Open Water Swimming Top Tips from Coach Mick

Open Water Swimming Top Tips from Coach Mick

With Ireland firmly in the grip of a cold weather spell right now, we thought we could offer some comforting fire side reading. We are delighted that our friend and open water swim coach Mick O’Kane from @Swimwellswimfierce was willing to share some of his top tips for safe open water swimming with us. Of course, these are not just important in the middle of winter, they will come in handy all year round whether you are a total beginner or an experienced swimmer.

For those who don’t know Coach Mick, he is a top open water and indoor pool Level 2 Swimming Coach and some of his many achievements include being named Leinster Open Sea Swimmer of the Year, winning various open water swim races around the country and representing Ireland during the summer at the European Open Water 3K Masters in Rome.

Please take it away Mick:

Open water swimming group with Coach Mick in Dublin bay

I always say no matter what level of swimmer you are there are 3 core elements – having fun, being able to escape from the grind (just like when you go for a surf Colin!) and being safe - be it a small gorgeous sun rise dip with friends or a bigger swim.

In my Swim Well Swim Fierce coaching, my guidance and advice always focuse on that one key word - safety. And particularly now or in fact at any time during the year whether you are going for a dip/plod/splash/chitter chatter swim or thinking about taking on a more challenging open water swim with friends - making sure you swim safely needs to permeate all you do to fully enjoy your open water swim.

To help get a sense of safe open water swimming, here are 8 top tips and takeaways –

1. Where are you swimming and is it safe to swim there?

Do you know the area and the entry and exit spots and what lurks beneath in terms of any jagged rocks or any specific tide/currents for your swim spot. If you don’t know the spot, ask a friendly local open water swimmer for advice.

2. How well do you know the tides and how could they have an impact on the safety of your swim at your open water location?

On top of knowing your swim location you need to be confident you know how the tide change/direction/flow or as I like to call it – The Run of the Tide – can help you choose the best time to have your swim. In general, it is always safer to swim in the sea after LOW TIDE as the water is running or coming back in to shore versus after HIGH TIDE when the water is doing the opposite and running or going back out to sea. On the East Coast of Ireland that means it runs south to north (think Wexford to Louth) when coming in and runs north to south (think Louth to Wexford) when going back out.

3. How well do you know the wind, waves and swell direction and how will it impact your open water swim location?

In addition to learning the run of the tides, have you factored in or considered the wind, waves and swell direction and how they might impact on whether you will have a safe and fun swim?

A lot of people ask me about this in my open water swim coaching lessons and how they have noticed that the wind and waves can seem bigger or wilder at different swim locations. I often use Sandycove Harbour as a good example for this. How it can be calm with no waves there and yet right around the corner at the 40 Foot, the waves can be big rolling smashers! It is something I really focus on in guiding people in knowing how to understand the why. Put simply the big waves you will see crashing into the 40 Foot, Killiney Beach, Seapoint, White Rock, Low Rock, Portmarnock, Half Moon, Bray, Greystones and all the way down to Wexford are generated by wind out in the Irish Sea or occasionally ground swell (waves generated by a powerful storm up in the north Atlantic or south in the Bay of Biscay).

The bigger the wind then the bigger the waves will be when they finally crash on the beach.

Now, at this stage, if I have advised on when it’s safe to swim as the tide is coming in, then what do you think is my advice on big waves when the tide is coming in or even going out? Answer – for both is very simple – at any stage of the tide if there are big rolling waves, DO NOT GET IN THE WATER. A dropping tide and big swell is particularly dangerous - if your feet go from under you, then you run a much bigger risk of being pulled out to sea.

To make it easy to understand, it is okay and fun to watch waves from the shore and I mean from a safe distance but getting in for what you may think will be a great picture or a little bit of wave fun, could in fact not only put you but your friends in danger. Why is it when we see wind and waves at our favourite swim spots that quite often the only people in the water will only be surfers or wind- and kitesurfers versus swimmers? That is because surf time is not open water swimming time! Also, if your open water swim location is a ridge like beach cove where water stays in versus goes out to sea like a tidal beach, then those waves will be even more dangerous as they have a cliff/ridge area to A. bounce and crash into and then B. take all that power and energy and also water back to sea with them and if you get caught in all of that, without being prepared for it, it could leave you in a very unsafe and possibly life threatening situation. So again, simple rule – look from afar but do not get in until it settles back to calmer water.

Take for example Sandycove Harbour where the Martello tower blocks the south easterly wind so you can have a swim in a far safer environment than more exposed beaches. But even at Sandycove Harbour, the wind could be coming from the west/north and onshore so again always look at your swim spot, look at the waves and swell and make sure to stay safe.

4. Who are you with/how experienced is everyone in your swim pod?

It’s important to know if everyone you enter the water with can actually swim and is not afraid of getting in the water or being out of their depth should that arise. Always make sure to check that your swim friends are at a similar level and are comfortable as much as possible at your swim level and ability. And the absolute golden rule here is – NEVER SWIM ALONE no matter what your level or ability.

5. Don’t be afraid to chicken out

As a child, we all remember chicken games, where we might have been teased if we opted to chicken out but in reality, that feeling of saying no, I am okay and I don’t want to push my boundaries/limits is a totally natural safety mechanism. When it comes to open water swimming, the ability to know your limits and to feel confident to make that choice is very important. If you are not comfortable with the temperature, state of the sea, forecast or even the length of time your friends are staying in don’t be afraid to do what is right for you. No one is going to call ‘chicken’ in open water swimming.

6. Are you open water swim ready?

This means in the simplest sense, is your body and mind ready. Particularly at this time of year, are you ready to jump into the sea? An inner checklist could look something like this - are you rested?

Did you get enough sleep (what were you doing the night/day before especially now during the Christmas festive period! )? Are you in any way hungover? Sorry to say, but a cold water dip might seem like the perfect hangover cure but in reality it is not a safe thing to do at all. Have you eaten properly and do you have enough carbs inside to handle post swim shivering? Are you hydrated and do you have warm drinks or energy drinks pre and post swim to give you an energy boost? Do you have great pre and post easy to take off and put back on warm, comfy and cosy clothing – hats/leggings/tracky bottoms/hoodies/scarves/warm socks and gloves! And finally something you may not have thought much about but what is your body shape? We are all different shapes and sizes in this beautiful sea swim world and so some of us may be able to handle the water temperature better than others. Make these some of your open water swim checklist items and you will have your best Christmas and all year round cold water swims.

7. What open water equipment do you have?

One of my top tips is always to have 2 pairs of goggles! If you want to swim on a crisp sunny day have a tinted pair and if it is a little bit more murky and dark which would be the norm at this time of year have a clear pair. Other equipment that helps at this time of year all depends on how long you aim to be in the water for from togs, neoprene long sleeved shorties and even surf style 3 to 5 mm wetsuits, neoprene gloves, swim socks, swim hats, tow floats, changing robes and changing mats can all make your level of open water swim fun and safe which of course I know everyone can find on If you ever see me swimming around Dalkey Island at this time of year, you’ll find me in head to toe winter surf and neoprene 5 mm open water swim gear. Oh and pretty crazy long fins for going through the cold waves as fast as I can but that’s just me!

8. How to be open water safe at this time of year

I always tell people I coach that you should seek to be a cool skinner versus a core cooler when swimming in Ireland – what’s that you may ask? Well, in simple terms your first defence is your skin when you enter cold water and depending on the temperature, your outer skin will adjust and adapt to the water temperature and trigger your cool skin stages – cortisone and endorphin rushes. But, and this is the big but, if you go past your cool skin levels of euphoria and enter into the more murky world of becoming a core cooler then this is not a good place to be. Put simply your core has been quietly working away at keeping itself warm while you were in cool skin mode, saying you go ahead and have some fun arms and legs and head with that cold rush and thrill but trust me I am quite happy not joining the party! If the cold gets in and cools your core, that cool skin feeling will not feel so pleasant and we have to be careful to watch that. Take away – learn to love being a cool skinner and know the signs for becoming core cooler.

Thanks Mick!

Mick’s 8 top tips for safe open water swimming pack a punch! There is a lot of information in there and we hope that you find it as valuable as we do. If your kit is missing some of the essential swimming items, have a look at our extensive swim collection here that covers everything from wetsuits and neoprene accessories to tow floats, goggles, poncho towels and changing robes.

Coach Mick with Nina at Surfdock shop

You can contact Mick on Instagram @swimwellswimfierce or WhatsApp – +353879425000. He will be running some more 10 week indoor pool swimming sessions starting in January at the Markiewicz Fitness and Swimming Pool in Dublin and he hosts a range of open water swim coaching sessions which will start back again in May.