Last week, we explored some of the factors that increase anxiety when swimming in open water, such as the decreased feeling of safety, the uncertainty of the bottom, the expansiveness of open water environments, and the risk of body contact in open water swim events. This week’s post will cover several more sources of anxiety.
What is in the water
Pools are generally sterile, chlorinated, clean tasting, clear or turquoise looking in appearance and free of debris. Open water however, such as rivers, lakes and oceans are living milieus of fresh and or salt water. Open water can have a noticeable taste, be it salty or brackish, earthy, muddy, and or silty. There can also be hints of manmade flavours, including oil or gas from watercraft, and other industrial forms of pollution. The bottom can be sandy, rocky, muddy, weedy, or you may not see the bottom at all. Not seeing the bottom can cause new (and even some seasoned) open water swimmers to feel anxious. These worry factors (if you have them) take time and effort to get used to. There are, of course, some waters just not worth swimming in, and it pays to understand what you are getting into before you get into it.
You also have to share an environment with all kinds of aquatic life, from insects to fish, from waterfowl to mammals large and small. Most fish and birds are more afraid of you than you should be of them, and encounters with aquatic mammals would be very unusual (including Ogopogo and Loch Nessie!).
What is on the Water
Since swimmers are usually about 80% submerged, swimming in open water makes it more difficult for a swimmer to be easily seen, especially when wearing a black wetsuit and swimming outside of standard enclosed swim areas. Power boats, paddlers, windsurfers, water-skiers, and fishermen may not see you, and may not even be expecting to see you if you are in areas not commonly swum in. Think twice before venturing off the beaten track where watercraft are common, and if you do, consider having boat or paddlers’ support to protect you, so that you can concentrate on swimming. Swimming in a group, even if it is a small one, will increase the likelihood of being seen, as well as wearing a brightly coloured swim cap, and/or using an open water swim buoy, such as a “Swim Buddy” or another safety swim buoy.
Floating debris can be particularly anxiety provoking for an open water swimmer. Having something touch you unexpectedly, or something floating that you swim into can cause instant anxiety until it is clear what has touched you. We often, as a self-preservation strategy, fear the worst when this kind of contact happens. Most often it is only a stick, branch, leaves, weeds, or other floating debris. Other things can just be annoying, such as films of pollens or leaves on the water, small oil slicks, or water clouded up by other people’s activities. It is only experienced in open water that helps swimmers get used to these variables.
Weather is a factor in Open Water
A bright sun-lit morning is a great time to swim but you do need to prepare for looking into the sun and any reflections or glare coming off the water. These factors can really affect your sighting abilities, which may cause you to go off course. Tinted goggles can help, as can surveying the course you intend to swim. Alternately, a rainy day may have an opposite effect, with low-lying cloud obscuring reliable sighting points, the risk of thunder and lightning, changes in water temperature, currents, waves, and the wind, all of which could threaten the safety of your open water swim. Plan your open water swims like a pilot does – start by checking the weather forecast, getting your open water swim buoy and swim gear ready, and completing your open water swim checklist.