Open Water & Ocean Swimming Safety
*Due to the inherent risk with open-water swimming, specifically ocean swimming, all participants are required to sign a release of liability form. More info found here.
Hazards with ocean swimming off our coast:
Temperature: The water off our coast is relatively cold year-round. In the summer months (July, August) it can get to the upper 60’s and even low 70’s making it bearable without a wetsuit. I recommend wearing a wetsuit if it is under 68 degrees.
Wave Height: At some of our swimming locations wave heights can exceed 10 feet. In order to swim in these conditions, you must be well-versed in our dolphin diving technique to safely get under the waves. The vast majority of the time, wave height ranges from 2-5 feet which doesn’t require dolphin diving.
Rogue Waves: These are common names given to a wave that is larger than the average wave height that has been observed. These can be unpredictable waves, which may occur even on days when most of the surf looks small and unspectacular.
Rip Currents: These are powerful, channeled currents of water flowing away from shore. They typically extend from the shoreline, through the surf zone, and past the line of breaking waves. Rip currents can occur at any beach with breaking waves or where a there is a stream or outflow into the surfline. The majority of ocean rescues made by lifeguards are due to victims struggling in rip currents. The key to escaping a rip current is to not fight it, go with the flow and then swim around it or escape to the side (90 degrees from the current). (https://www.fire.lacounty.gov/lifeguard/rip-currents)
Water Quality: It is not advised to swim on our coast within 2-3 days of a heavy rain because of the pollution and runoff from nearby cities. If it rains prior to our swim, know that our swim will be canceled. We try to swim at the cleaner beaches we have. For example, although Santa Monica is slightly warmer year-round and a hot bed for open-water swimmers, the water there is consistently among the most contaminated of all Southern California beaches so we avoid it most of the year (winter swims are done here typically).
UV exposure: Ambient temperature is not an issue in the cold water, but the UV index is usually very high (9-10) out on the water. Make sure to use sunscreen on all exposed areas (biodegradable is strongly preferred). Although temp isn’t an issue, dehydration is. Make sure, to be fully hydrated in the days leading up to the swim. I have been out there when people couldn’t stop cramping before and we had to find a surfer to tow them in.
Boat Traffic: There is typically no boat traffic allowed where we swim. Surfers and paddleboarders are a potential danger when going in and out of the break. As swimmers, we yield to them to a degree because we can maneuver much more freely than they can.
- Sharks: Shark sightings off our coast are incredibly rare. I don’t know anyone who knows anyone who has seen one while ocean swimming off our coast in my 5 years of ocean swimming experience. We do stick to beaches that are moderately-highly trafficked, with lifeguards on-duty, and places I have plenty of experience in. I think the one thing that puts my mind at ease is going with a group and knowing that the best way to avoid an attack is to be calm and relaxed. So, if you’re scared of sharks, the best thing to do is to relax and be calm.
- Stingrays: The most dangerous wildlife we will encounter but evading them is easy. When traveling through the surf, it is important to drag your feet as much as you can. Stingrays hunt small invertebrates and fish in the shallows off our coast. If they sense you coming, they will swim away undetected. If you step on one, and it doesn’t have time to react it will sting you; the pain will be severe, so it is important to avoid them. Report to a lifeguard immediately if stung. (https://www.fire.lacounty.gov/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Stingray_8-5x11.pdf)
- Jellyfish: A rare occurrence, but it stings have happened. The jellyfish that will “wash-up” close to our coast are usually be very small in size and almost unnoticeable. Their stings do hurt, although not excruciating. You must report to a lifeguard. If you feel a slight sting, or see a jelly, let us know because there will likely be some more of them. (https://www.fire.lacounty.gov/lifeguard/stingrays-jellyfish)
- Dolphins: Are always a welcome sight and fairly common throughout the year. It can be intimidating to see them up close, but they have never given us any issues. Often I feel more at ease when I see them nearby.
- Seals & Sea Lions: Are almost never an issue. They are innately curious animals, so I wouldn’t put it past them to check us out a bit. Stay calm, they have never given us any issues either.
LA County Lifeguard Signals:
Orange Flags by Lifeguard Towers: Indicate areas where swimming and body-boarding is designated
Yellow Flag w/ Black Dot: hanging below American flag; signifies a swimming and body-boarding area only
Orange Cones by lifeguard tower: Indicate a safety vehicle parking zone; do not enter
Tips for Ocean Swimming:
In & Outs – Going through the breakwater
- Use breathing exercises prior to entering the water primarily focusing on exhaling completely (2x longer than the inhale). While doing this, assess the wave situation (i.e. how long between sets, how high is the crest, how long is the break zone?)
- When entering the water, get your core body, face, neck, and arms wet immediately. When wearing a wetsuit, get water into your wetsuit from the neck as quickly as you can (avoiding large amounts of sand). A wetsuit keeps you warm by holding a layer of water against your skin separate from the water external to the wetsuit. The sooner your body warms up that warm inside the wetsuit, the warmer you’ll be.
- As you get wet, focus on exhaling completely in order to counteract hyperventilation. If you can’t do this, you cannot continue on. Be sure to drag your feet to avoid stepping on stingrays.
- Going through the waves is relatively simple, but is often the most dangerous part of the swim.
- Dolphin Dives – are required for waves over head height. This is hopefully something you have done in practice many times. Here is a video of dolphin dives if you are unsure (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RnW4V26J478). The key is to go under the wave till it passes. On our coast, this will mean going down to the sand and grabbing onto it.
- Jump Over – Waves at shoulder height or lower can easily be jumped over. If you can keep your chest above the wave it will not topple you.
- Stand your Ground – Waves up to shoulder height you may also simply face sideways and lean into the wave.
- Going through waves is the most energetically costly portion of the ocean swim. Therefore, we want it to go buy quickly. As soon as you encounter a wave, it will move you towards the shore. In order to make it out of the break water (surf), you must swim/run (sliding feet if possible, stingrays remember...) immediately following the crest of the wave. Sometimes waves come pretty quick (every 2-3 seconds). It can be like taking two steps forward, one step back. You can easily make getting through 6-7 waves be more 14-15, which will tire anyone out. It’s also important to keep moving because others can’t hang out in this zone to wait for you for their own safety and the safety of the group.
- Once through the surf, regroup with everyone else and be clear again on directions of travel.
- When returning to shore, always sight behind you or swim occasional backstroke to observe the waves and when they’ll start breaking.
- Body Surf – hold your body stiff like a surfboard w/ arms extended angled towards the beach, kick hard!
- Stand up and Jump – again only if at shoulder height
- Turn around and dolphin dive into the wave if it is large. Swim behind the wave as soon as you surface to get to smaller waves quickly
Swimming Straight -
- Sighting – Try not to arch your back when lifting your head, keep the head as low as possible (may be hard with waves) when sighting, and breathe after you sight. The less you sight the better, but swimming straight is more important. Sighting every 6th stroke or so is about as often as you want to sight.
- Technique – Rotate & Swim with Distance Per Stroke (long & strong); Keep your neck relaxed as much as possible
- Kicking – Use your legs to help balance your body through the waves. Wavy conditions require more kicking to help stabilize you