I’ve opted for a ‘travel post’ with a difference… with distances counted in mere metres rather than flight hours, and by that I’m referring to my having learnt to swim in the open sea. As some may recall, poor spinal health semi-forced a change in lifestyle and priorities a few years ago, and both the neuro and orthopaedic surgeons kept rabbiting on about how potentially good swimming could be in my case. Having previously only ventured up and down the vacation pool and once or twice hit the dizzy distance of 40 or 50 metres in the sea, open water swimming wasn’t something I had ever contemplated, let alone as a midlife adventure.
Three years ago my swimming aim was fairly simple, to self-propel in open water for 100 metres without sinking, getting eaten by something nasty out there, or having to be unceremoniously rescued by the coastguard or even some local fishing boat.
First off, try as I might I was never a comfortable front-crawler (that’s ‘Freestyle’), with my trying not to ‘breathe in waves’ seemingly not particularly conducive to healthy living; ergo, breaststroke it has always been for me. My eyes get blurry real quick in salt water too, but those nasty little goggle things always felt pretty painful to wear, until I discovered ‘large swim goggles’ which opened up a whole new world. Wow, I could see!
That first summer I pushed from 50 up to 75 and then 100 metres, and eventually up to about 250 metres, which felt like swimming transatlantic at the time admittedly. Back then I was just a middle-aged bloke in dated dodgy Speedos, and soon started to realise how much more there was to this game than just splashing about for ‘longer’ in order to go ‘further’. Somehow, I was weirdly captivated by the idea of open water swimming, thanks to a friend and former work colleague who had himself gone from couch-monkey to keen amateur triathlete in just a couple of years (what a transformation). Discussions brought on certain recommendations, and that year I splashed out on a proper, but cheap-end, off-the-peg, triathlete’s rubber wetsuit, designed specifically for open water swimming.
Pictured here is the item in question, which by the way I found totally freaked our big tough farm dog out after hosing it down and hanging it up to dry overnight… he then came plodding around the corner and stopped dead: the face saying, ‘Who or what the heck is that?’
Now, hands up who’s ever tried to get into or escape from one of these darned Yamamoto rubber triathlon wetsuits? Sure, the material is extremely flexible and offers great buoyancy, but flexibility doesn’t mean diddlysquat when it (correctly) fits tighter than a drainpipe wrapped around an overweight rat on the loose.
Put it this way, my first open-water swim was a total failure. I went down to the beach, but on my own; then ended up using so much energy fighting to get the wetsuit on that I was too knackered to even swim – hmm, lessons learned, as they say. More YouTube education ensued, plus discussions with my ‘advisor’, plus training my son to help the old fella ‘lock n load’ eventually got me into the water to actually attempt a swim.
Even in the Mediterranean, in winter that water can feel mighty cool after a while. By the winter of my second season, I was reaching the giddy 1,000 metre mark, but at my old turtle-paced breaststroke speed, that meant I was still getting a bit cold, mostly through heat loss from the extremities.
New purchases followed, enabling me to soon further embarrass my family by wearing a bright yellow neoprene hat on the beach. Sure, it was much warmer, even if I did look an idiot. I also had learned to ‘acclimatise’ in the water for a minute or two before launching, giving the body time to accept and get over the inevitable cold-water shock which is the undoing of so many unaccustomed to off-season swimming (or folk who fall off boats, go skinny-dipping etc.).
Sure, I appreciate I don’t do full-on Canadian ice-swimming (like Mister Dave), but even temps of 12oC in lakes or 15oC in the open sea can be pretty bracing to the old system when first getting in, as well as after an hour or two. I also added neoprene booties and gloves which too made a significant difference.
The next elevation of my game came in the form of increased personal safety, particularly as I was now flapping about some 500 metres offshore and out there for up to an hour or so. Yes, I was finally joined out there by another, that being ‘Terrence’, who is my trusty bright orange tow-float. Terrence has since joined my every swim, floating lazily along some 1.5 metres behind me, sporting my family’s telephone number added in large numbers using permanent ink. And when I say he’s behind me, well, when it’s a tad windy he’s been known to try and overtake; cheeky beggar.
By the way, that first time, yikes… all alone in the sea and something bangs into your feet or legs, and then looms slowly into your peripheral view… I nearly had kittens out there (if that’s possible).
Safety gear for open water swimming
Next up I started carrying an emergency beacon lamp strapped to my arm, plus an extra loud sea whistle. The ultimate would be a GPS tracker unit, but that’s way beyond my budget. However, I was fortunately donated a no-longer-used older model GPS sports watch that, when shoved neatly under my swim cap, provides fairly accurate distance tracking and mapping after the event, and certainly beats my former method of checking out Google Earth on a point-to-point basis.
I also studied my technique, and whilst that saying about old dogs and new tricks is fairly true, I did manage to earn a few tricks that has resulted in a generally fluid action that still suits my style and without any great discomfort. One thing I have learnt is to do some prolonged calf stretches before each swim, as calf cramp is no joke, uncomfortable as hell, and outright dangerous to the open water swimmer.
Finally feeling better equipped to do my worst, or best, I started to increase my distances, and within 2 years had built up slowly to a regular 2,000 metres, or a mile and a quarter – respectable at least. I then heard that 5,000 metres was considered the Olympic half marathon of open water swimming, and as having road-run a couple of those babies, it seemed like a challenge worthy of adding to my bucket list.
Of course, around the 36th parallel north is it’s not all cold-water swimming by a long shot. By late spring and also up until late autumn, the kinky old rubber wetsuit just isn’t really needed, even for us less than hardy southern wimps.
However, instead I have finally found a halfway decent answer, a neoprene swim-vest and non-matching yet similar neoprene dive shorts. Again, useful with buoyancy, but more importantly they keep the spine and core toasty warm, which is my primary concern out there bearing in mind my medical past (which still taunts me if not well-respected).
One notable issue has been seawater chaffing (ouchy body sores) where the arm movement from up to 10,000 strokes in saltwater requires significant balm added in order to reduce the inevitable post-swim discomfort and scarring. That too has been a matter of experience through trial and error.
Sometimes a cheap full-body Lycra rash suit is added on top to keep the jellyfish from doing their merry dance up and down any patch of bare skin they can find, but it’s still far less restricting than fighting with the full wetsuit. However, to be honest I’ve kept with the neoprene all summer this year too, as, another full year on, my swim distances have increased regularly to over 3,000 metres, and thereby coming up to 2 hours in the drink, which, even in summer, can cool the body’s core temp down a fair bit.
Training for distance swimming in open water
Now for that 5,000 metre challenge I had dubiously set myself up for. Mostly I would train twice a week, fitting in sessions as best I could around work. This summer did at least afford me some luck though, albeit through the misfortune of others with a marked reduction in marine traffic (virtually zero yachties or pleasure cruisers charging around), and thanks to Terrence, I’ve avoided becoming boat-prop-fodder quite.
From the beach, I’m just an orange ‘blob’ about a mile offshore (often tracked by my son with his trusty hiking monocular), but the orange of Terrence and my yellow or red swim cap helps to keep me clearly identifiable from a fair distance on the water, although I still tend to keep my head on a swivel around certain points where traffic can be an issue.
Distance swimming, for me, is all about endurance not speed. My pace tends to be the same slow rate (3m:20s/100m, or 3m:3s/100 yard) irrespective of the distance. I have been slightly faster (2m:55s/100m, or 2m:40s/100 yard), but that’s rare and perhaps more based on favourable currents or winds.
In addition to the swims, I try to add one 5k or 10k road run per week, some general flinging about of my arms with small weights attached in my home gym, and perhaps the odd trip out on the mountain bike for good measure; although that’s a dawn operation in summer as way too hot after 8am.
This summer I decided it was now or never; sink or swim (literally) I wanted to ‘do the open water 5k’, and that involved prep on three fronts; body conditioning, planning, and fueling.
Body conditioning was the aforementioned combo of swims, running, and occasional cycling. In terms of planning, ya just gotta ‘feel it’… if you don’t have confidence in your ability out there, that’s when it gets super scary; after all, you can’t just stop and get the bus home if suddenly tired when swimming alone a mile offshore.
Thankfully, I know these open waters well around here, the currents around which rock pools and headlands, what bays can have what currents etc., so have been able to plan my routes accordingly based on Google Earth combined with marine weather forecasts which give the surface temperature (air and water), wind speed and direction, plus the expected swell/wave size etc.
I’ve then been able to provide my onshore team (kiddo and my wife usually) with a fully-timed route map, showing what my expected times are at which point on a planned swim route – which in actuality have proven near 95% accurate, so pretty useful.
The third component has been fueling. With 5,000 metres meaning a long, slow swim for almost three hours, I have had to consider fuel; similar to my other sporting endeavours. Whilst my style of breaststroke only burns some 400 calories per hour, there are no pit stops, no shops, and no support vessel to hand, so in the last five days prior to a long-distance attempt I usually scoff lots of chicken breast meat and 5-egg omelettes to boost the protein, followed by a few days carbs-stuffing.
With my glycogen stores full, and having taken a couple of ‘rest days’ beforehand, I find that’s about as prepared as I can be, bar the usual aches and strains of middle age and all those farming-related activities.
The morning of I get up around 0530 (usual for summer) and immediately take on board about a litre of water, then 250g of yoghurt and a banana by no later than 0630. Finally, some five mins before I ‘get in’ and set off, I chomp about 35g of Helva (!). Made from sugar and sesame seed oil, Helva is extremely high in (unsaturated) fat, and therefore calories, with some 200 in just that one small lump (it is also easily digestible, with zero issues when exercising soon after; for me, anyhow).
For ‘en route’ fueling I take along multicarb gel packs stuffed down my neoprene swim shorts (yeah I know), with plans to consume one at around the 3,000 metre mark, but bearing in mind the potential risks involved in challenges that far offshore, I also take a couple of extras with me, just in case.
Finding the route in open water
One particular challenging route involved swimming from a long open beach, around a headland into a large, deep bay, swimming around then across the bay and passing by a few other smaller inlets, then around a large headland before entering a deep bay at the end of which lay a private beach club, where my wife drove to meet me as a day-guest.
That was a considerably scary one, however, as with the exception of one roadside lookout point some 1km away, I was ‘out-of-sight’ and thereby totally on my own for over 75% of the swim. This added something of a mental challenge to the physical. Those times it’s all down to reliance upon one’s training, and of course to mother nature.
One of the trials I have come to learn to deal with has been water-level navigation; as it looks TOTALLY different compared to the map, and even from high-res satellite images used in my route planning. As I found much to my surprise on that longest swim attempt, where my stupid waterlogged brain kept considering the possibility I had overshot a large bay entrance I was looking for; which, considering its mouth is some 570 metres across, would have been rather ‘noticeable’.
That day saw a bit of mild panic set it, just enough to remind me I was just a mortal little blob out at sea. Thankfully, one element that helped keep my sanity was the ‘distance alert’ on the GPS watch stuffed under my swim cap, that kept beeping and buzzing every 1,000 metres. Why on earth (or sea) was I panicking about a bay entrance due at around the 3,800-4,000 mark when I had only covered 3,500 at the very most, including some inevitable detours? What a nut.
When my GPS watch finally buzzed away to denote passing 4,000 metres, I was like, ‘Oh great, now what?’ I knew I had adequately fueled the muscles, and also had two additional gel packs tucked away, so worst case I could ‘beach’ on some rocks and use my sea whistle and emergency light to attract some passing fishing boat. On that score I wasn’t worried (thinking, ‘Yeah, I could even make it to the next bay’), but my only concern was my wife waiting some two hours extra, which would invoke the agreed coastguard callout.
Thankfully, at about 4,300 metres I rounded the headland that clearly opened to a large, deep bay… and some 500 metres into that bay I started to make out ‘colours’, those being the beach umbrellas still some 700 metres away. Even then it was weird (‘Worst case, I’ll call from the beach’ – What other beaches were there around there? None).
Needless to say, it was the right bay, I had been on the right course all along, and yes, my wife was there, patiently waiting on a sunbed with a good book (and my choccy milk and a banana). I had even made good time in fact; faster than most recent training swims. I still had two unused gel packs remaining, had experienced no muscle cramps, and even felt there was some energy to spare. That was the day I accidentally hit my lifetime distance record of 5,735 metres (or 3.56 miles), which helped secure an extra $75 in donations to the charity I was raising cash for through sponsorship.
All in all I was able to tell myself that I had ‘done it’, having survived four swims in one season that each exceeded that original 5,000 meter challenge distance. ‘Good job Pig’, as Farmer Hoggett would have said.
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