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Navigating the Contrasts of Calm vs. Rough Water

Updated: Apr 25


Folks choose to swim in open water for a variety of reasons. During COVID, it was a mix of available water access, eagerness to connect to nature, and having a safe space to train. Before for and since, swimmers are drawn to the vastness of the lakes, rivers, and seas for tranquility and the exhilarating challenge that open water conditions can bring.


In this post, I want to delve into the differences between calm and rough conditions in open water swimming, and offer some suggestions for managing rough water.


Calm Open Water Conditions

Tranquility and Focus

  • Calm open water conditions offer a sense of serenity and peace, inviting swimmers to immerse themselves fully in the beauty of their natural surroundings.

  • The absence of tumultuous waves allows for uninterrupted focus, enabling swimmers to tune into their breathing and stroke technique with precision.

Zoning Out

  • Calm waters provide an ideal setting for mental relaxation and rejuvenation.

  • The rhythmic motion of swimming in placid seas can induce a meditative state, promoting mental clarity and stress relief.

Optimal Visibility

  • Clear, calm waters offer unparalleled visibility, allowing swimmers to appreciate the vibrant marine life and underwater landscapes below.

  • Clear waters contribute to a sense of safety and security, being able to see upcoming obstacles and risks.


Rough Open Water Conditions

Nature's Fury/Getting Frisky:

  • Powerful waves can lead to difficulty getting full breaths or sticking to ideal technique.

  • Currents can change the swimming pace, requiring attention to timing, distance, and feeds.

  • Currents, wind, and waves can throw swimmers off route by pulling their bodies in different directions.

  • Maintaining balance and stability becomes a constant struggle, relying on strong core and back muscles to maintain consistent pulls and kicking.

  • Sighting can be difficult, with waves, whitecaps, debris, rollers, and murky water obstructing views to stay on course.

Mental Fortitude:

  • Swimming in frisky conditions is often scary, and if you're having physical responses (like nausea, coughing, vertigo), you might be fighting the conditions on two fronts (mental and physical).

  • Non-stop battering can cause a swimmer to lose determination and hope that they'll be successful in completing the swim.


Managing Rough Water

Technique adjustments

  • In calm waters, a swimmer can have different speeds, and even be able to rest with longer strokes. In rough waters, a swimmer may have to keep the intensity higher than average through longer periods of the swim. A swimmer may be more tired, despite covering the same or shorter distance.

  • For choppy waters, using a stroke where there's always an arm in streamline in front of you will help reduce resistance and keep your body more stable.

  • Be prepared to breathe only to one side for a while if waves are crashing on one side of your body so you're able to get breaths more consistently.

  • Sight more frequently and adjust your route if you're getting blown off course.

Safety and Visibility

  • Having appropriate hydration, nutrition, and equipment is more important in rough waters; you may need to have more calories to maintain higher intensity levels, or drink more to accommodate sweating. Be sure to have some "oh sh!t" feeds if you're throwing up and unable to keep your regular feeds down, like peaches, mint tea, or plain water.

  • You may not be as visible in rough water. Be prepared to stick closer to shorelines and have a tall enough tow float (like a Quackpacker, sitting 18 inches above the water) so motor boats can still see you above the waves or chop.

  • Know when to pull the plug. You may not be swimming through the storm yet, but if you see lightning off in the distance, it's more important to stay safe than finish your swim. Having emergency walking supplies, like a towel or mylar blanket, shoes, wallet, phone, and medications in your tow float will help you be comfortable and safe on shore if you have to get out in a place other than where you started. That's one of the main reasons Wild Waters designed the Quackpacker OG - so swimmers can bring their safety equipment and be prepared for anything.

Be patient and have empathy

  • Sympathize with other swimmers or boaters in the water; in rough conditions, it's much harder to stay in line paddling with a swimmer. Your kayaker might be having their own rodeo, and you'll need to be prepared to delay or skip feeds, adjust how far you swim from your crew, or how long you take to feed.

  • If there's a headwind, your paddler may not be able to keep up with you, and you might be asked to change your strategy to make forward progress.

  • Remember that every person is different, and although you may be doing okay, your crew or swim buddy may not be. Check in with your team regularly to make sure everyone is safe. If a swimmer is unable to keep up due to the conditions, or your paddler is throwing up for hours, it may be better to turn around or call for help before there's a life-endangering incident.


Swimming in different conditions can be fun and rewarding. Training in rough and choppy conditions can prepare swimmers for the "worst case" scenarios for open water events. Rough water training also strengthens different muscles and pushes swimmers to learn how to adapt their strokes. Being mentally and physically prepared for the challenges rough conditions will bring by having the right equipment and mindset will help folks become better swimmers, connect with their bodies, and commune with nature.




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