Ocean Survival Swimming Part 3 – Ocean Swimming Training

by Nancy Soares on January 12, 2015

Editor’s note: Once again, this portion of Eric’s thesis on Ocean Survival Swimming is published as is. For Part 1, go to https://tsunamirangers.com/2014/09/22/ocean-survival-swimming/ For Part 2, go to https://tsunamirangers.com/2014/11/03/ocean-survival-swimming-2/and for Part 4 go to https://tsunamirangers.com/?s=ocean+survival+swimming+part+4

Diving in for an ocean swim. Pictured: Eric Soares

Diving in for an ocean swim. Pictured: Eric Soares

Once the four prerequisites to ocean swimming have been fulfilled, ocean training should begin. This training should not be undertaken alone. The ideal training situation for open ocean swimming occurs when a competent instructor (who knows rescue techniques and first aid) is present, along with a support boat, on a safe beach. Swimmers should wear wetsuits (and later don the full paddling regalia).

There are three steps to ocean swimming training. The first step is STUDYING THE WAVES. The second step is BODY SURFING. The final step is OPEN OCEAN SWIMMING. These three activities should be done in succession each time you train. They will give you the competence needed to handle ocean survival situations.

Study the waves before you swim. Pictured: TR John Lull

Study the waves before you swim. Pictured: TR John Lull

STUDYING THE WAVES. This step should be easy, since studying sea conditions is a normal activity that occurs before a kayaking excursion. This is a necessary step because it will help swimmers familiarize themselves with the conditions, and alert them to hazards and promising swimming routes. First, from a high vantage point, observe the ocean panorama. Notice the weather, the wind, the swell patterns. Look at the waves. Are they holding their crest due to an offshore breeze, or are they gnarly due to an onshore wind? Are the waves coming in fast and furious, or slow and mushy? Are the waves generally big (breaking in water over your head), or are most sets rather small (no surfers around)? Are the waves soft and easy breaking, or thick and hard breaking? Are the waves peeling to the left and/or right (ideal surf), or are they closing out (crashing everywhere at once)? Are the waves breaking on rocks, coral, or sand? Are the waves passing through kelp, driftwood, sandbars, jellyfish? Is the shoreline gradual or steep? These are questions you should ask and answer about waves.

You should also consider the tide. Is the tide flooding or ebbing? High tide sometimes causes normally safe areas near cliffs to be unsafe due to waves rebounding off rocks. Some reefs are unsafe at low tide due to exposed rocks and kelp. Incoming tides tend to increase the volume of water which make waves thicker and easier to surf. But conditions vary, depending on the area.

Local beach currents should be studied. Longshore currents flow parallel to the beach and are caused by waves angling in to the shore. A strong longshore current could cause you to drift up or down the beach and into uncharted waters. When two opposing currents meet, as between two sandbars, a strong current out to sea occurs. This is called the rip current, and can be used as a paddling channel to get you through the surf line with little effort. Locate rip currents on the beach.

The purpose behind studying waves, tides, and currents is to help you determine if the water is beyond your skill level. By inspecting the beach, you can plot where you can safely train, and can envision yourself frolicking in the waves. Body surfing is your next activity.

Mavericks, 2010. It would be safe to say that body surfing here would probably be a bad idea.

Mavericks, 2010. It would be safe to say that body surfing here would probably be a bad idea.

BODY SURFING. If you did nothing else in your life except body surf, you would be a happy person indeed. The sport is exhilarating and helps you develop respect for the ocean’s power. Here is how body surfing is done. Follow this progression:

  • with partners and/or an instructor, wade through the surf and practice diving under waves
  • face the shore in waist deep water, wait for a breaking wave to come by, dive forward as the wave hits you and plane across the surface of the wave on your stomach. Stay on the wave as long as possible. Repeat endlessly until you feel confident.
  • after mastering body surfing in waist deep water, swim with your instructor to the breakers a few hundred meters offshore. Dive under big, foamy breakers. Position yourself to be in the path of waves just beginning to break. Stay away from board and kayak surfers. As a big, cresting wave approaches, sprint toward the shore using the crawl stroke. As the breaking wave overtakes you, let yourself plan left or fight on the wave, depending upon which way it is breaking. Surf on the wave as long as possible. If the wave bursts on top of you, go limp, roll into a ball, hold your breath, and go with the flow. Do not open your eyes underwater, as the sand and salt will sear them. After the wave passes, turn out to sea and repeat the process until the sun goes down

That is the essence of body surfing. If you can body surf in big waves, you can do anything. Once you become proficient in body surfing, you will never fear kayak takeoffs and landings ever again. In fact, after body surfing for awhile, you will probably be inclined to surf your kayak in the same water you just swam in. The worst that could happen is that you get wet.

OPEN OCEAN SWIMMING. After completing body surfing, it will be time to execute swimming skills in the open ocean. With your instructor, gear, buddies, and a support boat, swim through the surfline. After swimming past the breakers, inflate your buoyancy compensator and rest for awhile. Then swim in a diamond pattern out to sea. Plan to swim against the current, wind, and swells right off, while you have the most energy. Swim back in to shore last, as this is usually easiest. Plan the swim to be about a mile in length. Each vector of the diamond should cover about a quarter of a mile.

On the first two trajectories of the diamond, you will swim against the current and the swells as you make your way out to sea. The easiest strokes to use are side stroke and breast stroke, although caution must be taken not to gag on incoming water while swimming breast stroke. The crawl will be the fastest stroke to use in this situation, and this is the time to use it – when you are fresh. On the third leg of the diamond, you will be swimming parallel to the swells. Side stroke is the best stroke to use here. Be sure you swim on the side that is facing away from the incoming swells.

On the fourth side of the diamond, the swells will push you along. Breast stroke is the best stroke to use in this situation. You should surf a bit if the opportunity presents itself. Should you tire during the open ocean swim, stop, inflate your buoyancy compensator, and rest. East some food, and drink liquid. Pull out your compass, take a few bearings, and check your signal gear. Deflate the buoyancy compensator. Then continue. After completing the diamond, body surf in to shore.

Body surf into shore. Pictured: TR Eric Soares

Body surf into shore. Pictured: TR Eric Soares

Open ocean swimming is not something you need to practice every day. Once you can do it comfortably, you have it in the bag. It would be useful to swim in the open ocean in large swells, to boost your confidence and prepare you for survival swimming situations in the ocean.

We hope you have enjoyed this post on Ocean Swimming Training. Next up in this series will be Survival Swimming Tactics. We’d love to hear your feedback on this topic. Have you ever had to swim for your life?

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Rainer Lang January 13, 2015 at 10:37 pm

I love the picture of Eric diving into the ocean; he looks like a Merman or a seal. Fully adapted and in tune with the environment.

There are many good points in this thesis. I want to go body surfing…



Nancy Soares January 15, 2015 at 9:49 am

Yes, I plan on doing more ocean swimming this year. I have a friend who is interested in learning to kayak. He’d never swum in the ocean or been in a kayak and Rebekah Kakuk and I took him out for the first time last week to Trinidad. We got a great weather window on Wednesday and took him swimming and paddling. He did great. Now the plan is to take him to a local lake to teach him specific strokes and to Crescent City to do a little ocean swimming and body surfing a la Eric. Really looking forward to it.


Tony Moore January 16, 2015 at 9:09 am

You know, the funny thing is that the Tsunami Rangers have such a reputation for recklessness, and yet these ocean survival swimming articles demonstrate the preparation and great regard for safety while being in real conditions. This information is invaluable for anyone venturing out into the open ocean and coastal areas. In one form or another, (sometimes through trial and error!), I have practiced and done these things. Great series of articles!


Nancy Soares January 17, 2015 at 3:39 pm

No kidding! I absolutely agree with you Tony, although I have to say that in recent years I think the perception of the Rangers as reckless is fading, primarily because more and more people are taking whitewater skills to the ocean. It’s not that unusual any more, and people realize that it’s not that big a deal if you plan and prepare as you say. I’m so glad you’re enjoying the series – there will be one last post to finish it up soon.


Jim Kakuk January 16, 2015 at 5:17 pm

I have been in a few situations where I have had a difficult swim, it goes with the sport of Ocean kayaking along the exposed coast. Mostly though I swim, body surf and snorkel for the fun of it and sometimes to gather food from the sea. Overall I would say that swimming in the ocean is the best in-water activity and being comfortable swimming in the conditions that you paddle in could save your life someday.


Nancy Soares January 17, 2015 at 3:48 pm

Hey, Jim, I hope you’re having a great time in NZ! I agree with you 100% about swimming in the ocean. I actually took a fairly long swim last week trying to get up on a sea stack – I jumped out of my boat thinking I’d just climb up the rocks and pull the boat after me (I was in the X-0 but there wasn’t a place to do a seal landing). The swells were pretty active wrapping around from both sides and were bouncing me back and forth and up and down so I couldn’t get in. It was so ridiculous I started laughing – no danger just why can’t I go sideways??? Finally there was a lull and I made it. However, it was really fun swimming because the water was so aerated it felt so light and boofy and I didn’t mind waiting until the swells let up so I could land.


Jim January 11, 2016 at 6:14 pm


There are no links to Ocean Survival Swimming parts 1 and 2 in part 3.



Nancy Soares January 12, 2016 at 9:50 am

We’ll fix that! Here’s Part 1 https://tsunamirangers.com/2014/09/22/ocean-survival-swimming/ Part 2 https://tsunamirangers.com/?s=ocean+survival+swimming+part+2 and Part 4 just for good measure https://tsunamirangers.com/?s=ocean+survival+swimming+part+4

Thanks for the correction, Jim! I also added the links in the Editor’s note above.


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