Those who have never raced in open water may wonder how it compares with swimming in the pool and particularly how you navigate without lane markings. Having raced in open water since 1973, I’ve learned a few tricks, but still mess up on occasion. On June 21, swimming in the National Masters 1-Mile Championship in Madison CT (in Long Island Sound), I finished nearly two minutes ahead of everyone else in the 55-59 age group. Unfortunately I was disqualified for the 6th and final marker buoy on the left, rather than right, side.
I swam the entire course in warmup, mainly to get my bearings at each buoy and commit to memory the landmarks that would guide me to the next. With buoys spaced over 200 meters apart, even small swells could obscure them, making a more prominent landmark helpful. As I passed the 4th buoy I noted that a grove of trees marked the direction of the 5th buoy. At the 5th buoy, I saw that a corner of the bathhouse lay in line with the 6th buoy. In the heat of the race, swimming in close quarters with three other swimmers, I passed the 4th buoy and sighted on…the bathhouse rather than the grove of trees, a mistake that cost me a national title. I ruefully resolved to count buoys – not just sight on them -- next time.
There are three ways of navigating more accurately in open water. As is usually the case, I used all three in this race.
1) Technique that promotes straight-line swimming. I breathe bilaterally and use the Wide Tracks technique (both illustrated on the Easy Freestyle DVD.) Breathing to both sides promotes symmetry in the stroke. Breathing only to one side encourages crossover toward that side, which – over time – can send you way off course toward the side you breathe on. For the bulk of the race I breathe as often to my less-natural right side as to my left. If I take one breath to my left, I’ll take one to my right. If I take 10 in a row to my left, I’ll take the next 10 to my right. Two things may cause me to adjust: (1) In the final 200 to 400m for my closing sprint I usually breathe only to the left; (2) Conditions – swells on one side or landmarks on the other – may cause me to breathe more often to one side, away from the swells and toward the landmarks. Wide Tracks (top foto above)– extending my hand directly forward of my shoulder and consciously avoiding any crossover – also helps keep my course straight and true – at least moreso than when I fail to give these things attention.
2) Navigating with the aid of landmarks, the shoreline or the sun. As described above. Often I’ll also use the sun – not looking directly at it, but sometimes triangulating my course based on the glow the sun casts in the water, if I happen to be swimming in its direction. Most OW races start fairly early in the morning, so the sun may be low on the horizon. If I notice its glow is, say, 30 degrees left of my intended course, I may be able to look ahead less frequently by keeping my nose pointed 30 degrees right of that glow.
3) Finally, one can navigate off other swimmers or the safety paddlers lining the course. My preference is to navigate off swimmer or boats to the side, rather than ahead. I know my general tendency is to veer left over time, so I often try to swim on the right side of the main pack. Or to position myself on the right hip of a swimmer going at the right speed (i.e. a bit faster than I could swim without drafting). With a swimmer or swimmers to my left I can just keep an eye on them when breathing normally, and greatly reduce the frequency of lifting my head to look forward. If I’m near the center of the pack – and breathing bilaterally -- I watch to see that any swimmers in my field of vision are about equi-distant to my left and right. That means that – relative to the direction the pack is moving – I’m keeping a true course. And when I scan the field on those normal side breaths I’m reassured when I see other swimmers lifting their heads for a look forward. While I’m saving energy and maintaining my rhythm by not looking, I’m comforted to see they’re doing it for me.
Then there are those times when I need to confirm what my other observations tell me by looking forward. I save energy and preserve body position and rhythm by: (1) Surfing my goggles for a quick snapshot, between breaths. (bottom foto above) Holding my head high for several breaths would slow me down by increasing drag and lead to quicker fatigue, so I don’t do that. This breathing techique is illustrated on the O2 in H2O Breathing Skills DVD.) (2) 90% of such sightings, I’m looking for the cluster of caps ahead of me rather than buoys or landmarks. I quickly see the distribution of caps ahead of me and adjust my course (after resuming normal no-look swimming) for the center of that cluster.