What Is Open Water Swimming?

What Is Open Water Swimming?

Courtesy of WOWSAHuntington Beach, California.

Skip Storch, a member of the 24-Hour Club, once described open water swimming as “a seductive sport in a hostile environment controlled by the unforeseen. It takes a brave soul to attempt a swim, but a wiser team to know when its time not to start.”

The sport of open water swimming, held in oceans, seas, bays, lakes, rivers, canals, fjords, rowing basins, dams, estuaries, lidos and reservoirs, has been called many things over the generations:

In open bodies of water, there are different swimming styles that are used:

Similar to the different swimming styles, the sport of open water swimming has various smaller niche disciplines:

Open water swimming can be performed with either neoprene or bioprene, and with or without equipment including fins, snorkels, goggles, caps, wetsuits, paddles and flotation devices. The courses are as varied as the locations where open water swims are held:

  • geometric course refers to the triangular, rectangular or any other multi-side shape of an open water swimming event. It generally has the start and finish at the same point, but not always. The start and finish can be in the water or on land. It can also be referred to as a loop course.
  • loop course refers to the shape of an open water swim where swimmers swim around buoys in any geometric shape (e.g., triangular or rectangular), generally starting and finishing at the same point which can be in on land or in the water at a fixed position.
  • ship-to-shore course (or boat-to-shore course or boat-to-beach course refers to a course that begins on a ship or boat or other type of marine vessel and ends on a nearby shoreline. It can also be referred to as a point-to-point course.
  • point-to-point course or a linear course refers to the shape of an open water swim where swimmers start and finish at two separate points that can be on land or in the water at a fixed position. It can also be referred to as a pier-to-pier course or a P2P course.
  • An out-and-back course (OAB) refers to the shape of an open water swim where swimmers or triathletes start onshore, head out to a point away from shore in a bay, ocean, sea, lake or estuary, and then return back to the finish at the same point where the swim started or around a peninsula or pier or jetty or coastal outcropping.
  • bank-to-bank course refers to a course that starts on one bank (of a river or shore) and finishes on the opposite or other bank.
  • An island-to-island swim is a point-to-point swim from one island to another.
  • An offshore swim where a majority or all of the swim is located far offshore, away from a continent or mainland.
  • coastal swim is an open water swim where most of the course is located along a coast or shoreline.
  • transoceanic swim is an assisted stage swim or relay across one of the world’s oceans. It can also be referred to as a transpacific swim or a transatlantic swim.
  • circumnavigation course is a swim around an island or a round-trip open water swim around an island. It is also referred to as a circumnatation.
  • perimeter swim is a course that goes near the perimeter of a lake or bay.
  • island loop route is a course that begins by entering the water from one land mass, swimming out and around an island, and then returning to the starting point.
  • buoy course is a course that is marked by turn buoys and guide buoys.
  • current neutral course is an open water swimming course where there is no impact or neutral impact on the speed of the swimmer due to currents, tides or winds.
  • stage course is one leg of a stage swim that consists of a number of swims held on consecutive days where the start of one leg begins at the end of the swim on the previous day.
  • land mass loop route is a course that begins by entering the water from one land mass, swimming out and around an inhabited or uninhabited island or rocky point or sandbar or other point of land, and then returning to the starting point or another point.

A representative listing of bucket list swims include:

For more information and to learn more, visit the World Open Water Swimming Association Coaching Program here.

Copyright 2008 – 2021 by World Open Water Swimming Association

Steven Munatones