Ocean Swim Entry Basics

This is assuming you’re familiar with the gear post. You can read that here.

If you’re a bodysurfer, surfer, or have extensive experience with the ocean, you can skim or even skip this post. This is for those unfamiliar with swimming in the ocean. Even if you’re an accomplished pool swimmer, possibly a D-1 Swimmer, you benefit by reading about what to expect. Sometimes it’s the most accomplished pool swimmers who are most likely to have panic attacks when transitioning to swimming in the ocean. Take your time so that you can understand a little bit about Poseidon’s Pool. It’ll help reduce your anxiety, because knowing is half the battle.

First, be prepared for cold, or at least cool water

Basically, be prepared for the cold, or at least cool, water of the ocean. It’s been below 60 F for most of the past 6 months as of late June, 2023, with only a few exceptions. Even with a wetsuit it can be a bit of an initial shock to the system entering the water. This can sometimes take your breath away, if not rob you of some of your confidence, at least for a moment.

To Counteract the Cold

First, warm yourself from the inside out. That’s the best open water swim advice I’ve ever heard. A veteran English Channel swimmer on her vlog mentioned that hot fluids before, during (if possible), and after your swim are the most important factors of maintaining body heat. So, definitely bring a thermos with a hot beverage all the way to Tower 9. You can drink it right before entering and after exiting the water. It’ll help offset mild hypothermia afterward if the water is cooler or even just stop you from shivering, assuming you can consume it within a few minutes of ending your swim.

Even if the water is warmer, the sun is shining, and there’s no wind during your first foray into the ocean, the hot beverage can help. By the very least, hydrating helps. And the warmth coursing through your body can return you back to normalcy. Once you experience it for yourself, you’ll understand.

One of the goals to keep in mind is anxiety management, especially if you’re new to ocean swimming. If you can wear a wetsuit, and/or a neoprene cap under a silicone cap, combined with drinking hot fluids immediately prior to entering the ocean, that will go a long way to offset the cold.

Also, don’t worry about being the last one in or the last one beyond the breakers. We intentionally move slowly in the first part of our swim. Part of that is to allow our bodies to adjust to the cold and part of it is to warm up our bodies for the exertions to come. 

Wearing a wetsuit, it’ll take somewhere between 3-7 minutes, on average, for your body to adjust to the water temp once you’re fully submerged. A wetsuit allows a little to a lot of water in, depending on the fit. This layer of water surrounding your body takes some time for your body to warm it. The topic of your head and extremities is another topic which will be addressed in a later post.

Without a wetsuit – commonly called ‘trunking it’ – you might take a little longer to adjust to the cold. The leaner you are, the less acclimated you are, the colder the water is, the less your head is covered, and the emptier your stomach, the longer this takes. But, when your body does adjust, it’s an amazing experience. It’s as if your body turns on an internal furnace and you feel heat emanating from your core. Still, though, it’ll take some time to fully adjust, or at least for the cold not to be the dominating thought in your mind.

Shuffle In and Out through the Surf

When you enter the water, if you want to avoid stingray stings, be sure to shuffle your feet. Think of keeping your feet on the sand as you enter the water. Keep stepping forward with your feet still keeping on the sand. Imagine yourself doing a forward moonwalk. That way, stingrays are well aware of your presence and can depart before getting stepped on and stinging you before it’s too late. Stingray stings are painful.

Stingray Sting Treatment

If you are stung by a stingray, call 911. The lifeguards are on the 911 line in Huntington Beach. Just be sure to tell them where you are. If you’re with us, you’re at HB City Beach Tower 9. They have hot water tubs set up just for this eventuality. HB Guards are seasoned veterans when it comes to stingray stings.

If you can’t call 911:

Wash the area. Remove any debris, such as sand, from the wound site. Soak the wound in the hottest water you can tolerate for 30 -90 minutes. This is about how long it takes the pain to subside. Sometimes, longer.

Stagger for Shorebreak

OK. Some other points about entry: If there are shorebreak waves, which there often are, enter the water with a boxer/wrestler/staggered stance. That way, you are presenting less surface area to the wave so as to minimize the force of impact. You can keep shuffling forward until you’re in water as deep as your waist. At that point, you can start swimming. Some prefer to keep walking until they’re about neck deep in the water or the waves force them to swim. Whatever you choose is fine. We just want you to enter the water any way you can.

What about the Outer Waves? AKA Primary Break

We duck-dive to avoid the impact of the waves. If you’re a surfer, you already know about this. If not, let me explain: the impact of a wave can be quite strong. If you’re struck directly by a wave, it’ll not only push you a little ways back to shore, but it can tumble you so you become disoriented or at least hold you underwater for what might seem too long. To avoid such unpleasantness, you’ll want to duck dive. Other than the mechanics of a duck-dive itself, the timing is of utmost importance. 

TimingYour Duck Dive

If there’s a wave forming, you should be fine unless you start to see some foam. It usually forms first on the top of a wave. If you see any foam in any part of an oncoming wave, you’ll want to start your dive, usually about 3-5 yards in front of the foam of the wave. Be sure to get some forward momentum before diving. Waves can pull you back to shore at least slightly, so it’s best to get some forward motion when you duck dive into a wave.

As you dive, you’ll want to dive about 30-40 degrees below the surface. Basically, you want to keep going forward, but moving down as well. Without getting into too much detail here, you just want to be 2-3 feet below most waves to avoid the impact force. You do that, and you should be fine.

If the waves are bigger, you will want to dive deeper and faster, just to avoid the impact of the waves. To do this, you can dive much closer to straight down.

Some details on duck dive technique

Keep your hands mostly in front of you, unlike in the video. Otherwise, great form except that you’ll want to dive a little downwards to avoid wave impact.

*In the above video, she has amazing technique. Most of us will have to take underwater pulls every few seconds and surface after 1,2, or 3 pulls. Also, she is not contending with waves. This makes a big difference. You’ll want to keep your hands in a superman position as scraping the bottom of the ocean is a concern during duck dives.*

Keep your hands in front of you, almost in a superman cruising position. That way, if you hit the bottom, your hands will hit first and you can slow yourself down before hitting your head on the bottom of the ocean. I neglected to mention this to a swimmer and he got a gash on his head. So, please keep this point in mind.

When you are duck-diving, be sure to make 1,2, or even 3 pulls underwater. Think an underwater breaststroke or butterfly pull underwater. If you need a visual, look at experienced swimmers pushing off the wall in the Olympics. I think they call these underwaters. You can move quite quickly doing this. Just keep in mind that you want to be 2-3 feet below the surface of the water while duck diving to avoid waves.

Don’t pull underwater for so long that you are gasping for air when you break the surface of the water. Another wave could be there to greet you. This will be unpleasant. A lot of the basics of open water swimming at first can be summarized as anxiety management. Being out of breath just as another wave appears can cause you anxiety.

The Tom Method:

Reach your hands and grab the sand. Then, use your hands to grip the bottom to pull you forward. If you’re old enough, you might remember this method employed by Batman in the TV series with Burt Ward when he’s climbing the side of buildings. This method seems cool and fast. My only concern is if you happen upon a stingray on the bottom of the ocean. But, Tom has been 100% with his method, so I cannot argue with his success.

Advanced side note (You can skip this if you’re only going out in smaller waves, 4 feet high or lower: If it’s a big wave, the foam zone you emerge into can be highly aerated, meaning it is less dense, making it harder for you to get your head up enough to take a breath. This usually only happens when the waves are 5’+. It’s just a side note as if you’re a beginner, you’ll want to build your skills, experience and confidence before tackling 5’+ waves.

This aerated/foamy water phenomenon is something you have to experience to understand. But, in the beginning, stick to waves 1-4 feet and you needn’t concern yourself with this detail.

Exiting the Water

There is no law against backstroke or sidestroke when you’re exiting the water. That way, you have full view of the oncoming waves behind you and you can time your dives better.

But, instead of having to duck dive when swimming to shore, you can just bob, going underneath the wave. Basically, just swimming down. That way, you avoid the impact of the wave.

One last note about this: when it is colder, the heads up part is not just about seeing and preparing for the waves. It’s also to help keep your head warmer until your body has adjusted to the water. Again, anxiety management.

When the water is shallow enough so that you can start walking, you can do so. Just remember to shuffle back to shore as you did when shuffling into the water. The stingrays could still be there.

One last point: Keep an eye on the water until you’re completely on the sand. A few swimmers have thought they were safe in only 2 feet of water, happy to be done, and then were smacked by shore break. So, keep the waves in your field of vision until you’re completely out of the water.

Once you’re back to Tower 9, enjoy your beverage and the warm feeling of your completed ocean swim!

We will articulate about different aspects of ocean swims in future posts.