Love to go for a swim? Why not push yourself and give the open water a go? Sophie tells us everything you need to know about open water swimming in Sydney.
Swapping Chlorine For Salt
I love swimming so much that the faintest smell of chlorine fills me with endorphins. There are few better sensations than racing through clear water, taking deep breaths in and out, feeling the sun shining on my back. Unfortunately, COVID has other plans than fulfilling my daily 2km goal, and every pool in Sydney remains closed until further notice.
In June, I sobbingly stored my swimsuit away, and dug up the sneakers instead. One day, I was on yet another lockdown coastal walk, lamenting the good old swimming days when I finally thought: why not swap chlorine for salt?
Why Swim in the Ocean?
Scary. Cold. Dark. Dangerous. The ocean can seem all of the above, and let’s face it, at first, it is. But like any other new experience in life, the anticipation of danger yields more fear than the moment itself. If you start slow and arm yourself with the best tools and attitude, you’ll soon become addicted.
Swimming in the ocean has multiple benefits. Aside from it being free and open for business all day every day, it’s also your very own private training space in breathtaking landscapes. There’s plenty of room for everyone (literally an ocean), even on the hottest of summer days. If you feel like escaping the crowds, just go a little further from the shore, and you’ll be virtually by yourself to enjoy the views and swim at your chosen pace.
Emptiness and solitude. This isn’t the title of my new emo song, but the overpowering feeling of open water swimming, especially in deep water. The awareness of being completely alone in a vast space of nothing is exhilarating, yet also terrifying.
Not knowing what’s under the surface is worse than knowing… or is it? It’s only natural to be afraid of deep water and the possibility of some undesired and possibly lethal company, but let’s look at the data and put things in perspective.
Since 2017, The Taronga Conservation Society has only recorded 12 fatal shark attacks in Australian waters. 12 deaths in five years – and you know how much Aussies love a swim. You must agree that the chances of you being in a shark’s next HelloFresh box is nearly zero. Nearly zero is not zero, I hear you, so let’s take a step back and start very slow. Follow the tips below to discover where to swim safely in Sydney and work your way into deeper waters as you build your confidence.
Where to Ocean Swim in Sydney
Rock Pools, Harbours, and Bays
If you’re a true beginner and nervous about open water swimming, start with rock pools. Sheltered from currents and waves, rock pools can be found at most beaches (the Coogee area has the most in Sydney), and they give you the saltwater experience along with gorgeous views.
Check out these Rock Pools on Sydney’s Northern Beaches
Another option is to trial harbour swimming, with my personal favourite being Vaucluse’s Parsley Bay, a stunning netted enclave protected from boats and big naughty fish.
When you feel ready for the real deal, start with narrow and shallow bays naturally guarded from strong currents and waves, such as Clovelly or Gordon’s Bay. Both are famous for snorkeling where you can explore a variety of fish while getting a safe workout.
Once you’re ready for deeper water, it’s time to hit the bigger beaches. The problem is they’re as temperamental as government COVID guidelines: no two days are the same. To know whether or not the conditions are good use a surf app such as the very popular Magic Sea Weed. While surfers love big waves, us swimmers like it as flat as a day-old beer.
The two main things to pay attention to when reading a surf report are the height of the waves and the direction of the wind. The first can make your entry and exit from the ocean hazardous. The swim itself beyond the waves might be swell (pun intended), but getting yourself in and out can be a washing machine experience. Personally, when the waves are forecast to be above six feet, I dismiss my go-to beach for the day.
As for the direction of the wind, an onshore wind is more likely to create choppy conditions very uncomfortable to swim in (queue the deep lung cleanse nobody asked for). Look for ‘green’ days, characterised by offshore light winds. Bonus if the tide is high – it’ll give you more visibility of the ocean floor.
Another aspect to consider is the practicality of the location, in terms of accessibility, parking, and facilities. Most beaches have toilets and showers, some even have free lockers (Coogee and Maroubra have Yellowbox).
Essential Gear For Ocean Swimming
While you wait for the perfect conditions to align, heat up your credit card because you have some shopping to do. Like my Dad used to say, ‘a good scout is a well equipped one’.
The basic must-haves for ocean swimming are a bathing suit and swim goggles. Forget the first, and you’ll get in trouble with the locals. Forget the second, and you‘ll be crying your eyes out for days.
Next up, you should definitely also buy the following:
Good wetsuits are pricey, but if well taken care of, they’ll last for years and will keep you warm-ish in the winter months (the ocean temperature in Sydney is around 15 degrees at its coldest in August).
To care for a wetsuit properly, put it on gradually and without digging your nails into the neoprene (many use gloves, haute couture style!). Once you’re done swimming, rinse it thoroughly inside and out with fresh and cold water as soon as possible, and hang it to dry in the shade on a chair or line dryer, not on a coat hanger.
A silicone cap is essential to keep your head warm in cold water. I recommend buying a cap made for long hair such as this Speedo, as its length will better cover your ears and prevent water from getting in. Choose a bright colour that’ll make you stand out in the sea, and rinse it thoroughly along with your goggles.
Self-explanatory, earplugs help prevent water from getting into your ears, which can seriously damage your ears in the long run.
– A smartwatch
Garmin, Apple, and Fitbit have plenty of options for open water swimmers. Not only will the watch help you keep track of time (duh!), but they can also measure the intensity of the workout, and supply you with a map of your whereabouts which make great Insta stories to post afterward.
Fins will make you swim faster, relieve your upper body and increase your leg power in the long run. They’re a great accessory to explore more of the ocean in a single session, while toning your legs.
– A snorkel
Snorkels allow for a full and straight focus right ahead without having to turn your head to breathe and risk inhaling water from a choppy wave.
Safety Info You Need to Know
The following guidelines are very important to ensure you swim as safely as possible. Please also check the surf life saving website for tips.
Swim in Groups
Joy is the only thing that multiplies when shared (aww). For real, swimming with mates is not only safer, it also gives you a fantastic feeling of communal achievement and will make you challenge yourselves more.
Check out Facebook groups to find fellow swimmers in your area. If you swim alone, make sure you tell a friend where you are, and when they can expect another text to say you’re okay.
Beware of Rips
If you get caught in a rip, swim parallel to the beach until you reach a safer spot to exit the ocean. If you’re struggling and require assistance, don’t scream, it’ll only exhaust you faster. Raise your arm as high as you can to attract attention.
Don’t Swim After Heavy Rains
Heavy rainfall can make the city’s sewage network overflow, which can heavily pollute the water and make you extremely ill if ingested. Yikes.
Avoid Swimming in Schools of Fish
It may seem fun to be in the middle of this wriggly party, but keep in mind schools of fish are an all-you-can-eat buffet for predators. The chances are slim, but let’s not tempt the devil.
Lots of it, on every exposed surface. You’re even more vulnerable to UV rays in the water, so make sure you use the strongest protection possible, such as a zinc based sunscreen, even in winter.
Make sure you drink loads of water before heading off to the ocean, otherwise you’ll be more subject to cramping.
Making Your Ocean Swim Comfy
Now that you’ve got the basics covered, here are some extra tips to make your swim sessions as snug as possible:
To prevent the wetsuit from chafing on the back of your neck (the velcro in particular), apply Vaseline or Paw Paw to your skin prior to swimming.
To prevent your goggles from fogging, apply a thin layer of toothpaste to the inside of your (dry) goggles, let them dry completely and rinse out thoroughly.
Spill the Tea
In winter, bring a thermos bottle of hot water with you to the beach. When you’re done swimming and have removed your wetsuit, pour the warm water onto your feet to warm them up – they’ll be feeling like popsicles by then.
Slip your cold feet into Ugg boots after your session to keep them warm, and bring a beanie and gloves to warm up your head and hands.
Another surefire way to keep warm in your wetsuit is to…I’m going to say it…wee in it. Yes, it’s gross, and the first few times, you’ll feel like you should be grounded for doing it. The truth is: everyone does it, and it works, so let’s get over it.
If you feel like you can withstand the cold water without your wetsuit, know that removing it while still in the water is much easier than out. Give it a go, you’ll feel more alive than ever. If you take it off on solid ground, be sure to be seated, otherwise you’ll hop around like a one-legged flamingo.
Open water swimming requires a bit more preparation (practical and mental) than heading to the pool for a few laps, but the rewards you reap from ocean swims are incomparable.
Between physical and mental challenges, phenomenal views, wildlife sightings, and heartwarming comradery with your mates, the sea has so much to give, and never ceases to amaze.
So buy your gear, dip your toes in and find out for yourself but remember to take it slow. Like my friend Luke likes to say, ‘be humble, or the ocean will force you to be’.