Hey Joel - happy to hear you're getting on in the open! I don't know how many swims in the ocean you have under your belt, but I do remember reading + experiencing myself, that comfort in the water takes at least 4-5 swims. Before that, you're not as efficient. Maybe you're finding it in these various ways. Remembering to release your head etc.
There's ongoing debate as to what "works" in open water vs the pool. A lot of tri-athletes and open water experts say you need to crank up your tempo. Terry worked against that opinion by emphasizing stroke length. I think Shinji himself had to up his tempo but I think that was not because of open water's roughness, but due to body temperature - he was getting too cold. You may not have the same issues. Some tenets pretty much hold as fact though. Balance and streamlining pay off.
I generally find that my pool times are empirically faster than my open water times (freshwater sans wetsuit). Maybe the distance in open water isn't so accurate. I often question that, as my mile times vary quite a bit. I generally think that this is because of wall push-off's where I get a little break from stroking + I'm a pretty good wall turner. A lot of the tri-athletes I swim with aren't so fast off the wall, and they report faster times in open water, because they're not constantly breaking their pace and going hypoxic off the wall. So mixed conclusions there.
You may need to work on sighting. I think Coach Mandy has a youtube on it. Until you are expert at it, don't sight and breathe on the same stroke. Lift your eyes as little as possible. Drop it back into the water as soon as possible. Take single snapshot peaks like a photographer. When your head is back in the water, process the memory of what your eyes just saw. Don't take movie-length films of what you saw. If you peek every 6/8/20 strokes, you can put the film together of where you are with as minimal an impact as possible on your balance. If you get good at it, then it affects your stroke like a breath - and you know how much better your stoke is when you don't breathe. Being able to sight to your buddy while breathing makes sense how it would help your balance. Much less forward looking / balance upsetting.
I'm no ocean expert, but lots of lakes where you don't benefit from the extra salt water buoyancy. Not sure how well this translates, but them's my thoughts! I'm hoping a bunch of us can get down to the Natadores swim on Lake Mission Viejo in September. See if you can work that into your schedule!