Rough Waters Make Tough Swimmers


On Monday 2nd of October Zone 3’s very own athlete adventurer Ross Edgley and double World Champ Keri-Anne Payne swam across causeway from Burgh Island to Bigbury Beach in South Devon in a race against the new Range Rover Sport P400e PHEV. Why? To learn about waves, weather and to swim in the worst conditions the Devon coastline could throw at them as Ross prepares to swim 40km from Martinique to St Lucia in November pulling a 100-lbs tree. Here he details his unconventional training and shares the wave-based wisdom from this particular swim…

Devon’s coastline is stunning. Home to rugged cliff faces, lush hillsides and some of the best ice cream in Britain, I have many fond memories set among the sandy beaches, medieval towns and moorland national parks. But today I couldn’t appreciate any of this. This is because I was preoccupied getting hit in the face (repeatedly) by 3-ft waves that were making my usual 1km swim feel like a wrestling match. Yes, I’d completed many an open water swim before. No, the lakes of Cumbria and Loch’s of Scotland had nothing like the tonnes of seawater currently contorting my limbs as I tried to swim. But although it was far from pleasant, it was absolutely necessary. This is because in 4 weeks’ time I will be attempting to swim 40km from the BodyHoliday in St Lucia to the most southern beach of Martinique towing a 100lbs tree during a time that’s still classed as “hurricane season”. So if I couldn’t manage a gentle paddle in off the shore of Devon, there is little hope for me when midway across the Caribbean Sea.


What is “Rough Water”?

The term “rough water” is broad and open to interpretation. Some people consider a busy beach “rough” as the waves caused by the passing banana boats makes things a little choppier. Others might consider 3-foot waves (caused by the wind) that bend the bow of the boat when out at sea “rough” as your shoulder strength and patience are tested to their limits with every stroke. But whatever your level of ability, rough water swimming experience is essential to be able to deal with sudden changes in weather and water conditions.

Now my definition of “rough” might be a little different to most. This is because I am training to swim from one Caribbean island to another and since rough water is a product of wind, it means I will be praying for no wind, grateful for a tailwind, content with a crosswind and dreading a head-on wind and here’s why…

No Wind

No wind can mean no (or very little) rough water and plain sailing for swimmers. Since the hurricane season of the Caribbean officially runs from June 1 through November 30, I think it’s unlikely I will be granted a completely smooth passage between the islands, but my fingers are crossed for the stars to align and this swimming scenario to occur in 4 weeks’ time.


Tailwind causes the waves to sneak up on you from behind, which a lot of swimmers hate. This is because if you’re not ready, each wave can coming crashing over the top of you which makes swallowing a mouthful of water when you turn to breathe likely and frequent.
Personally I don’t mind since I use my feet as mini radars to let me know when a wave is coming. If I’m about to turn my head to breathe and my feet give off a warning system, I’ll instead often not breathe and maximise usage of the wave for speed, taking little surfing bursts of speed if I can.



Crosswind is often deemed the most annoying from of wind-induced rough water. This is because your body will be repeatedly battered on the one side, which means the only solution is to breathe to the other side. For some people this is an inconvenience they can live with if that’s your “strong side”. If it isn’t and you’re used to breathing on the other side, you will notice the shoulders, neck and biceps will all fatigue as your forced to overuse them in a range of motion they’re not used to. The solution is begin training to breathe bi-laterally as soon as possible. This way you will be prepared for whatever the ocean throws at you.

Head-On Wind

Head-on wind is fatiguing at best and potentially injurious at worst. Often there is no discernible pattern of waves as well, so when you think you’ve cleared one wave, you will crash immediately into another. It’s this repeated impact across the head and shoulders can be the main problem. Also because a 40km swim can take anywhere between 11 to 24 hours, feeding and fuelling as frequently as possible is key. In calm water that’s fine, but head-on wind has disrupted many a mealtime of mine which is why Devon’s seabed is currently a buffer of protein bars and snacks for the marine life there. The solution? Keep your head lower than usual and try to “duck under” oncoming waves, all whilst keeping snack-time as short and as efficient as possible.

So there you have it, an open water swimmer’s guide to rough water. Learn this wave-based wisdom and no lake, loch, river or sea will be too choppy.


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