June 24, 2021 – Swimming as rowing

Swimming as rowing…

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One of the characters with whom we swam off Heron Island the other day. Image by Anne Henshaw.

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Swimming as rowing

Getting over your grab

We’ve always loved drill. We love the way that drill breaks up an otherwise long, potentially tedious swim session and allows the mug punter to work on a particular aspect of their stroke. Our late mentor, Coach Sandra, used to say that drill was breaking up the stroke into all its component parts, working on different bits of it, then putting it all back together again.

Coach Sandra also used to say that swim training is all about swimming faster with less effort. The two are interdependent.

It’s drill that made us realise that swimming is more complicated than golf. There are so many different parts of the stroke, and we’re fascinated by how each of them contributes to pull the swimmer through the water.

It’s a cycle, of course: there’s the hand entry; the grab; the pull; the finish; the recovery; and more. Doesn’t sound too difficult; but each of those components have myriad micro components: the entry, for example, has these elements, inter alia –

  • hand position in relation to the body;
  • direction of entry;
  • travel of hand ahead of the body prior to entering the water;
  • travel of hand ahead of the body after entering the water;
  • arrangement of fingers;
  • rotation of hips in relation to hand entry;
  • position of recovering hand as leading hand enters the water.

Then there’s the grab –

  • angle of the hand as it grabs the water;
  • relationship of fingers to the palm;
  • cup of the hand;
  • direction of the grab as it begins the pull.

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Forster, last Mondee.

And the pull –

  • description or track of the hand as it pulls through the water
  • relationship of the hand to the arm;
  • shape of the arm;
  • shape and attitude of the hand
  • angle of the elbow;
  • contribution of each muscle group to the pull;

The finish –

  • position of the finish in relation to the body;
  • angle of the hand and arm as they exit the water;
  • the run provided by the finish prior to the subsequent grab

And the recovery –

  • Attitude of the arm as it recovers along the body;
  • Angle of the elbow and position of the wrist/hand;
  • Distance from the body as it recovers (does it brush the ear?);

Breathing –

  • timing of the breath with the hand entry
  • attitude of the head;
  • relationship of the inhaling mouth/nose with the level of the water;
  • breathing cycle: expiry of used breath prior to inhalation of fresh breath

Overall –

  • muscle tension and suppleness of the body
  • contribution of muscle groups to different components of the stroke
  • engaging ‘the core’.

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Forster, last Mondee: How long should we stay out here? Till the cameras are gone…

The kinda gal she was

The overall drill is the time trial. When we were relatively new at this caper, we said to Coach Sandra at one stage that, whilst we knew we could do the distances in ocean swims (formal events), we had an issue with confidence; that we would like to be able to swim these distances and enjoy them more. Coach Sandra told us we should come to the pool on a Wensdee morning, when squad was lightly attended, and swim a 3 km time trial. We did, a couple of times. On each occasion, Coach Sandra took our 100 m splits over 3 km. Seeing those splits was fascinating: we could see every point at which we had felt tired, between ‘winds’, and when our pace had slackened, reflected in slower splits; or when we'd felt particularly good (we're usually at our best between 2.5km and 3 km), and the splits would vary with our memory of how we'd felt during the swim. What that showed us was that we could swim the distances at a constant pace. Thereafter, we could do an ocean swim with much greater confidence. Thus, we relaxed, and we enjoyed it more. And we should say, Coach Sandra took those 100 m splits–30 of them on each occasion–whilst simultaneously running her morning squad in a nearby lane. That’s the kind of coach Coach Sandra was.

Silent Norm

A good coach will appreciate that the most any swimmer can deal with at any one time is one or two of these elements at best. Any more, and the mind becomes confuddled.

Indeed, so easy is it to become confuddled that many swimmers, especially those of the older persuasion, cannot handle any of them. Or rather, they couldn’t be bothered even trying to handle any of them. There are other things in life, the little voice tells them from the back of their mind, such as which wine to select that night whilst watching the news.

Plenty of swimmers do care about these things, however. We know an octogenarian swimmer who, tired of always coming last, or near last, took himself off to a big-name coach in the hope that he might learn to swim faster. The coach took a look at him and told him there was nothing he could do for him. The error the octogenarian swimmer made was in his choice of coach. Other coaches might have been more patient. We wish he’d come to us first for a steer (towards a more patient coach, one oriented towards technique, not just pace).and towards rank-and-file swimmers, not just your sharpies.


You can always tell the swimmers who were taught proper as urchins: it’s their stroke; so often graceful, even, almost perfect, effortless. It doesn’t matter how old they get, how fat they get, how unfit they become, how their body changes shape as they age, the broad bit slips over time from the shoulders to the waist, but they never lose their stroke.

The truth is that all of us have the potential to swim faster, be it through greater fitness, strength, or better technique. If only we had the opportunity; and if only we understood all the theories, the continually evolving theories, about how to swim faster. Lay persons, such as us, couldn’t possibly aspire to work all these things out by ourselves. Could we?

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Heron Island, in the morning. We have another oceanswimsafari on offer, Nov 14-19… Click here


The story of the octogenarian is telling, because we reckon there are many, many swimmers, including many much younger than him, who don’t believe they are capable of swimming faster. We say, if you care about this stuff, please don’t give up. It’s easy to lose faith. But it’s possible. It might be a technique change. Maybe it’s improving your aerobic fitness. It could be strengthening a few relevant muscles. You can plug away at this for years with no discernible improvement, and with no great understanding. But then, suddenly, Eureka! An epiphany! Out of nowhere, an insight that puts it all together.

Such an epiphany came to us over dinner on Heron Island last week. We were sitting next to one of our oceanswimsafarists, an immigrant from Europe named Roland. Roland came late to swimming (in his 40s), after a distinguished career in flat water rowing (we distinguish the ‘flat water’ because, in Strã’a, rowing to some means surf boats). Roland was highly distinguished: he’d represented Switzerland at the Olympics and had coached some of our crews at Commonwealth Games. He’s also one of those sports people for whom life is more than sport.

In his spare time, ie 9-5, Roland is a medical researcher who is developing a test that would indicate the likelihood of a heart attack. He explained it to us, but you couldn’t possibly expect us to relate all that to you here. It’s all about enzymes. And it’s really quite fascinating, as is any subject, even the driest of all subjects, once you start to find out something about it.

It’s the catch

Roland also explained to us his theory of swimming. As a rower, Roland sees remarkable similarities in technique between the two sports.

The key is the catch: in rowing, the catch of the blade in the water is crucial. It’s the equivalent of our grab in swimming. Good rowing technique starts with a good catch, which then acts, Roland says, as the anchor point to pull the boat through the water. Most of us, less discerning, would see this as pulling the blade through the water, effectively pushing the boat forwards. But if you see the process instead as the blade remaining static, ie in the one place, and the blade pulling the boat past it, then the concept opens up. It’s looking at the same thing but the other way round.

In swimming, see the grabbing hand as the blade; see the grabbing hand as remaining static, and instead of pulling the hand through the water, thus pushing the body forward, see it instead as the static hand pulling the body past it, so that it’s the body moving forward, not the hand moving back. The hand is the anchor point; it doesn’t move, in theory. The water is not some amorphous, slippery gel; it's a solid, that you can grab and hold on to, and you can use it for leverage. You can 'get over your stroke'.

For years, we’ve heard swimming theorists, coaches and swimmers who think, talking of ‘getting over’ the stroke. Yes, yes, we get that idea. But often it’s easier to get the idea than to put it into practice. We can’t quite get the concept of looking down on our stroke; of the body moving ahead whilst the arm and the hand–the catch–remain anchored.

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It was way past the end of turtle hatching season, but still they hatched. Sadly, only one in 1,000 hatchlings survive. We stood there and watched as gulls picked them off even before they got into the water. Then it's the larger fish in the water, more sea birds… And we were powerless to help. On the other hand, can you imagine who would rule the world if the survival rate was more in the turtles' favour?


We’ve heard, too, of the importance of relaxation: no matter what you do, you must remain relaxed, although we grant that this sounds counter-intuitive. We refer back to Coach Sandra, the font of so much wisdom: Swim training is all about swimming faster with less effort. If you are relaxed, you’re expending less energy because the body is less tense; absent dynamic tension. (Parenthetically, when we used to coach lunchtime squads for grown-ups at North Sydney, we had an exercise we’d sometimes put our squad through–those members of our squad who used to do what we tell them, which excludes Glistening Dave and Mrs Sparkle: we’d get them to swim 100 m as fast as they could; then, we’d get them to swim 100 m as relaxed as they could. We’d time them over each, and the extraordinary thing was that the difference between the two times was so slight as to be almost meaningless. That was an exercise in the importance of relaxation.)

Coaching theory also tells us that you swim with your core, not your arms. This is a development from the notion that you pull your arm through the water, thus you need strong arms and shoulders; thus it’s important to have your elbow at 90 degrees so as to engage the arm’s strongest muscle, the bicep.


The next step is to imagine the pull coming not from the arms and shoulders, but from the lats; and that moves on to the core.

We’ve heard the theorists talking of ‘engaging the core’; that it’s the core that drives the body forwards; that it’s the core that provides the thrust. Indeed, try a little drill yourself: ‘engage the core’ (don’t ask us how you do this; it’s more than just pulling your fat belly in; it’s more like breathing from your diaphragm, of straightening your posture), then, as you reach your leading hand out to enter the water, leave it there a moment longer, on delay, and stretch, almost imperceptibly, and you can feel your body pushing forwards. That’s also, during that delay, as you stretch, that the hip beneath that reaching arm drops, also almost imperceptibly. That’s your rotation.

The core is critical because it governs both upper and lower parts of your body, thus all the muscle groups. The core is the basis of the body; a strong core generates power for the top half of the body; and it stabilises the lower half. That’s how boofheads who weren’t taught proper as urchins can eliminate that scissor kick that’s plagued them all their lives.

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Off for a swim, Heron Island.

And then…

Anyway, we had a fascinating yarn with Roland, although we still weren’t quite sure how we were going to implement his theory during our Heron Island swims the next day.

But a funny thing happened: Next day, as a peloton, we swam for a couple of kilometres along a reef, as we do on these oceanswimsafaris. It was lovely water; it wasn’t a race (none of our informal oceanswimsafari swims are races, although there’s usually someone in the mob who treats them as one); and whilst we had Roland’s exposition in the back of our minds, we were thinking of other things, too, such as noting where all our swimmers were; making sure we didn’t stray into shallow water over the reef; watching for turtles, rays and sharks, etc, ie while it was in the back of our minds, we weren’t obsessing over Roland’s theory; we were relaxed. And suddenly we realised that our hands were staying ‘anchored’ in the water whilst our body slid by them. We were reaching a little deeper, but we weren’t swimming with our arms as much as we were with the lower parts of our body, and we did feel ‘over’ our stroke. Our stroke was coming from our entire body, not from arms that could have been separated from the rest of us. We could feel our bodies being pulled through the water rather than blundering though it by force. And we were faster. It was a wonderful feeling.

different strokes swimming logo 250Now, we can’t properly explain how we achieved this, although we can say this: it comes from relaxation; from enjoying our swimming; from not stressing; from having a basic idea bobbing around gently in the back of our minds whilst we thought of other things. It didn’t hurt, too, that by that stage we’d had three days of good swimming. Swimming regularly does wonderful things for the strength, fitness, and the confidence. And gee, it felt good.

(This oceanswimsafari was organised with Sydney Swimmers – Different Strokes Swimming

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Heron Island

New oceanswimsafari: Nov 14-19

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We've added another Heron Island oceanswimsafari later in 2021, this one running from Sunday, November 14 through Friday, November 19.

We have been overwhelmed with the positive response to our Heron Island oceanswimsafaris since we mentioned them in an ealier newsletter. We are adding this further oceanswimsafari so that even more more swimmers need not miss out.

Wedid the first of our 2021 series of Heron Island oceanswimsafaris earlier in June, and it was an huge success: not just crystalline, warm water, and not just rays, reef sharks, and all kinds of reef life, but the beginning of June also heralds the start of the Manta season at Heron, and we were not disappointed. It's also the start of the humpback whale season although, whilst we saw a couple from a distance, there weren't enough, or close enough for a good, hard eyeball.

On these oceanswimsafaris, we're running a five-night package with four days of escorted swims to different parts of the reefs around Heron Island. We'll have morning swims pre-brekker each morning, then escorted swims along nearby reef drop-offs later each morning. There is a lot of reef in the vicinity of Heron Island, and lots of drop-off, with lots of sea life.

If you're interested, don't shilly-shally: spaces are filling.

More information and to book your spot… Click here

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fos tallies 2020/21…

It's the West again as Covid takes its toll

lucivero giacomo 300This is getting ridiculous: official fine ocean swimmers' tallies are in for the season ended May 31, and the swimmer of the greatest accumulated distance yet again is a punter from Wessna Strã'a: take a bow, Giacomo Lucivero, who swam 127.9 kms in 19 events in the season.

Where it's ridiculous is that swimmers from the West occupy eight of the top 10 positions in the tallies, with two Kiwis (well done, Peter Cosseboom and Alex Dunkley) at 4 and 6 respectively. Indeed, 54 of the top 80 swimmers are from WA; 25 are Kiwis; and one (Jim Donaldson, at 80) is from anywhere else, in this case NSW. We will say this about Jim: all the other regions have newish punters leading their tallies each season, but Jim Donaldson is consistently there. It must be costing him a fortune in swim entry fees and pe'rol.

Luciano Giacoma finished season 2020/21 at the top of the fine ocean swimmers' tallies with 127.9 kms swum in 19 formal swims. Good stuff, Giacomo.

Damn Covid

But the real story is the Covid effect on ocean swimming. Every indicator in the sport is down dramatically. Hardly surprising, of course, but it's eye-opening to see it quantified in season stats.

The Covid effect is stark: in stats comparing the season just ended with the last pre-Covid season, 2018/19:

  • Total swimmers were down 39%
  • Swim events down 30%
  • Total distance down 31%
  • Total swims by individuals down 40%

lucivero giacomo head 250(Check out the Season Stats) table linked below for more details.)

NSW used to reign supreme in the tallies, of course, because there are more swims there. But the advent of a series of longer swims in the West and a season-long series in New Zealand have undermined that dominance.

But Victoria!

Then there is Covid: the West and NZ were less affected, so their seasons opened up earlier than in the Strã'an south-east. In season 2020/21, NSW had only one swim prior to the New Year.That's almost half the season wiped out in terms of numbers of swims. Indeed, in  poor Victoria, over the two Covid-affected seasons: total swimmers were down 66 per cent; swim events were down 71 per cent; and aggregate distance swum was down 64 per cent.

All this doesn't matter, of course, since the tallies are not a competition. They are merely a snapshot, if you will, of the season. The important thing is that we all stay as safe as possible in the current environment. (We are led at the State level by gummints driven by a clear public health imperative. Never thought we'd be saying this, but thank goodness for Federation.)

And well done, all 32,604 of you mugs who still swam in formal events despite Covid. Probably desperate to get out after lock-downs. And still it goes on…

Early morning swims

One day, perhaps, it will be possible to quantify the distances swum by all those informal early morning swim groups around the joint. Here's a challenge to them all: keep your own tallies so that they can be collated centrally. That will be the real measure of ocean swimming.

Colin Reyburn

Our heartfelt thanks to Colin Reyburn for his indefatigable work in compiling the fine ocean swimmers' tallies. It's an enormous job. The tallies would not be possible without his contribution.

2020/21 details here…

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Your most personal item…

Goggle respect

Our routine…

V630ASA AMBK 300This should apply to any brand of gog, not just Views (because all gogs are precious)…

  • Maintain routine maintenance (rinsing after each use, air dry, storing in case, etc… See Goggle Respect below)
  • Wash lightly in dishwashing detergent every few uses; air dry
  • Before each use, wet the inside of the lens lightly with sea water.
  • Don gogs.

That’s it. When following this routine, we do not—WE DO NOT—experience gog-fog (with our View Swipes, either Selenes or Wide-Eyes). We have clear vision throughout, limited only by the clarity of the water. We have now been wearing a pair of Wide-Eyes for months through winter, spring and now summer, and all we do is follow this routine.

We can't say the same regarding other brands of goggle, because we haven't used any in quite some time. But in our experience over the last 30 years, nothing—nothing—comes close to matching View Swipes. Whatever, you should look after your gogs using the same routine as we outline above.

Since we began to offer the Swipes, we’ve sold over 750 pairs of Swipe gogs to ocean swimmers. If major issues were going to emerge over that time, we figure they would have. They have not.

Swipes available

There are Swipe Selenes available in five colours. Wide-Eyes non-mirrored come in four colours, and mirrored come in three colours.

Out of left field: One of the least popular, but we reckon the best colour is the Swipe Selenes BR. The BR means bronze or brown, not sure which. It’s not a popular colour, just like brown suits, but it’s actually a very soft, forgiving colour for swimming in harsh sunlight, and a warm colour for cooler water swimming, over winter, say. We use the BR about half the time these days (alternating with BLEM – Blue/Emerald) Wide-Eyes mirrored. They’re terrific for early morning swims when you spend half your time staring into the rising sun. Every swimmer needs a quiver of gogs.

But every swimmer also needs to look after their gogs; to respect them. If you don’t respect your gogs, they will not respect you. And don’t go blaming the gogs all the time (although plenty really are shite), it will all come down to how you manage them.

Find out more and order your View Swipes, and other View swim gogs and swim gear… Click here

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Controversy Corner...

What do you reckon about any of this stuff? We received a lot of feedback after our last newsletter. Check it out... Click here

Let us know and we'll facilitate the debate... Click here

(Also see posts at the end of this newsletter.)

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A key part of every oceanswimsafari is tutelage in the ocean swimmers' salute. This mob picked it up reasonably quickly, by and large. They lack the deference, though. Perhaps that will come with practice.

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1 comment

  • Janine Reid Comment Link
    Janine Reid
    Thursday, 24 June 2021 13:30
    Thanks for that edition. I row and swim (my rowing is better than swimming these days) and the catch analogy is excellent. Thank you

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