It’s been proven that sea water refreshes your soul and revitalises your health. Here are a few things to keep in mind before challenging yourself to an open water swim.
53-year-old Stuart Allen got into open water swimming nearly thirty years ago when he decided that triathlon was going to be his thing.
He’s been enjoying the freedom and sensation of ocean swimming ever since.
“It’s hard to describe. It’s really just a feeling of wellbeing from being in the surf and in the open water with the elements and that applies whether it’s a magical perfect day where there’s not a ripple on the ocean and sunshine beating down on you or whether it’s a really iffy weather day where it might be raining or there’s a storm blowing. It’s a very invigorating feeling getting in the open water and then that time afterwards you very much feel alive.”
Dr Sergio Diez Alvarez is the director of medicine at the Maitland and Kurri Kurri hospital in Newcastle.
He says studies have shown that simply soaking in the sea water has numerous health benefits.
“One is from the temperature of the water and that often has some relative improvements in immunity. White cell counts increase when you’re exposed to cold water and you have some improvements in parasympathetic nerve function which is the nervous system that controls your organs. The water itself can help you improve certain skin conditions because sea water is ver y rich in minerals and those minerals help to seal the skin and then things like psoriasis which is a skin disorder where people get plaque development on their skin or eczema can cause breakdown in skin.”
Dr Diez Alvarez explains that exercising in the ocean also has cardiovascular and mental health benefits for older people who are more likely to suffer from a cardiovascular disease as they age.
He recommends consulting your doctor to consider your overall cardiovascular risk before starting a new exercise regime.
“So in order to determine how much exercise you should do what I always I recommend my patients is that they grade it. So if they’ve never done exercise during the first two to four weeks they just do gentle exercise within the limits of their capacity, and then as they get fitter and fitter they’ll be able to do longer and longer periods and the intensity can also be increased, and there’s a direct correlation between the amount of exercise you do whether in water or outside of the water and your cardiovascular health.”
The 2018 National Coastal Safety Report found that 64 per cent of Australian adults are unable to swim 50 metres in the ocean without stopping.
Meanwhile, 45 per cent can’t swim or are weak swimmers in the ocean.
Allen notices that even experienced swimmers in a pool can still panic when they are out in the open water.
"Where we swim on the Gold Coast, obviously, you’ve got to get out through the break and it varies from day to day. Some days that break can be quite heavy. For an inexperienced swimmer, that can be very daunting. People with average fitness are fine as long as they can stay relaxed and confident. If they are quite anxious then they’ll fatigue very quickly.”
A 10 Year National Study of Overseas Born Drowning Deaths’ released by Royal Life Saving this year found, that foreign-born people accounted for one in four drowning deaths in Australia.
Gold Coast Open Water Swimming Club president Steve Cornelius believes its due to unfamiliarity with the techniques required to swim in our open waters.
“A lot of people that are new to the country haven’t got the swimming strength background. And I have found that I have got a Japanese lady there that’s in her forties, it took her six goes to actually get out past the wave zone because she didn’t know how to duck dive which is one of the skills you need to get under a wave.”
Stuart Allen recommends that swimmers unfamiliar with the sea join a club for support and companionship.
He is part of the Gold Coast Open Water Swimming Club run by Steve Cornelius which meets for a swim every Saturday morning at Kurrawa beach.
“On the Gold Coast, we have lifeguard towers and they’re roughly 500 metres apart so we’ll swim roughly 500 metres between the lifeguard towers and then everybody will regroup so that people aren’t swimming on their own for very long, if at all. Once everybody regroups, we’ll swim another 500 metres and people can then opt out at one kilometre or 1.5 kilometre or two kilometre. 2.5 is probably as far as we’ll go. Mostly it’s a matter of biting off those little bits and getting started in a way that you’re comfortable with and that to me is the big thing about ocean swimming that it’s fantastic to be out there but you need to be relaxed to be enjoying it."
Dr Meredith Campey is the planning and risk manager of the Beachwatch Program at the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage.
She warns that swimmers should not swim in the sea after heavy rain to avoid polluted water being discharged from the stormwater system.
Older people with weaker immune systems are at higher risks of developing illnesses or diseases from bacterial infections.
“What we find is that after heavy rain there is an increased risk of contracting illnesses like gastroenteritis and ear, eye, nose, and throat infections.”
Dr Campey advises staying away from ocean water at least one day after heavy rainfall and up to three days in harbour areas.
You can always do a visual check or visit your local beach water monitoring websites to decide whether or not to go for a swim.
“And these are things like discoloured water whether there is any odour or oil or scum in the water as well as any sort of litter which may have been washed in.”
Some may think that the biggest danger of swimming in the Australian open water is a shark attack but according to Surf Life Saving Australia, rip currents are actually the top hazard, claiming on average 19 lives a year.
Cornelius advises always swimming between the flags which are set up in areas with no rip currents.
“And a rip is a area of the coastline where the water is going out more so than coming in so therefore swimming into the shoreline in the rip area is very very difficult where a lot of people just can’t do it so that’s why we look for the flag area to swim in because we know that the water is not trying to carry us out to sea that we can go into sea without that interference.”
The ever-changing sea and weather conditions mean that your ocean swim is never quite the same.
The visibility also varies from time to time.
“Because of the swell because of the way the sweep travels and the size of the waves and just the general conditions and the weather conditions. It can be a different swim every time even though you’re swimming the same stretch of beach. Some days you can see 20, 30 metres around you whilst you’re swimming and life just looks glorious. It is a good environment to be in and other days you can’t see more than your hand in front of your face.”