Open water appeals to swimmers’ sense of adventure
In the pool, there’s speed and precision.
But in the ocean, there’s the calm and surprises of nature.
That’s one of the reasons people enjoy swimming in open water, islander Karen Ong said.
“I love this feeling of exploration,” Ong said. “Actually going somewhere, it’s amazing.”
Ong began swimming about five years ago and recently branched into open-water swimming, she said.
Although she was at first nervous about swimming in the ocean, it’s given her incredible experiences, she said.
“Depending on where you go, it can be really beautiful,” Ong said. “I’ve swam in Italy and I get to see fishes go by.”
Swimming in the open water also draws people because it’s peaceful and calm, Amie Hufton said.
“Any time you’re in saltwater, there is something that’s almost meditative,” Hufton said. “No distractions. It’s just you and nature.”
Hufton has been swimming in the open water for as long as she can remember and has developed a healthy respect for the challenges of open-water swimming, she said.
This summer will be her 19th working on the Galveston Island Beach Patrol. She also coordinates Texas A&M University at Galveston’s academic diving program, she said.
Hufton’s love of the ocean mirrors a growing interest for open-water swimming among athletic communities nationwide, she said.
Across the nation, triathlons have surged in popularity and given more people a reason to try open-water swimming, Hufton said.
These races usually include swimming legs in bays, lakes or rivers.
Triathlons became Heidi Walker’s window into swimming in the waters of Galveston, she said.
Without the pool, it’s easier for swimmers to go at their own pace, Walker said.
“You also feel like you’re getting somewhere, rather than seeing the same wall over and over again,” Walker said. “There is a great sense of achievement looking back to where you’ve swam from.”
The discipline is unique in that a swimmer is completely immersed in nature, she said.
That’s the big draw for Brandon McDermott, he said.
“There’s kind of an adventure feeling every time you go out there that you can’t really get in a pool,” McDermott said. “It’s like going out hiking in the woods.”
McDermott, who worked with beach patrol for 20 years, equates swimming in a pool to running on a treadmill, he said. Swimming in the ocean, however, is more like running on a trail, he said.
The ocean can come with a slew of surprises, like jellyfish, McDermott said.
“Sometimes, they get stuck on the small of your back because it kind of forms a little eddy there,” McDermott said.
“Really the scariest thing is swimming through large schools of mullet,” McDermott said. “You see them popping out of the water like something is eating them, but you can’t see anything.”
Swimming alongside ocean creatures is just part of the daily reality of open-water swimming, said Kevin Anderson, senior guard for beach patrol.
But swimmers get used to it and that’s part of the fun, he said.
“I’m kind of nerdy about it,” Anderson said. “I really like the idea that you have to factor in the current, and the whole idea that you have to spot on a little tiny buoy.”
Swimming in open water, whether it’s in the Gulf of Mexico or in Offatts Bayou, also changes a swimmer’s stroke because of chop and currents, Anderson said.
Swimmers also have to reserve their energy because there’s no wall to hold onto, he said.
The challenge is only another draw for Ong, she said. She’s preparing a trip to San Francisco, where she’ll swim to Alcatraz Island, which will present its own challenges, she said.
“I really love learning how to operate in challenging environments,” she said.
Knowing these safety tips is incredibly important, Hufton said.
Although open-water swimming creates an alluring draw, people have to be careful, Hufton said.
“We expect to be able to control everything,” Hufton said. “When you take them out into an uncontrollable environment, you have to make a safety call based on what you’re given on that day.”
That could mean not swimming on a day you planned to if the current looks rough, Hufton said.
People should always swim with a group, she said. Swimming in the ocean alone is just too great a risk, she said.
But this also creates the added benefit of making the sport conducive to building communities, Hufton said.
“If you’re going to do an open-water swim, do it with a community of experts,” Hufton said. “Make sure you’re doing it with people who are experienced. I found them to be super inclusive.”