Like many open-water swimmers, Tim Kennedy turned to the ocean out of boredom.
"I just got tired of swimming in a pool," said the 52-year-old mortgage broker and fund manager from St. Petersburg. "I got sick of starting at those black lines, hour after hour, day after day."
Kennedy, who trains with the St. Pete Masters and the Mad Dogs Triathlon Club, has been an open-water devotee for more than a decade.
"It is addictive," he said. "It is like a runner who spends all their time on a track, then one day they cut you loose on some trails. You don't want to go back."
Over the years, Kennedy has swum the entire length of Tampa Bay and around Key West, as well as circumnavigating Manhattan.
"When you get out there, the other swimmers don't matter," he said. "You are out there pushing yourself … competing against Mother Nature."
Like most open-water devotees, Kennedy finds ocean swimming a mental release.
"It is almost like an out-of-body experience," he said. "You just let your mind wander. You swim on auto pilot. It is really an exhilarating experience."
An Olympic sport
While many think open-water swimming made its debut at the 2008 Olympics, the 1896 Athens Games featured four swims in the Bay of Zea, including a 1,200-meter event in 55-degree water and rough surf that drew an estimated 20,000 spectators.
The Beijing Games saw a 10K swim in the same basin used by canoeists and kayakers. Open-water swims have long been part of the triathlon — the 2.4-mile swim leg of the Ironman was patterned after the legendary Waikiki Roughwater Swim — but in recent years, the number of recreational ocean events has been increasing.
Most competitive, open-water swims are "around the buoy" races range in length from 1K to 3 miles, though some events, such as the annual Swim around Manhattan Island Marathon Swim (28.5 miles) are much longer.
Unlike in a pool, where swimmers have black lines to follow, open water enthusiasts must learn how to navigate while they swim. So open-water swimmers must master bilateral breathing and practice swimming with their heads out of the water, which helps in sighting buoys in rough seas.
While most ocean swimmers use freestyle, it also pays to have a strong backstroke and breaststroke. At times, keeping track of a buoy line behind you can help you move in a straight line. Breaststroke is also an excellent way to get your head above the waves.
It also helps to know the territory. If possible, swim a course before a race so you know what to expect. Train in all conditions. Swim in wind, rain and waves. You never know what race-day conditions will be.
Our local beaches seldom experience the dangerous rip currents that plague so many east coast beaches. A rip current forms when water brought in by waves rushes back out to sea in a river-like fashion through a channel that runs along a deep spot on the ocean floor.
Four out of five rescues on America'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 into the beach.
Longshore currents are a more common threat on the west coast. These occur during winter cold fronts and summer tropical storms and run parallel to shore. They sometimes are strong enough to knock an adult off his 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.
Open-water swimmers should keep an eye out for 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.
Wear a bright swim cap or tow a lifeguard "rescue can" if you're doing an open-water swim in an area with heavy personal watercraft use.
Swim with a partner — there is safety in numbers. Never swim alone. If possible, train on a beach that is patrolled. Swim parallel to the shore.
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 at dawn or dusk. Avoid murky water and swimming near passes or inlets. And whenever possible, swim with a friend — it will reduce your chance of shark attack by 50 percent.
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.
Swim around Key West: The 33rd edition of this 12.5-mile swim, which goes clockwise around the island, is scheduled Saturday. See www.swimaroundkeywest.com for information.
Fort Myers Beach Open Water Festival: This three-day event, scheduled June 12-14, includes both 5K and 10K swims. For information, go to www.openwaterfestival.org.
Tampa Bay Marathon Swim: Held each April on Earth Day, this 24-mile swim covers the length of Tampa Bay. For information, go to www.distancematters.com.
Hurricane Man: This 2.4-mile swim held each May along Pass-A-Grille Beach has a large and loyal following. For information, go to www.stpetemasters.org.
Former Clearwater Beach lifeguard Terry Tomalin has completed the 1.5-mile Sharkfest from Alcatraz Island to Aquatic Park in San Francisco Bay and the 12.5-mile Swim around Key West.