Lesson #3


The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Although the Across The Lake Swim is 2.1 km, most of our swimmers insist on making it longer—by not swimming straight. Maybe they just want to spend extra time in the water? Perhaps not. Clearly, the best way to shave time off your swim: Swim straight!

So how can you swim straight if there is no line underneath us to guide you, as in a pool? You have 2 options:

  • You could just take one look at where you intend to go at the start of your swim, and then just keep your head down, like pool swimming, and hope you are swimming in a straight enough line to arrive at your intended destination (good luck with that!); or
  • You could get your bearings regularly by popping your head up to have a look at where you are going.

Today’s lesson is how to do the second option.

Do you drift right or left?

Since few of us have a perfectly symmetrical swim stroke, it is useful for you to know how much of a tendency you have to drift to the left or right when you swim in open water. If your drifting tendency is significant, you may need to pop you head up more often to correct your direction more frequently than you might like.

You may have a mechanical reason why (e.g., an asymmetric arm stroke, perhaps as a result of injury) that you can fix; or a one-sided weakness. Both of these can be affected by your wetsuit fit. But be assured that he more you swim, the more you stroke symmetry tends to improve.

So we have two drills today:

1) 40-50 strokes without looking

Start at any buoy, and look at the direction of the next buoy on the course, 50 meters. Now swim towards it without looking for 40-50 arm strokes. Where did you wind up? To the left or to the right of your intended target? Were you close or not? Were you affected by wind or waves? Did you try to use other things to guide you—like the ripples in the sand? Or shadows and sunlight? Or other swimmers?

2) Learning sighting techniques

Sighting is the process where you pop your head up briefly to get your bearings, to hone in on the target you are swimming toward by making small corrections in your swim direction, whether that is a buoy, a visible landmark on shore, or a finish line.

TIP: You should have a good idea of what you are looking for before you get into the water! Scout out your swim ahead of time.

Three basic sighting techniques:

i) Totally easy:

a) Stop, tread water, and look with your head completely out of the water, or b) do some breast stroke to get your head out of water to get your bearings.

ii) Less easy:

Integrating your sighting into your stroke rhythm is the best way to maintain your swim speed in open water. You do this by attaching your sighting head movement (lifting your head) to your turning to breathe movement.

Start by craning your neck upward (to get your eyes out of the water) as your pull starts, and look forward before you turn to breathe. If necessary (most often because of choppy water), you can get extra lift of your head by pushing down with your hand during this pull phase. You should learn to do this on both sides if you normally breathe on both sides (e.g., every three arm strokes).

iii) More difficult:

Creating “alligator eyes” between strokes is the smoothest sighting technique—this is where your eyes sit just above the surface between arm strokes, but not associated with a breath cycle. It is most effective when waters are calm and no one is in front of you, as it minimizes any body position disruption.

You do this by simply lifting your head just enough to get a glimpse of where you are going, in between breathing strokes, without altering your strokes at all.

In both of these sighting techniques, you have only a second to capture a “snapshot” of what is in front of you, a picture you can process for the next few seconds after your head goes back in the water, when you can decide whether to make any small corrections to your swim course.

3) Sighting in chop, waves, and swells

With mild chop, or when needing to see over a swimmer in front of you, you may need to lift your head slightly higher out of the water to find your target, or consider looking for a more distant landmark that is in line with your swim goal, such as a tree or building on land, or a mountain peak.

Sighting gets harder in wavy water, or when there are swells. You have to learn to feel if you are in a trough or on the crest of a wave or swell, and time your sighting to maximize your ability to see what you need to see. Otherwise you will only see water. The best way to do this is either glide until you feel yourself rising to the top of a swell, or taking another arm stroke before popping you head out.

Finally, if you continue to have problems sighting, start following any swimmers that are in front of you, who hopefully(!) have a better line of sight than you have.

4) Sighting frequency

How often you sight will depend on several factors: How much of a drifter you are, how choppy, wavy, or windy the day is, how much current there is, how difficult it is to see where you are going (e.g., grey skies, small landmarks, fogging goggles), if there are other swimmers you are trying to avoid, or if there is an upcoming turn on the course you are on.

Practice the various sighting techniques every time you are in open water, and be sure to develop sighting flexibility, especially being able to sight from both sides.


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