimming in cold water for irregular or casual open water swimmers – No Wetsuits Allowed
  3. An Analysis Of Open Water Drownings
  4. Open water swimming and marathon swimming is dangerous
  5. There’s no such thing as a freak wave – coastal safety is your own responsibility


  1. How To: Understand the Features and Hazards of the Different Types of Open Water Swimming Locations – I – The Ocean
  2. How To: Understand the Features and Hazards of the Different Types of Open Water Swimming Locations – II – Lakes and Rivers
  3. How To: Understand the Features and Hazards of the Different Types of Open Water Swimming Locations – III – Estuaries and Man-Made Locations Including Quarries, Reservoirs and Canals
  4. Never Swim A Metre More Than Necessary – Lough Allua Swim


  1. Fog, (the most dangerous weather condition)
  2. How To: Studying weather online
  3. Weather and Climate, Part 1
  4. Weather and Climate, Part 2
  5. Weather and Climate, Part 3
  6. How To: Understand Sea Area Forecasts / Shipping News
  7. How To: Understand the Beaufort Wind Scale – An essential observational skill for the OW Swimmer

Route Planning

  1. How To: “How much do I need to swim for – x – open water distance?”
  2. How To: Swimming a new location – 1


  1. How To: Using Tide Tables
  2. Explaining a critical open water swimming factor: Tidal Range
  3. How To: Understand Tides for Swimmers, Part 2 – Local Effects
  4. How To: Understand Tides for Swimmers, Part 1 – Theory


No specific published article yet on exiting the water. Draft to be completed.

Changing Conditions and Rough Water

  1. How To: Swimming in rough water
  2. How To: Understanding Rough Water: Force Three
  3. How waves can interfere with swimmers and cut down on their speeds
  4. How To: Understand Waves for Swimmers – Part 1
  5. How To: Understand Waves for Swimmers – Part 2

Mental Aspects

  1. Limiting Factors in Marathon Swimming – Part 3 – Psychological Factors
  2. FLOW: the ideal swimming state
  3. What is the Dunning-Kruger effect and how does it relate to pool and open water swimming?
  4. A Short List of Open Water Swimming-related Fears
  5. This is your brain on open water swimming
  6. Alpha Waves – A Positive Mental Result of Swimming
  7. The challenge of deep water
  8. Is Positive Mental Attitude enough?

Understanding Cold Tolerance

  1. Introducing a precise open water swimming temperature scale
  2. What Is Peripheral Vasoconstriction?
  3. Ten Common Myths of Cold Water Swimming
  4. Ice Mile Dilemmas – VIII – The Dangers
  5. Cold Water Acclimatization
  6. Cold Water Habituation
  7. The Golden Rules of Cold Water Swimming
  8. Why would you swim in cold water?
  9. Understanding The Claw as a hypothermia indicator
  10. Cold water immersion and cold-shock, the first three minutes
  11. How To: Understanding hypothermia in swimmers – Moderate & Severe Hypothermia
  12. How To: Diagnosing and addressing Moderate Hypothermia in swimmers
  13. Come with me on this cold water swim
  14. “What temperature of water is too cold to swim in?” Redux
  15. How we FEEL cold water
  16. Extreme cold adaptation in humans, part 1



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