The Loneliness of the Long Distance Swimmer
The first trick is finding a good starting point. Unless someone is willing to meet you somewhere at the end, this will also be your finish point. A beach is good for ease of getting into and out of the water. The beach should either be totally secluded, so that you can leave your stuff there, or have someone there to watch over it. Another trick is to leave everything in your car and hide your car key.
Don’t leave anything more valuable than your flip flops and a towel on the beach, and make sure you don’t leave your expensive shades. Always leave your stuff up higher than you think the water can ever get – you don’t know what the tide is going to do. I try to find some rocks above where the plants start growing.
I always wear a watch while swimming in the ocean. It is my only sense of how far/long I’ve been going, and it tells me when to turn around.
Water condition is important. Clear water is not only more interesting, it is also much safer to swim in. Swimming at dawn or dusk is not as good for the same reason.
If there’s any surf, getting in and out of the water is the trickiest part, especially if you’ve never been a surfer. Dive under the breakers, and swim easy breaststroke out past any surf. Practice getting in and out of the surf a few times, so you know where the rocks are, where the shallow or steep places are, where the biggest breakers are. Before you start swimming, make sure you are out past any breaking surf.
Here’s the most important part: Turn around and look at shore. Memorize what it looks like from the water. There is nothing worse than finishing a long swim and not being able to find your towel and shoes.
Stay still in the water for a moment. Feel if there is a current going parallel to the beach. If there is, remember that it will be slower swimming against the current. I prefer starting out parallel to the shore into the current, so that I know it will be easier and faster to get back. Remember that the direction of the waves is not necessarily the direction of the current.
Go parallel to shore, but far enough out to avoid the surf. If you want to pick a landmark like a big rock to swim towards, that’s great. Just remember that judging distances from the water is pretty much impossible. Sometimes it helps to know how far away something is on land so you know if it is a reasonable goal. I’ve been known to swim out to a rock or island that is a mile or so from the mainland, but the safest route is generally parallel to shore.
Be aware of any watercraft, whether boats, jet skis, wind surfers, or anything else. They are not your friend while you are swimming, and you should choose an area away from them if at all possible.
Of course, know how far you want to swim and what you are capable of. If you can, pick an area with mostly beaches along the shore, so you can quickly get to land if you have a problem.
I’ve always been told to never swim alone and to always tell someone where you’re going. I’m not very good about that, so I can’t preach on that topic.
When you are swimming, there are lots of sensations you don’t get in the pool. Get a feel for the swells, if there are any, and adjust your breathing so you don’t get a face full of water. It really helps if you can breathe to both sides and can sight in front of you. Memorize as much of the shoreline as you can when you are swimming, so that it is all familiar when you return.
The view from exactly sea level plus or minus one inch is very difficult for the brain to process. You may sometimes see things that aren’t there, fish, boats, people, whatever, that turn out to be nothing more than waves, your own hand, bubbles, features on land, clouds, or something else innocuous.
I often feel a little tap or other sensation on my toes, legs, or elsewhere. I may spin around to try to see what it was, but never see anything. Maybe it’s just the waves. In any case, you get used to it.
Depending on where you are swimming, there may be jellyfish. Sometimes I get a stinging sensation somewhere on my body even though I saw nothing. It subsides after a few minutes.
Don’t spend too much time worrying about sharks. If one is going to get you, there’s probably not much you can do. It can swim faster than you, so I imagine your only option would be to try to punch its face and eyes. Not worth obsessing about. This is one reason you swim in clear water -- sharks like to not be seen.
Get in a groove, just as if you were on a long bike ride or trail run. Go at a steady pace. Breaststroke is great for a break, or if the swells really pick up. With breaststroke, you can choose whether to go over or under a wave. Backstroke is fun if it’s calm. Stop and tread water any time you want, to rest or just to get your bearings.
Any problems, take the shortest route to the nearest beach. A beach is also a good place for a rest break if you need more then a few moments trading water. Watch out for breakers, because that can mean rocks. Rocks are not your friend.
When your shoulders are getting tired, hopefully you already turned around and are heading back. If not, do it soon. You can always build up to a longer distance on another day.
Follow the landmarks on shore that you memorized on your way out. If you are going with the current, it may be a bit faster going back, but your time estimations will only be approximate anyway. When you get back to your starting point, approach shore slowly. Use breaststroke. Watch the waves coming in behind you. Only ride a wave in if you are comfortable doing so. Otherwise, duck under and gradually make your way to the beach.
Last thing – pray that you landed on the right beach and that your towel, sandals, and sunglasses are still there.