April 29, 2016

By Guila Muir


Does the thought of swimming in open water make you start hearing the soundtrack from the movie “Jaws”? If so, you are not alone.

The good news is that countless swimmers have conquered their fear of deep water and discovered the uniquely rewarding activity of swimming in the natural world.

You Can Do It

Rest assured, you will never see a pointy fin swimming toward you in a Northwest lake and great white sharks don’t inhabit Northwest inland waters.

In Puget Sound we are blessed with many clear and swimmable bodies of water. And throughout Washington, Oregon and Idaho, the abundant lakes are also perfect for open-water swimming.

Conquer your fears with these three tips to increase your confidence and competence as an open-water swimmer.

Acclimate Slowly

The key to comfort in the open water is smart acclimatization. Water temperatures above 67 degrees Fahrenheit will feel most comfortable, so don’t be shy about taking a thermometer (one from a hot tub works well) down to the water’s edge. Even if you can swim long distances in a pool, swimming in open water is entirely different.

To acclimate properly, make your first swims short—only three to five minutes long. Most people acclimate fairly rapidly and can soon extend their time in the water. Bring plenty of warm clothes to change into, even if the sun is high.

By taking steps to keep comfortable, you will relish returning to the open water filled with confidence instead of trepidation.

Be Seen

First-time swimmers often don’t realize that jet skis, power boats, and most anything else in the water—including other swimmers—cannot easily see you no matter how bright the swim cap or suit.

The importance of being seen in the water cannot be overstressed. Always swim close to shore and wear a swim safety device, often called the International Swimmers Hall of Fame (ISHOF) SaferSwimmer Float, to increase your visibility. Swimming with friends helps make you more visible, and increases the fun you have as well.

Stay Calm

Upon entering cold water, even experienced open-water swimmers can hyperventilate. This phenomenon is called the Mammalian Dive Reflex and is the body’s normal reaction to entering cold water.

The best way to help this reflex is to be patient, remain calm, and know that your breathing will return to normal within minutes.

The trick to overriding anxiety is to enter the water slowly. Don’t start swimming until you have fully immersed your face and head several times. You’ll be surprised how quickly you begin to feel comfortable in your environment.

Open-water swimming is fun and a great activity for maintaining fitness or adding to your cross-training regime. Like many other happy open-water swimmers in the Northwest, after you take the plunge, you may well discover a new life passion.

Guila Muir is the founder of Say Yes to Life! Swims, a Northwest company providing escorted open-water swim adventures and outdoor swim lessons. Contact her at www.sayyestolifeswims.com