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Educate Yourself About the Open Water Environment

Understanding your local environment brings safety, less anxiety, and more fun to your open water swims

David Miner

Swimming in the open water, such as the ocean, a lake, or river is vastly
different from swimming in a pool that is highly controlled, predictable,
and probably patrolled by lifeguards. In the pool, the water is crystal
clear and clean, water temperatures are more controlled, and there is
very little to worry about. There are no critters swimming around, no
strong currents, no tide changes, and the weather conditions are mostly
monitored by lifeguards who are trained to watch for severe weather
and evacuate the pool when weather threatens. Some pools even have
severe weather alert systems that sound when lightning is too close.
Swimming in that controlled environment in that clear water is
comfortable and easy. It doesn’t require much in the way of
​environmental knowledge to swim safely, anxiety free, and to have fun.

Oceans, lakes, and rivers are anything but controlled and predictable environments. Every body of open water has unique characteristics that can both make it exciting to swim in but also make it dangerous. Environmental conditions, such as wind, waves, tides, and currents can really affect and change a body of water. Other earthly creatures live there and make it their home. The water often times is not very clear and water temperatures can change very quickly. Man made objects such as piers, jetties, and channel markers rise from the bottom creating hazards that must be avoided. A rocky shoreline or a riverbed of loose rocks and down trees create more unique opportunities for an open water swim. Boats and jet skis screaming across the surface and fishermen casting their lines also create potential hazards for open water swimmers. All of these environmental conditions can create anxiety, fear, and uncertainty for a new or veteran open water swimmer.

So what can be done to mitigate these hazards, reduce anxieties and fears, reduce risk, and have fun in the open water? One of the best things you can do is to educate yourself about the body of open water with which you plan to swim. Reading about, studying, and discussing with others the local environment provides the knowledge you need to make good decisions on when, where, and how to swim. You can:

  • Read and learn about the aquatic life that lives in the water. If you have a fear of sharks and learn that sharks rarely congregate there, your fear is for nothing. If you learn that water snakes are abundant during a certain month, you can avoid swimming that month.
  • Study how the wind, tides, waves, and currents can affect the body of water. Understanding that wind blowing from the East can create large, choppy surface waves that are difficult to swim in or that an outgoing tide creates a strong current along shore gives you knowledge on when not to swim.
  • Learn what affects the water temperatures and how they vary seasonally. Knowing that the dam controlled river releases the cold water from the bottom of the dam twice a week gives you valuable information on the water temperature of the river.
  •  Determine the typical boating traffic for the area. Knowing that holiday weekends bring twice as much boat traffic to the area is valuable to being safe and determining the best location to swim.
  • Research where fishermen usually congregate and what types of fish run seasonally and how that affects boat traffic and long shore fishermen. You don’t want to be swimming next to a pier with fishermen up and down both sides.
  • Talk to other local swimmers and the local lifeguards. They can provide some of the best information about the area and point you to the best locations to swim safely.
  • Contact the local government and water management personnel to find out about water quality and how it is affected. Knowing that runoff from a severe rainstorm increases the bacterial count in the lake you want to swim is valuable information.
  • Use online websites and apps for weather forecasts, water temperatures, river flow, and historical data.

Taking the time to educate yourself and understand your local bodies of water reduce anxieties and fears about the unknown, allow you to know when and where to swim safely, and above all, allow you to enjoy and have fun swimming in the open water world.