When you swim for fitness, it is easy to become bored with the pool. The monotony of staring at the bottom of the lane, lap after lap, can lead to an affliction I like to call "black line fever." • You won't find this ailment in any medical journal but head down to the beach on a summer's day and you are bound to run into one or two former sufferers who have sought relief in the open water of the Gulf of Mexico. • For some, open water swimming is a welcome release. For others, it is an unnerving experience. • "A lot of triathletes don't like to train in open water because they are scared," said Rory O'Connor, a former Navy SEAL and swimming coach. "But there is only one way to get good at it and that is to just get out there and do it."
Take the plunge
The St. Pete Mad Dogs Triathlon Club hosts regular open water swims every Wednesday night on Pass-a-Grille Beach. This is a great way to meet other open water enthusiasts and help shake those swimming pool blues. (And though we're all watching for evidence in Florida of the gulf drilling platform disaster, experts say the oil likely will miss Tampa Bay area beaches for now.)
If you like the open water, you might consider entering an organized race. Most competitive, open water swims are "around the buoy" events that range from 1K (about 0.6 miles) to 3 miles. There are longer swims, such as the 24-mile Tampa Bay Marathon Swim held each year on Earth Day. (For information, go to www. distancematters.com).
One of the hardest skills for most open water swimmers to master, whether swimming for fitness or competition, is navigation. Ocean swimmers have no black lines to follow.
So swimmers must master bilateral breathing and practice swimming with their heads out of the water, which helps in sighting buoys in rough seas. While freestyle may be the stroke of choice, it helps to have a strong backstroke, which can help you keep track of a buoy line behind and move in a straight line.
"Breaststroke is also a good resting or sighting stroke," said O'Connor, who is one of the organizers of the annual Frogman Swim across Tampa Bay. "It is also a good idea to get out and swim a course before a race so you know what to expect."
Tampa Bay's beaches seldom experience the dangerous rip currents that plague so many east coast and Panhandle beaches.
Rip currents form when water brought in by waves rushes back out to sea, riverlike, through a channel that runs along a deep spot on the ocean floor. Four out of five rescues on U.S. beaches are the result of rip currents.
If you are caught in a rip, don't fight it. Swim parallel to shore until you feel the current slack. Then swim to the beach.
A more common threat here on the west coast is a longshore current. These currents run parallel to the shore and usually occur during winter cold fronts and summer tropical storms.
Longshore currents are a force to be reckoned with and are sometimes strong enough to knock an adult off his or her feet.
So swim near a lifeguard. If no lifeguard is on duty, think twice about entering the water on a rough day if you're not an experienced swimmer. Clearwater Beach and Fort De Soto Park both have professional lifeguard staffs and well-patrolled waterfronts ideal for those new to the sport.
Beware of boats
Chances are the most dangerous creature you will encounter on the water is your fellow man. Open water swimmers should keep an eye out for boats and personal watercraft.
Most local beaches have a clearly marked Safe Bathing Limit (SBL). Stay inside the buoys. Lifeguards do a good job of keeping personal watercraft away from swimmers. But on beaches not patrolled by lifeguards, swimmers should exercise caution.
A brightly colored swim cap will make you more visible to boaters and rescue personnel. If possible, swim with a partner — there is safety in numbers. Never swim alone.
Though the chances are slim, open water swimmers occasionally do get attacked by sharks. To lower the risk of becoming part of their food chain, don't swim alone at dawn or dusk. Avoid murky water and swimming near passes or inlets.
You are more likely to be stung by a jellyfish or Portuguese man-of-war or step on a stingray while you are getting into the water.
Because of the threat of alligators, many Florida lakes could be considered unsafe for swimming, though the triathletes training in the Central Florida town of Clermont don't seem to be bothered by that area's reptiles.
Terry Tomalin, a former Clearwater Beach lifeguard, made his last major foray into open water at the Frogman Swim across Tampa Bay on Jan. 2.