Open Water Swimming

Since I moved to Santa Cruz and started swimming seriously again, I’ve come across this subset of aquatic enthusiasts who are addicted to open water adventures. “Open water” is the term used to describe any wall-less H2O receptacle in which you can swim. Lakes, reservoirs – even rivers – meet this criteria; but here in Santa Cruz, the real open water is the big Pacific pond down the street.

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I’ve chosen to live just a few blocks away from the ocean, so I understand its pull. Why drive to an artificial swimming pool when there’s a gigantic natural body of water just a stone’s throw away? To top it off, this big body of water comes with spectacular views, wildlife, and a host of features such as waves and currents to keep you awake and engaged.

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However, swimming in the ocean comes with some less appealing features as well – among them are boat traffic, the potential for seasickness, disorientation, and sharks. None of those really bother me all that much. For me, the big deterrent is the water temperature. The Monterey Bay generally fluctuates between 58 and 62 degrees. Surfers wear fairly thick wetsuits in it in order to hang out on boards waiting for the perfect ride. Open water swimmers?  Well, it turns out they wear the same bathing suits in the ocean that they wear in the pool. Nothing more. Ouch!

Last summer, I showed up to my first ocean-based open water event with a wetsuit on. I mean, I surfed in a wetsuit, so I assumed I would compete in a race that lasted over an hour with a wetsuit on as well, right? I completed the race; however, I was told afterwards by multiple people that “I didn’t really do it” because I had worn a wetsuit. Looking at the field of participants, I’d say over 80% swam in swimsuits and skin. I was intrigued, and a little research revealed that world-famous marathon swims – such as crossing the English channel or traversing the Monterey Bay – only “count” when done in regular swimsuits. My teammates informed me that I’d need to train for next year’s event, and that my training would need to include not just upping my yardage at workouts, but acclimating my body to the chilly water temperature on a weekly basis.

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A year passed, and I did nothing of the sort. I increased my training, yes – I even participated in a handful of pool-based meets and lake-based open water competitions. I practiced other open water swimming techniques such as sighting, drafting, and swimming in a pack. But I did not brave an ocean swim sans wetsuit. Then, the same event came around last month – my team’s Open Water Weekend, which consists of both the one-mile “Rough Water Swim” and the two-mile “Cruz Cruise.” I watched as my braver and more metabolically gifted teammates psyched themselves up for 20-30 minutes (the one-mile) and 50-70 minutes (the two-mile) of Pacific Ocean swimming.

They did incredibly well. Most of them donned two bathing caps – or better yet, neoprene caps. They wore earplugs to keep the cold water out of those sensitive orifices. They applied body glide. They had all been swimming in the ocean numerous times over the last couple months. And they all had lots of hot water bottles to pour over themselves after the race.

These hard core athletes will tell you that more than half of the battle is psychological, and I believe it. Those of us who are not used to cold water gasp and hyperventilate when we first get in, triggering all sorts of adrenaline-based panic responses in our bodies and brains. We shiver, our heart rates and blood pressures increase, and we don’t use our sugars efficiently. In short, we’re stressed. Athletes accustomed to the shock of cold water have developed both physical and mental strategies to ward off these effects. They have trained themselves to hold their breath and/or breathe deeply and fully upon entering the water. They embrace the cold in a way that hijacks the violence of the instinctive response, and their shivering starts at a much lower body temperature than it does for the rest of us.

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Serious open water swimmers will tell you how invigorated they feel in the cold ocean water and wax poetic about the rush that comes with the big plunge. They talk about the sense of achievement and survival that accompanies the completion of a swim and the bonds they feel with other folks who face the same challenges. And, their achievements are remarkable. Over 1000 people have swum the English Channel, a 21-mile crossing in 60 degree water. The Strait of Gibraltar and the Catalina Channel (between Los Angeles and Santa Catalina Island) have been traversed by 500 people. Only three people have swum across the Monterey Bay, our local 25-mile, 56-60 degree swim. The fastest of the three successful swimmers, Patti Bauernfeind, finished her expedition in 13 hours. Seven other people have tried and failed. As for our own local race, 321 people swam the one-mile race, 244 of them without wetsuits. In the two-mile race, 89 out of 111 swimmers braved the early morning cold water without neoprene.

I’m consistently impressed. And, in the meantime, I’m just happy I beat my last year’s time in the two-mile race by 10 minutes – even if I wore my black rubber armor.

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