Tips for Swimming Through Breaking Waves

Types of ocean breakers

At the start of an ocean swim, there is often the challenge of swimming through breaking waves, or breakers. Learning how to read the ocean and time the waves will make it much easier to enter the water safely and effectively.

Types of Breaking Waves

As a wave approaches the shore, it grows in height and steepness as the water gets more shallow, eventually reaching a point where the water isn’t deep enough to support it. At this point, the wave topples, or “breaks,” which results in a breaker.

Different types of breakers are formed according to the angle of the beach they break against. The two main types of breakers we will look at are spilling and plunging breakers.

  • Spilling breakers – When the ocean floor has a gradual slope, spilling breakers are formed. Spilling breakers are relatively gentle waves.
  • Plunging breakers – A plunging wave occurs when the ocean floor is steep or has a sudden depth change, such as from a reef or sandbar. A plunging wave breaks with more energy than a spilling wave.

Learning How to Time the Waves

Waves travel in groups, and in shallow water these groups are called sets. 

A set generally has 3-8 waves in it, although this can vary up to 20 waves. Sets appear as often as every few minutes to once every 30 minutes or more, depending on how far they have traveled to reach the shore.

Before entering the water, watch the timing of the waves by counting the number of breakers that approach one after the other. Wait for a break between the sets and take the gap!

Top Tips for Swimming Through Breaking Waves

Every once in while, a wave might sneak up on you unexpectedly. In this case, the easiest and safest way to get through the wave is to duck dive underneath it.

Duck diving follows the natural flow of water under the wave, and if done correctly, will pop you out effortlessly on the other side.

To duck dive, follow these steps:

  • Just before the wave approaches you, take a deep breath
  • Dive under the wave, staying deep if possible (watch out for sand-banks)
  • Glide through the water
  • Emerge on the other side of the wave

Now that you know how to handle swimming through breaking waves, you can enjoy your open water swim!

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