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Surviving The Unexpected Rough-Water Swim

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Learn how to attack the waves with confidence. Photo: Robert Murphy
Learn how to attack the waves with confidence. Photo: Robert Murphy

Nan Kappeler provides tips on how to stay calm and prepared on race morning when a rougher than usual swim start awaits you.

Written by: Nan Keppeler

Surfers welcomed the 10-foot high waves at Hurley US Open Surfing Championships at the Huntington Beach, Calif. pier on July 26. Down the coast in Solana Beach, Calif., four to seven foot high swells slamming the shore at the start of the annual sprint race gave many athletes a reason to be concerned.

Though well prepared for the half-mile swim, Kristen Mayer, 41, of Encinitas, Calif., was taking no chances in the rougher than usual waters.  Thirty minutes prior to the start, she repeated a few runs in and out of the surf line and spent some time in the breakers to determine the direction of the current and force of the waves.

Practice paid off when she was able to overcome a set of large waves that sent all but her and another woman tumbling back towards the shore.  Mayer exited the swim second and went on to win her age group.

“The high surf and strong currents gave me a chunk of anxiety before the start,” Mayer said.  “I had anticipated the surf, and knew it would be on the big side, and knew big (wave) sets would be a problem. I was very thankful to get over the waves.”

While unusually big swells and strong currents can be expected at legendary surfing spots, many triathletes prepare for the swim leg in calm waters, entering only when the conditions seem to be just right. But water has many personalities, and the most peaceful, tranquil bodies of water can change temperaments overnight. Preparing for all swim conditions can help you to turn rough water into an advantage.

“I actually look forward to a rougher swim,” said David Light, 40, an elite triathlete and ocean swim instructor from Fountain Valley, Calif.  “I can gain a few seconds diving through the oncoming waves. No matter how big the wave, I know I can get through.”

Ocean swims at least once a week with a group that includes Michellie Jones and Luke Bell off Moonlight Beach in San Diego, Calif. every Friday have definitely helped senior editor Jay Prasuhn on the swim. But he credits his confidence, understanding and respect for the surf for top swim finishes.

“The more you understand, the less intimidating the water is, and the easier it is to realize that these ‘hazards’ are quite easy to work around,” Prasuhn explained.

At this year’s Ironman 70.3 Buffalo Springs in Lubbock, Texas, racers were greeted with gusty 20 mph winds at the normally placid lake, turning the serene waters into massive, choppy waves. Jacob Wood, 26, a top age-grouper from McKinney, Texas, said he makes it a goal to swim the course several times before the start of a race.

“Preparation for the swim is the key,” Wood said.  “I think to myself if the water is chopping east, I should swim west first.  I know it will be easier if I am calm, collective and prepared.”

Training for many triathletes is often limited to the pool and geared towards races with notably calm, pool-like conditions.  While the pool is a great place to build endurance and work on stroke technique, it is imperative to experience as many swim conditions as possible such as large waves and side currents. Whether you live on the coast with access to the ocean, or in the middle of the country, look for opportunities to experience rougher water conditions.

The following opportunities can increase your exposure to unforeseeable water conditions.  Remember to never swim alone and respect the water, only entering if you feel confident and trained.

1.     Take open water clinics, often offered by local triathlon shops or athletes.  These clinics give you a chance to enter the water at a slower pace with a group of people, simulating a race start.
2.    Perfect your dolphin skills over and under waves.  Too many people like to side-swim, walk or dog paddle through oncoming swells or white water.  Getting under the waves will save you a tremendous amount of energy in getting to the first buoy.
3.    Train for the open water with a triathlon club.  Many clubs schedule regular swims with large attendance.  The more time you spend in the water, the more comfortable you will feel race day.
4.    Never miss the opportunity to warm-up.  This is your chance to feel the water temperature, the current and the depth. Also view the course from in the water and make adjustments on your goggles, wetsuit or start position and path.
5.    Take advantage of the group starting ahead. Watch racers’ entries and path to the first buoy. If the entire group is being pushed south by the current, re-think your start location. Note any palaces where people may be steeping into holes, or running across sandbars.
6.    Consider going wetsuit-less in big surf.  The buoyancy of the neoprene hinders your chances of getting under big waves.  Prasuhn suggests a TYR Sayonara swim skin, which submerges much easier than a wetsuit, while providing a bit of warmth and slick-skin speed.