After the Clean Half last Saturday, I felt that I needed some rest (although it was a relay of 30 minutes on the support kayak, 30 minutes of swimming, the distance was still significant which I swam about 7 km in the 14 km course) so I didn’t swim on Sunday, but after a day of rest I was ready again! On Sunday Edie announced that we were doing an adventure swim from Shek O with varying distances, maybe to the back beach, or to Big Wave Bay, with a warning:
Warning: it could be very windy conditions tmr. Predicted 20 knot winds (37kph). Can be choppy. It would be ideal if you can bring a buddy about your speed to swim with you. Required: Safety buoy.
That warning even made my desire to swim today higher. I always love to swim in rough water, even before I joined the swimming groups last year. Of course for safety reason I stayed in the safety net at that time as there was no one to swim with me. For me, the rougher the water is, the more enjoyable I swim. I replied that I was in. I asked Gary Lui (my clean half partner) who is about the same speed with me but he didn’t accept my invitation to come.
In the morning Danny left a comment “Michael Tsang because of the conditions i recommend you dont do this swim today. Do it another time when there is no typhoon” along with a photo of the rough water at Shek O. If there was really a typhoon (T3 or up) for safety reason I wouldn’t go to the sea. However, there was no typhoon today! The rough water was caused by a monsoon from the east (the strong monsoon signal was on, expecting BF 6 – 7 wind from the east and gusts of gale force), and the weather was really nice so it didn’t put me off. Before we got into the sea Alec (a marathon swimmer in my triathlon club who didn’t think I could finish a 13 km in July before I done it) was really concerned I might get trouble in this kind of rough water or if I would lost the group (in swells of a few metres high it is hard to see anyone, even with a tow float), and asked if I had any exit plan in case I went wrong. Well, our planned route was not far from land and there were a few beaches along the coast which are safe landing spots.
Although I had never done rough water swimming before with this group (that’s why they were really concerned about me), I did a lot of rough water swimming before I joined the OW groups, and also in the other group as well so I know this was definitely within my ability to handle rough water, and only concern was my speed as I could not catch up with this group most of the times before.
We went into the water and, in my opinion, the most dangerous part was getting past the breaking waves, and my usual strategy for that is to get near the place where the wave breaks, sprint through it in the gap between breaking waves, and recover after I got through them to safety. As I am a slow swimmer, I went in first and let them catch up. We waited outside the safety net for everyone to come, bobbing up and down in swells of a few metres.
At that time, the group decided to just round Ng Fan Chau outside the beach instead of going to the back beach as they thought that’s enough for them in such rough and choppy condition. We normally swam for more than an hour in our usual group swims, maybe even up to 2 or 3 hours, but not this time.
This was my first time swimming in really rough water since I started serious swim training last year so I was curious if my swimming style differed a lot. In rough open water it was really much more challenging but that’s what I liked. I had to match my breathing and my stroke rhythm to the swells, and feel when the swell is coming. If I got it wrong, the result would be getting salt water in my stomach instead of a fresh breath, which happened a few times. This is a common source of panic for inexperienced swimmers (like those who only swim in the pool or in lakes), but I can confidently say that I’m at home in the rough ocean, and no amount of salt water in my mouth or nose can freak me out, even I’m thrown up and down, or even I go under the surface, as long as there are no hidden rocks (I would be killed if I was thrown into the rocks by the waves, rocks are really dangerous).
Conventional wisdom says that a high stroke rate is good in rough water, and gliding is really bad. My normal stroke rate is 62 per minute, much higher than my partner Gary who is about the same speed with me but only about 45 per minute. Our pace is roughly about 02:10 / 100 m, which according to the following Swim Smooth stroke rate chart (nicknamed BMI chart), I’m at the edge of red zone (too high) and he is clearly within the blue zone (too low).
However, it’s a pity that Gary was not there and I couldn’t really see if the conventional wisdom in action if it is true or not. In reality, as I had to match my action to the swells, my stroke rate was definitely not stable, sometimes maybe a few ten stroke faster, and sometimes slower for me to recover, but on average it was still about 62 which was what my fitness could sustain for about 1 – 2 hours. In terms of breathing, I lifted my head much higher than usual and sometimes had a larger body rotation as well (that I was breathing to the sky), and kicked more to keep my body stable. For sighting, I had to do it on the top of a swell otherwise I could see nothing but water.
Also to my surprise that I was really following the group well. In most of the Sunday swims, basically when we started, the group was already very far away from me and sometimes I felt sorry if they waited for me too long. However the situation was reversed today, I could swim side by side with Edie for some distance (I estimate that she is about 20% faster than me) and catch up Danny from the back. I always tell other that my swimming speed is too slow as I need 31 minutes for 1.5 km (both in pool and in calm OW), and at this speed I believe that there may be serious technique deficiency, which make me very frustrated as my stroke rate is too high for my speed (at the edge of the red zone in the BMI chart) which means my stroke length is deficient, but my squad coach at HKU still wants me to spin my arms faster and faster. Now, I need to think if my “deficiency” is actually not a “deficiency” in rough water swimming as the choppy condition does not slow me down as much as the others.
We just rounded the island once and went back, making today’s swim very short (about 2.2 km only). Afterwards we played with the waves near the beach, and had breakfast at Lulu’s. This swim was really memorable for me. I have gained valuable experience in rough water as my goal is to do rough water marathon swimming with a group of like-minded swimmers in a good morning. Rough water is really my paradise! Edie has made a video of the memorable moments today as well on Facebook (emphasis added by me, although I am not a good swimmer as I’m always nearly at the last place barely making the cut off, I’m totally confident in rough water and my OW experience started many years before I started my swim training in a pool).
We had an absolute blast playing in the chop today at Shek-o. We just swam around the island but we had an amazing time. We normally don’t get very large swells in Hong Kong, so today was a real treat.
That said, under these kinds of conditions, one should always use caution, swim with friends and should not be attempted by inexperienced swimmers.
And my last word of advice: man vs. nature, nature always wins.