Diana Nyad was an elite, competitive swimmer in her youth, growing up in New York City, but it wasn’t until much later in life that she discovered the joys of open-water swimming. “I was doing these marathon swims in my 20s, but I never thought about the ocean,” Ms. Nyad said. “When I got back into swimming in my 60s, I fell head over heels in love with the ocean.”
In 2013, at age 64, Ms. Nyad became the first person to swim the 110 miles from Cuba to Florida without a cage to protect her from sharks. “It would be a shame to get to the end of your life and not have the sheer pleasure of floating in an open body of water,” Ms. Nyad said. “Not that pools aren’t great, but it’s not the same as being in a lake, laying back and looking at the clouds and being part of planet Earth.”
Make this summer the one you finally take the plunge. If swimming isn’t your thing, consider paddling a kayak or learning to sail, where you’ll still enjoy the stress-relieving benefits of being out on the water. Water sports are easier to learn — or rediscover — than you think.
Learn to open-water swim.
To start swimming in open water, pick a calm pond, lake or bay with water temperatures around 70 degrees or warmer. “People who aren’t used to swimming don’t want to be in water any colder than that,” Ms. Nyad said.
Do not swim alone; bring a friend or find a group to join. Facebook and Meetup host local open-water swimming groups, while the Open Water Swimming Association lists swim coaches around the country.
A few pieces of gear will make your swim more comfortable: A swimsuit that doesn’t budge, goggles that fit snugly on your face and a brightly colored swim cap (so that others can see you) are essentials. A wet suit, if the water is colder than 60 degrees, and swimmer’s earplugs to combat ear infections can help as well. Short swimmer’s fins can improve efficiency, and a center-mounted snorkel lets you breathe without turning your head. An open-water swim buoy (essentially a balloon tied around your waist) alerts watercraft of your presence.
Once you’re out there, pay attention to your breathing and lift your head every few breaths to spot your location. If you start to panic, slow down and breathe. “Relax. You’re forcing your body to do something it’s not used to,” said Leo Briceno, a swim coach in Tampa, Fla., who leads regional open-water swim meet-ups several times per week. “Counting numbers or thinking of a song in your head can help you find the rhythm.”
Pro tip for new swimmers: “Put a tiny dab of baby shampoo inside your goggles before your swim, swish it around and rinse it out,” said Tryn Kaleel, a swim coach with the California Bay Area’s Odyssey Open Water Swimming club. “The gentle, tear-free soap will keep your goggles from fogging.”
Go paddle a kayak.
As with swimming, start kayaking in a calm estuary, bay, pond or lake rather than a choppy ocean or raging river. Sign up for a guided kayak tour or lesson if you’re brand-new, or rent a kayak from a local shop or outfitter who can give a few basic tips before you head out.
You can rent or buy a kayak (or a standup paddleboard, if that’s more your style) through Gearo, a gear site that partners with hundreds of outdoor shops across the country.
Find a spot to paddle via the Go Paddling app, which shows a map of launch sites used by other members. If you’d rather hire a guide, Airbnb Experiences can pair you with a local host who paddles or search Paddling.com for advice and suggestions for places to paddle.
Be mindful of where you launch. “Both freshwater and ocean environments can present challenges and safety concerns — water and air temperatures, weather, wind, boat traffic,” said Kelly Maloney, program director with Maine Kayak, a sea kayaking outfitter in New Harbor, Maine.
The U.S. Coast Guard has a Boating Safety mobile app that offers safety resources, makes it easy to file a float plan with your intended itinerary and has an emergency assistance button. You can find online and in-person instructional courses and local paddling clubs for both kayaking and canoeing through the American Canoe Association’s website.
Life jackets are mandatory. You’ll also want quick-drying clothing, sun protection and a wind breaker. It’s best not to go barefoot — opt for grippy water shoes or a pair of old sneakers, so you can tromp around rocks on shore.
If you decide to purchase a kayak, most shops allow you to try out boats before you buy or host demo days when you can test different kayaks on the water. Look for a stable, entry-level kayak that’s easy to maneuver. Eventually, you may opt to upgrade for one that’s sleeker and faster but less stable.
Sales of kayaks — along with other outdoor equipment like bikes and camping gear — spiked during the pandemic, so you may need to wait a few months for your boat.
“People are rediscovering how great it is to get outside, even in their own neighborhoods,” said Anton Willis, founder and chief design officer at Oru Kayak, a folding kayak company that experienced a more-than-100-percent increase in sales between 2019 and 2020. “We’re building kayaks as fast as we can. A lot of other companies are in that same boat, no pun intended.”
Pro tip for new paddlers: “People think they’re going to capsize in the water, but usually if you’re going to tip over it happens when you’re getting in or out of the boat,” Mr. Willis said. “Start out easy, somewhere shallow and wave-free, like a floating dock or a gentle, sandy beach.”
Join the sailing community.
Sailing has a reputation for being difficult and expensive, but that’s not necessarily the case. “Sailing can be very affordable and accessible. It’s not just for billionaires at the America’s Cup,” said Bob Ross, president of the Seattle Sailing Club, which teaches sailing lessons and rents boats to its members. “Yacht clubs have sailing schools for kids and adults that are very low cost.”
With sailing, it’s all about joining a community of other sailors. Make it serious and become part of a racing crew or keep it casual and go anchor for lunch in a protected harbor. Most sailors love to share their knowledge and welcome newcomers. You don’t necessarily need experience to crew on a bigger boat. Check bulletin boards or show up at the dock at local sailing clubs — or try the Go Sailing app — to see if anyone needs a crew member.
“You can sign up to be what’s called ‘rail meat’ — that’s somebody who sits on the rail and weighs the boat down as it’s heeling,” said Michael Campbell, a founder of the Universal Sailing Club in Baltimore. “That’s the fastest paced learning environment you’ll find.”
And you don’t need access to the ocean to sail. “There are lakes all over the country and every lake has a small yacht or sailing club that tends to be very approachable,” said John Kettlewell, executive director of Sail Martha’s Vineyard, a sailing nonprofit in Vineyard Haven, Mass. “The term ‘yacht club’ sounds snooty, but they’re usually not.”
Find your local sailing club through the American Sailing Association, or search for accredited schools and courses from U.S. Sailing. Summer Sailstice, a global sailing celebration that coincides with the longest day of the year, takes place on June 19 this year, with sailing events open to the public around the world.
If you already know how to sail, GetMyBoat — which is like Airbnb for boat rentals — lists peer-to-peer sailboat rentals as well as outfitters where you can charter a sailboat that you operate yourself or one that comes with a captain.
“You’re being propelled by the wind across the water, you’re steering the boat based on the wind direction,” Mr. Kettlewell said. “It’s a totally new sensation.”
If you’re heading out on your own, start small with a dinghy, like a Laser, Hobie Cat or RS Aero, and learn to sail it well. Those same skills will translate to bigger boats. Safety equipment is, again, critical: personal flotation devices, sun protection and foul-weather gear are all must-haves. You’ll also want non-marking, rubber-bottom shoes.
Pro tip for new sailors: “Sailors have this historic language that we still use,” Mr. Kettlewell said. “The most important nautical terms to learn are ‘port’ and ‘starboard.’ If you’re facing the bow, or the front, of the boat, the starboard is your right-hand side and the port is your left.”
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