Ryan Utsumi, 41, had been drenched in the turquoise blue and calm of southern California pools since he started swimming competitively at age five. “But in 2001, after 15 years of chlorine and coaches on the pool deck, I was done with all that,” he says.
What the investment-management professional didn’t know was that he wasn’t done with swimming. Ten years later, a move to San Francisco gave him access to the bay’s open water scene, “and I started picking up swimming as a way to get active again.” Free of sets and clocks—“all the things I was done doing,” he says—“I felt freer to swim wherever I wanted to, for however long I wanted to.”
Utsumi loved what open-water swimming in the San Francisco Bay served up: cold water, challenging chop, and “no two days that are ever the same,” even if you’re swimming the exact same route. “I loved the thought process required when swimming outdoors—How long can I swim at this temperature? What are the currents doing? Are there seals? And I loved answering the question Can I swim from A to B?”
“However long” stretched from two hours to six hours to eight, and within a year—in 2016—Utsumi swam the English Channel (11 hours). He topped that by completing the “triple crown” of open-water swimming, adding the circumnavigation of Manhattan (7:17) and the Catalina Channel (11:06) in 2017. He’s now four down in the Oceans Seven challenge, the open-water swimming equivalent of the Seven Summits. He’s already booked to attempt the fifth, the Cook Strait (nine to 12 hours) in New Zealand in 2022.
The Brits call open water “wild swimming,” and what draws so many people like Utsumi isn’t just the chance to experience nature from a totally different perspective. It’s the skills open water requires of you—swimming ability, yes, but also adaptability and grit. You’ve got to learn to plan, and you’ve got to plan to not be able to follow your plan. “It’s unsettling and exciting that you can’t control it,” says Utsumi. For him, the fun starts in rough water, but plenty of open-water swims are held in calmer seas, lakes, and rivers, which is your best way to try wild swimming.
Top Tips for Open Water Swimming
Start in the shallows
Check with local authorities that the lake/river/ocean is safe for swimming, or go to meetup.com to find a local open-water swimming club. “Your first open-water swim will be an adventure,” says Utsumi. “The water temperature will be different than a pool. The clarity will be different. You may feel anxious, which can make you tired more quickly.” So wear a silicone cap (to stay warm), get a pair of goggles with a wide field of vision (like the Roka R1), and stick to the shallows at first. Stay where you can stand, and swim parallel to shore. Look up and forward frequently to ensure you’re not drifting.
Don’t hold your breath
As soon as you put your face into the water, exhale. If you get out of breath really quickly while open-water swimming, it’s likely because you’re not exhaling enough, not because you’re not inhaling enough. Many swimmers take little sips of air in with each stroke and never exhale. That makes you feel anxious, out of breath, and exhausted. Let it out. It’s magic. Treading water to gather yourself is also okay.
Adjust your rhythm
“I try to match my stroke tempo with the chop. This might mean speeding up when I’m swimming in short-interval waves or lengthening my stroke in longer, rolling waves,” says Utsumi. Swimming in rough water is like running in an earthquake—you don’t really know where the “ground” is going to be. You have to learn to be okay with that and accept that your stroke will misfire and that you’re going to get a mouthful of water now and then. Change the tempo of your stroke, your breathing, and maybe even your attitude. Open-water swimmers love the unpredictability (most of the time) and appreciate how it trains you for the rest of your life.
Stop worrying about sharks and other critters
Although he’s been bumped by harbor seals and swum with dolphins, Utsumi prefers murky waters where he can’t see what’s swimming around him, as opposed to a place like Hawaii, where you can see everything. “The only way to get over worrying about critters is to know that you’re swimming around them and that in most cases, they’re not going to affect you or your swimming.”
Get Some Useful Gear: Best Sports Watch for Swimming
Tracking distance in open water is tricky without a watch. The Garmin Swim 2 has a GPS to do that, plus it monitors heart rate and gives you pacing alerts, all in extra-large numbers that you can see through goggles. $200.