Generally, you should look up slightly every five to 10 strokes. The most apparent difference between open-water swimming and pool swimming is the lack of controlled conditions; conditions that we take for granted, like that big black line on the bottom of the pool.
This tiled or painted marker seems meaningless in its simplicity and obvious purpose — yet, when eliminated from the equation of basic competitive swimming, becomes a sorely missed component to a swimmer’s success.
Everyone knows that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, whether in geometry class, a swimming pool, or the ocean. So how do you ensure swimming in a straight line when you race in open water?
“Sighting” involves lifting your head while swimming to see where you are going. As simple as this sounds, there is a certain skill necessary to “sight” properly and maintain your efficiency in the water.
First, when you lift your head forward to see what’s ahead of you, you are basically putting the brakes on your stroke’s momentum and your body’s speed. So, sight conservatively if you prefer to swim fast. Conversely, the less you sight, the more off-course you can veer, meaning that you may want to sight every few strokes.
Only you can determine the frequency with which you want to sight; perhaps your stroke is naturally “straight” and you only need lift your head every five or 10 strokes. Then again, you may have a crooked technique (something that should be rectified anyway) and you may find it necessary to sight every other stroke to stay on course.
In addition, make sure when you lift your head forward you only lift up enough so that your eyes break the waters’ surface. The higher you lift your head, the more effort it takes in your neck, resulting in fatigue or a muscular cramp. Also, the higher you lift your head the lower your hips sink in the water (contributing to increased resistance and drag). You should not be lifting your head forward to breathe; only to sight. Continue breathing to the side while you swim.
You can practice a sighting drill in a pool to get used to it and find out what works for you. Find an empty lane with no other swimmers and begin swimming laps with your eyes closed. Only open them when you lift your head forward (not to the side when you breathe). This drill simulates swimming in lakes or the ocean because you usually don’t see anything but murky darkness when face down in open water.
When you lift your head to sight, it’s really the only time you are able to see where you are going. During this drill you will also learn whether or not you are naturally inclined to swim in a straight line (if you keep banging into opposite sides of the lane, you probably need to analyze your stroke technique).
Now that you have mastered the technique of sighting, what should you “sight” for during a race in the first place? Most open-water swims have buoys or markers indicating the course and the distance. However such objects may not always be visible in high surf or a crowded field of swimmers. In these cases it is good to find other landmarks like trees, piers, and buildings on shore (boats are good too, as long as they are not moving!).
If you are swimming a race along the coast, pick something on land ahead of you and swim toward it, but be careful not to swim into shore. If the water is clear enough to see the bottom, you may not need to sight so much as to pick rocks and weeds on the lake or ocean floor in front of you and piece together a bunch of short, straight lines that make up a longer correct path.
If you are not planning on winning an ocean swim, you can always rely on the competitors ahead of you to lead the way. While this is a pretty safe way to ensure you are going in the right direction, I have been in swims before where the leaders veer off course, taking the entire group of race entrants with them.
Also, you may end up drafting off of another swimmer directly in front of you. Be sure they are going in the right direction because often times they aren’t. Never trust anyone but yourself.
Although “sighting” is the best way to navigate during an open-water race, there are also techniques you can use that involve the conditions and objects around you to swim in a straight line. Pay attention to currents if you are competing in the ocean. Look at the sea from the shore and see which direction anchored boats are pointing, and which direction the waves are breaking. If the current is pushing left and your race course is straight ahead, you may have to swim toward the right to overcompensate for the left-pushing waters in order to maintain a straight course.
As you master the art of sighting you will find the action more comfortable and natural to perform. At first it may seem like an interruption to your regular stroke and a hitch in your swimming rhythm. But with practice it will become a smooth addition to your steady arm turnover and a necessary element in your open-water racing.
Matched with a keen awareness of your race conditions and the objects around you, sighting can help you stay on course and indeed, swim the shortest (and fastest) distance between two points.