Swimming in the surf can be an entirely different experience to a flat-water swim. There’s numerous additional skills that come into play, many of which can only be gained through experience – it’s often not the strongest pool swimmers that end up coming out first in a surf swim!
Whilst not the ideal format for teaching these skills, the following may help to make your surf swim less tiring and scary than it needs to be.
Obviously this advice is issued as-is with no guarantees! Always speak to the lifeguards on duty and listen to their advice – they know the conditions best.
- Talk to the lifeguards beforehand and ask what tips they can give you on the conditions that day. If you’re a strong swimmer, and the waves are big, they may point out a rip that you can swim out in. If the surf is of decent size, it’ll be much quicker taking that out – even if you have to run 100m along the beach to get to it. Once you’re out the back, swim perpendicular to it and you’ll exit the rip easily. Generally the bigger the surf, the more evident (and advantageous) the rip will be – you may be able to spot it yourself – it’ll be up to 50m wide, and the waves won’t be breaking as heavily or consistently through that section; it may seem a bit flat and still. If you’re not confident swimming in a rip, don’t try this – just swim with the rest of the group!
- Running from the beach, lift your knees high through the water until it gets too hard to do so. Then start porpoising through the water (diving forward, grabbing the sand, pushing off for another dive) until it’s past waist height. Then start swimming. Don’t start swimming earlier than you have to.
- If it’s high tide, the waves will be less dumpy and more full. Low tide will generally produce dumpier waves closer to shore. It should be easier to find a rip on the outgoing tide.
- When you are swimming, keep sighting every few breaths for oncoming waves. A few meters before they get to you, dive beneath, wait until you feel it wash past, then propel to the surface and keep swimming. The bigger the wave, the deeper you need to dive so it doesn’t wash you back. It should be all one continuous motion – no stopping!
- If it’s big, make sure you don’t panic or get flustered. Just stay relaxed and keep moving forward.
- Waves break in sets – you’ll get 3 or so bigger waves come through every few minutes (the set waves), which will obviously make getting out harder when they do. Depending on size (and if you’re not in a rip), it may be hard to make much ground when the bigger sets are coming through. If so, just conserve your energy and hold your ground by diving a couple of meters under each one until it passes, then when the last of the set waves has passed and there’s a slight clearing, SPRINT.
- Getting back in will depend entirely how adept you are at bodysurfing, a skill that’s difficult to learn well in a short period. Experienced surf swimmers will get to the breaking zone and slow down until a good wave comes, then catch it into shore; most people can’t do that and have to swim all the way, getting battered by the waves. You can always try though…
- It’s much much easier catching waves just before they’re about to break, on the clean surface. It’s very hard to catch waves that are already broken. If you see a wave coming (just checking behind you as you swim), wait until it’s a few metres back and then sprint, with a big kick. You should feel the wave pick you up and your feet will start to lift as you get on it. When you’re definitely on the wave flying down the face, stiffen your body like a plank, with one hand out front to surf on. The wave will crash down, you’ll feel like a rag doll, but if you keep your body very straight and stiff, you should be able to stay on. At that point you need to do a big kick, and a few strokes to keep at the front of the wave. Then just keep kicking, stroking with one arm with the other arm straight out front, and taking a breath when you can.
- Once you get to waist deep level (and assuming you’re not on a wave to take you further), do the opposite of what you did at entry – porpoise, then switch to high knee running through the shallows.
So that’s an online version of surf swimming 101… If you’re a reasonable swimmer, you should be fine, particularly if you go down the day before and speak to the lifeguards before practicing!