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open water swimming sighting techniques

-By: Ricardo Correia

Last modified: September 2, 2014

In open water swimming sighting techniques make up a core skill no swimmer or triathlete can do with out.

Much has been said about navigation in open water swimming, but as you have probably noticed, no two situations are the same. Regardless, there are a number of useful tips that apply across all situations so that you can go quicker to the the first buoy, T1 or even the finish by swimming in a straight line and not in a zig-zag.

Swimming in a straight line is the most important aspect.

1- The shortest distance is a straight line, so, we have to maintain it!

Some people have a tendency to breath off one side only. Change that, breath off both sides, of every third stroke till your swimming symmetrically and your technique is stable. Take a “peak” at the buoy or finish every 10 or 15 strokes. Do not trust those swimming alongside you, they are just as likely to get it wrong. I occasionally make this mistake, just occasionally!
You can’t navigate using the sea floor (like in a pool). So you have to spot the buoy frequently.

2- Use the wind or the tides to your favour.

Like in a boat, the captain uses the wind to make corrections on the direction of its ship, you should do the same. If the “weather” is pulling on to the left we have to make the correction that we want to make a straight line.

I.e. if there’s a cross current from the left, you’re going to need to aim for a point further to the left of the buoy so that the current ‘carries’ you in. As you can imagine, you’re not swimming in a straight line, but rather a curve (because of the movement of the sea). In this situation at a start, it’s best to start on the same side as the current, so that fewer people drift across your line and upset your rhythm.

Sighting open water swimming
Me sighting in an open water sea swimming race here in the Algarve

In light weather conditions

You have to swim differently light conditions. Train at different times of day and in different light conditions. The reflexion of the sun on the water (still water especially) can make sighting very challenging. Because of this I finally gave in and got polarized goggles; they are not mirrored, only shaded and if you are not going to be swimming backstroke, or looking in to the sun, no stress.

Loads of people asks me how to survive against the “fog” inside the goggles ? Easy, I rinse them in water , and before the open eater session a little bit of spit and a small rub inside almost all the times, although, the important part is that you must avoid putting any kind of grease, (from the skin, balms, Vaseline (triathletes ) sun block etc) inside the goggles.

The buoy isn’t the only ‘pointer’ to keep you on track..

Rocks, buildings, or even a boat that is anchored, can be good alternatives to follow to keep you on track, as these larger object can be easier to spot. But don´t use just one, use a couple.

On race day, go to the last buoy or last turn and try to understand the direction of the Finish line / T1, and the previous buoy and get an idea of objects you can use for sighting.
This trick is particularly useful in heavy seas.

The best way to overcome a heavy sea, is to try and swim at different times of day. Try to purposefully to train in choppy seas of the afternoon onshore wind. It will not be the same as swimming in a storm (we’re not suggesting you swim in dangerous conditions) but, believe me, it´s quite hard sight correctly on a day were the wind is causing a small wave pattern of only a 30 or 50 cm. So, don´t start to swim in the winter storms, just swim in different places, and in other hours of your day.

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