Mastering Rough Water

Open water swimming can require skills and techniques completely different from those used in a pool where lane lines flatten the water and currents or waves are not a factor. Your pool focus is mainly on repeating one perfect stroke after another while maintaining a fluid rhythm.

Open water can be relatively smooth, but sooner or later you will encounter a swim where rough water or a strong current forces you to change your methods. Waves may push your body to the side – impeding your forward motion.  Waves also may wash over your recovering arm and prevent a clean hand entry. Choppy water may be so unpredictable and turbulent that your stroke timing and placement is thrown off and you find it impossible to get into any kind of rhythm. 

To facilitate our discussion, let’s differentiate between two common types of rough water:  Waves and chop. Waves travel in one direction – head-on, from your back, or from one-side. You either swim up and over them or you swim through them.  (Don’t confuse waves with the large undulating upward and downward swell of the open ocean.) Chop is many small waves coming from no discernable direction.   (Look in your washing machine the next time it’s on wash cycle. Chop is frequently created by exceptionally windy conditions.

Let’s look at how to adapt to rough water and overcome these disruptive conditions.

First, for novice rough water swimmers, these conditions can be exceptionally frightening and disconcerting. Stay relaxed, retain your composure and focus on your breathing. Remind yourself that you cannot sink with a wetsuit on; you are simply going to get tossed around a little. Lifeguards and other water support personnel are looking out for you and can be there in a flash if you wave your arm over your head.

Second, odds are overwhelming a wave or chop will slap you in the face. This may force you to forego a breath cycle, swallow water or even inhale some water through your nose. Again, do not panic, retain your composure and get a full breath on the next stroke. If waves are coming from your normal breathing side the ability to breathe bilaterally is a big bonus, since you can simply switch to the other side. You may need to exaggerate your body roll or head turn in order to catch a breath without swallowing water.

Third, maintain good body-core stability. Picture a log and a rag doll in rough water – which has the most stability? Try to maintain a long or log-like body position. This is best achieved by keeping a hand anchored throughout the entire stroke cycle. Keep your arm extended in front of you, hand firmly anchored in the water, until your other arm is about to enter the water – an open water “full catch-up” stroke, if you will. 

Both arms should be even with, or forward of your chest for the entire stroke cycle.  By keeping more than a normal amount of your body weight in front of your chest, you maintain a long-axis body position, which equates to good body-core stability.  Good stability allows you to pull yourself through the choppy water much more effectively. Picture yourself piercing the waves rather than fighting them. The choppier the water, the more exaggerated your log-like body position and catch-up stroke should be.

Piercing the water can also necessitate altered stroke timing – either a shortened or prolonged arm recovery while you wait for the wave or chop to break. If you do not time your recovery right, you may grab air instead of water or find your recovering arm underwater as a wave passes over it. Do not be surprised to find yourself shortening or prolonging your timing on a stroke-to-stroke basis.  Remember, rough water requires you to adapt your stroke to the conditions.

Fourth, some waves (especially those that are head on or directly from behind) may try to fold your body in two or force you downward. It is important to maintain as a log-like body position in this situation as well. Keep your arm extended forward and lift your same-side foot to the surface of the water. An extended arm and extended same-side leg will keep your body horizontal until the wave has washed over you.

Fifth, waves coming from the side or from an angle push your body sideways. This can force your forwardly extended anchor hand to veer out to the side or even downward. This is OK, because in this position your hand and arm now take on new roles. Your hand is not anchoring itself so your arm can pull your body forward (normal role). Instead, it is anchoring itself at your side to prevent you from being pushed sideways and to keep you in a forward line of travel (new role). 

This new role puts your arm in an awkward anatomical position and any attempt to pull yourself forward could damage your rotator cuff or sprain your shoulder. Allow your hand and arm to stabilize any sideways motion and allow them to resume their more traditional job on the next stroke cycle.

Sixth, a higher arm recovery can protect you from waves and chop. Forget the thumb-up-your-side recovery drill. Get your hand out of the water and high into the air quickly. Wait until the wave conditions are right and then quickly thrust it back into the water. You want to keep it away from the waves as much as possible.

Seventh, think about rock climbers. They want a good hold on a solid piece of rock before transferring their weight. Similarly, in rough water, you want to anchor your hand firmly in the water before you pull your body forward. However, rough water often is aerated due to the chop and waves. What you grab may not be solid water, but a less supportive mixture of bubbles, foam and water. This makes it very important to practice catching more of the water with your forearm and ensuring that you push the water all the way back to your thigh without cutting your pull short.

An excellent way to grab more water with your forearm is to practice fist drills in the pool. Close your hands and swim several laps with your fists. Without the benefit of open palms, your arms will struggle to compensate and find the best leverage possible. Focus on catching the water with your forearm. After several laps, open your hands.  You will be surprised at how much more water you catch. 

Eighth, you may find yourself swimming into or against a current. The key point to remember is the current will latch onto every single body protrusion it can find to thwart your forward progress. Increase your stroke rate and focus on swimming through the smallest “tube” possible. There should be little or no glide at the end of your arm extension. The current is flowing directly over your body and oncoming water wraps itself around even the slightest outcropping, increasing drag resistance and slowing you down. If you need to kick harder, do so, but keep your legs and feet in the “tube”, limiting the depth of your kick to just below the surface. 

If you find yourself swimming with the current, relax and enjoy the free ride.  Lengthen your stroke, let the current do most of the work for you and marvel at how incredibly fast you are. 

Last, learn to read the water and anticipate what it is about to do. With practice, you can spot the oncoming wave about to slap in you in the face during your next breath.  You can see the oncoming wave that will force you to delay or accelerate the timing of your recovering armstroke. Anticipate the arrival of the next wave so you can sight precisely as you crest over the top of the wave and not while you are down in its trough, where your field of vision is obscured. The water has a lot to tell you if you only watch and pay attention.

Swimming in rough water with waves crashing over you can be an exhilarating experience or it can be sheer horror. Put yourself in the first category by practicing in a variety of open water conditions to gain experience and confidence before your next ocean race.

Gary Emich is an ASCA and USA Triathlon-certified coach, former race director of the Alcatraz Challenge Aquathlon, co-host of the DVD, Lane Lines to Shore Lines:  Your Compete Guide to Open Water Swimming, and co-author of Open Water Swimming – Lessons from Alcatraz.  Gary has completed over 1,000 swims from Alcatraz – without wetsuit!  Visit for more information.