Taking to the Open Water

Posted in Announcements Aquatics Blog News

Image overlooking open water with a flock of seagulls coasting in a line.
Image by Haley Harrington-Thomas

By Bethany Bower
Director of Aquatics & Risk Management

Hello Everyone!!

I know you are all anxiously awaiting the reopening of Yates Field House and McCarthy Natatorium; we are too!!

As the weather continues to warm up and beaches and waterfronts become available, it is oh so tempting to go for a nice long swim in your favorite lake, river or ocean. However, if you have never swum in the open water before I can tell you from first hand knowledge it is a very different experience than following the black line on the bottom of a swimming pool. 

A 1.5 mile race on the Choptank River over on the Eastern shore of Maryland was my first open water swim, and I thought it would be an easy way to begin my entry into the unknown. As a former collegiate swimmer and swim coach, I was sure I would rock this new world. Neither of these statements became true that day. It was not easy and I did not rock this “new world”. 

Although I had trained for months in the pool, my first mistake is that I had neglected to do my research on how to swim in the open water. 

My mistakes included… I did not understand the safety aspects nor the strength of a river current, I had absolutely no idea how to sight my way through the course and I wore the wrong goggles (when things go wrong it is always the goggles fault 😀).

So I thought it would be helpful to share some helpful tips I learned to help me prepare for my next and much more successful open water swim, the 4.2 miles across the Chesapeake Bay.  


Thankfully, my first swim safety measures were already in place by those who had organized the race, but here are a few helpful tips and links to help you plan a safe start to the open water.

Safety First

  1. Always best to swim where there is a Lifeguard on duty.  
  2. Swim with a buddy – this person should also be a strong swimmer and able to help if something were to happen. If you must swim alone, do so with a flotation device nearby and have someone on shore monitoring your progress. 
  3. When in doubt, get out!! If something doesn’t feel right it probably isn’t. Maybe the current is starting to get rough or a storm is approaching. Get out of the water and come back another day. 
  4. Take a break if needed. Unlike swimming in a pool there are no walls and often it is too deep for you to stand. So if you are tired and just need to take a break, flip on your back and enjoy the scenery. Also, if you swallow water, stop, relax, slow it down while treading water for a few minutes.  
  5. Know the local conditions before you venture out into the water. Oceans are not the only body of water that has currents, rivers and lakes do as well.  
  6. Check the weather forecast, tides or dams that could increase danger. Although water temperatures are beginning to rise, the water is still colder than most people are used to. Have warm clothing and warm drinks available to you for after your swim.


Because I had no idea how to sight in open water, I went way off the course about ¼ upstream and had to be steered back by one of the safety marshals. 

Here are a few tips and a video about how to sight in the open water that I wish I had known that day.

A swimmer in the open water needs to be AWARE of their surroundings at all times. An important skill to learn right away when first venturing out is how to lift the goggles and look forward without taking a breath.

  1. Lift your head only as high as necessary.  In calmer bodies of water you may only need to lift your eyes out of the water. 
  2. In wavy ocean conditions, time your sighting to the top of the wave so you can see where you are going better.  
  3. Do not breathe when looking forward, try to separate the two actions, look forward with your eyes and then turn your head to breath.
  4. Monitor for water craft
  5. Take a mental snapshot of what you see and get your head right back down.  Now you can think about whether what you saw was a confirmation or not while you make forward progress.  
  6. Learn to breathe to both sides of the stroke (bilaterally).  Not only will it help with sighting, but you can keep an eye on other people easier. Bilateral breathing also helps with balance and symmetry in the stroke.


Along with being clueless about currents or how to sight, I found out quickly that the clear goggles I use daily in our pool, were not the right choice for the open water. The glare of the bright sun off the water added to my directional confusion. Instead what I needed was something with a  polarized tint and UV protection.  

Check out this recent list of the best goggles for Open Water Swims and Triathlons.

So now you have gone out for a few swims, and you think you are ready for your first open water race, there are a few happening this summer. Check out an upcoming local event below.

2020 Maryland Swim for Life – 29th Annual
September 19, 2020
Rolph’s Wharf
Chestertown MD

Please also check out the open water accomplishments and many articles written by Georgetown Alum and varsity swimmer Elaine Kornbau Howley, C’00 on Open Water swimming and also Health related items. In 2009 Elaine completed the Triple Crown of marathon swimming, which includes the 21 mile English Channel, the 28 mile Catalina Channel and the 28.5 mile loop around Manhattan. 

I hope your first open water adventure is more successful than mine. I look forward to seeing you all again on the pool deck of Yates sometime soon! You are missed!!

Recommended articles and videos

  1. Seven things you need to know for your first open water swim.
  2. Tips and Safety advice for your next Ocean swim
  3. What to know about early season open water swimming
  4. https://www.usms.org/fitness-and-training/articles-and-videos/articles/from-the-pool-to-the-open-water