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Are you navigation-challenged? Sighting 101

Let's face it: swimmers are pretty navigation-challenged (most of the time). Whether it's because the buoy is too far, the swimmer is too low in the water, or the swimmer simply can't make out a landmark to sight off of, sighting is tough in the best of times.

No swimmer wants to be the a-hole that pummels another swimmer because they're not paying attention to where they're going. So how does sighting work, and how can you use sighting techniques to swim more efficiently?

Understanding Sighting: Sighting is the act of periodically lifting your head out of the water to orient yourself and maintain your desired course. Unlike swimming in a pool where you have lane lines to guide you, open water environments offer few fixed reference points, making it crucial to develop effective sighting techniques.

The Basics:

  1. Bilateral Breathing: Practice breathing on both sides to improve your visibility and maintain balance in choppy conditions. If you're getting blinded or repeatedly hit in the face with waves on one side, you'll be able to maintain your stroke by being comfortable breathing to the other side.

  2. Frequency: Bouncing your head and shoulders up too often can disrupt your rhythm and waste energy, while sighting too infrequently can lead you off course. Aim to sight every 8-12 strokes, adjusting based on water conditions and visibility.

  3. Efficiency: Keeping your face low in the water and only lifting your eyes out of the water reduces the drag sighting creates on your stroke, and allows you to carry your speed and momentum through your pull, even though your face and shoulders are creating resistance.

Choosing Landmarks: Seeing in foggy, old, and scratched up goggles with the sun in your eyes is difficult, let alone trying to find "that one weird-looking tree" somewhere out in the distance. Look for prominent features along your intended route, such as buoys, very distinct trees, buildings, or unique geographical formations. When selecting landmarks, consider their visibility from the low point of the surface of the water and their stability against changing conditions like tides, currents, and fog.

Side note: One year at the Kingdom Swim event, my kayaker and I sighted off what we thought was a course buoy. It turned out that an event boat had been pulling course buoys as the last swimmer passed them, and this particular buoy wouldn't unscrew to deflate. What we were looking at wasn't the course marker in the water - it was the buoy on a moving boat, and we kept shifting our navigation off a moving target. It disappeared behind a shoreline, and we realized we had gone waaaay off course following the boat returning to a different shore to drop off the faulty buoy. Fun times, said the swimmer to their annoyed kayaker. Pro tip: make sure you're not chasing a fake course buoy on a moving boat!

Using Natural Cues: In addition to man-made landmarks, you can also utilize natural cues to guide your way:

  1. Sun: In the absence of clouds, the position of the sun can provide directional cues. Learn to gauge the sun's position relative to your course and adjust accordingly. If you're swimming in early morning or close to sunset, consider whether swimmers on your course will be able to see you. The glare of the sun on the water can make you or other swimmers invisible to each other, even if you're sighting.

  2. Wind and Currents: Observing the direction of the wind and the flow of currents can help you anticipate their impact on your swim and make necessary adjustments to stay on course. Swimming in the rivers in and around Portland, my pod and I have to account for fighting the current in one direction, and getting pushed in the other. If there is chop that requires higher sighting, I end up creating even more resistance, which will impact how quickly I can fight the current.

  3. Waves: Pay attention to the pattern and direction of waves, using them as a reference point for navigation. If you were getting hit in the face with waves, and now they're hitting your left side, why did that direction change?

Advanced Techniques:

  1. Elevation Sighting: In rough conditions or when visibility is limited, elevate your sighting position by lifting your head slightly higher out of the water to get a clearer view of your surroundings. If you're really struggling to get a bearing due to frisky conditions, doing a stroke or two breaststroke or butterfly can be helpful instead.

  2. Drift Correction: Monitor your pace and make subtle adjustments to counteract any drift caused by currents or wind, ensuring you stay on track towards your destination. Although swimmers typically aren't heavily impacted by wind, the waves created by high winds, as well as any accompanying tide or current, can drive a swimmer way off course. If you're finding your pace is being significantly impacted by the conditions, you may decide to adjust your feed schedule or trajectory. In some waterways, swimming closer to shore can help mitigate environmental factors.

The waters may be frisky and sunny, but with the right techniques and strategies, you can be a swimmer who isn't as navigationally-challenged. By mastering the art of sighting, you'll not only stay on course but likely overtake other swimmers who aren't sighting correctly (or at all) and stick to your intended mileage.

Happy sighting!

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