Open water swimming on Long Island

Swimmers wade into the water at West Neck

Swimmers wade into the water at West Neck Beach in Lloyd Harbor. (Credit: Steve Pfost)

After swimming in the open waters of Long Island's bays, harbors and the ocean, returning to even an Olympic-size pool may seem like taking a dip in a bathtub.

"Open-water swimming is a great way to start the day," says Carol Moore, 59, of Huntington, fairy pod mother of the West Neck Pod (facebook.com/westneckpod, westneckpod@verizon.net) swim group that has more than 100 members and calls the waters of Lloyd Harbor's West Neck Beach home. Members swim Saturday and Sunday mornings, and newbies are welcome. "I used to be phobic about open water.

"The monsters in my head were much more frightening than the things that were really out there," Moore says.

The West Neck Pod hosts buddy swims in which newcomers are paired with experienced members of the pod. (Newbies should call ahead to ensure there are enough experienced swimming buddies for pairing.)

Jonathan Zeif, 60, of Syosset, took the plunge into West Neck Beach's waters with the pod. Although a lifetime swimmer and a former lifeguard, he hadn't braved the waters of West Neck Beach.

"Am I ready?" Zeif says as those around him slip into wet suits. "I hope I am. There is a different type of adventure in the open water. There is this sense of accomplishment that you can't get in a pool. In a swimming pool, you can see where you're going and follow the line at the bottom of the pool. It is easier, less challenging in the pool."

Lure of open water

Most agree the pull of open-water swimming is the expansive feel of an endless stretch of water.

"In a pool, you take 10 or 12 strokes and have to turn around," Zeif explains. "Think of it like having to run in a gym and turn around every 15 steps."

Marion Quigley, 54, of Northport, who usually swims in open water on vacation in the Caribbean, also took a newbie plunge at West Neck Beach.

"It is very social out there," says Quigley. "You stop, rest and chat. You catch your breath, then you're off again."

Safety first

Part of the challenge of open-water swimming is understanding the currents and staying on point with each stroke.

"Between the current and the wind, you can drift pretty far if you don't keep an eye on where you're going," Quigley explains.

Experienced swimmers know to swim against the current on the way out and with the current on the return.

In addition to wearing wet suits against the cold and the occasional jellyfish, West Neck members also wear small, fluorescent floats to make them visible in the water and to use for waving if they need assistance from other swimmers.

Getting started

Moore says the first rule is to know the body of water in which you're swimming. The second is to know your abilities.

"You should be able to do a mile in the pool comfortably," says Moore of those wondering whether open-water swimming is for them. "Can you tread water? If you flail around or aren't adept at breathing while you swim ... or don't feel you can overcome the current, maybe open-water swimming is not yet for you. If you're a mile out, you have to be strong enough and confident enough to swim back to shore comfortably."

The buddy system also helps those who are new to "sighting," or fixing on a landmark or object to keep them on course. Sarina Napoli, 11, had two buddies when she took her maiden swim with the West Neck Pod.

"It wasn't that easy to stay on course," says Sarina, who was joined by her sister Alexis, 21, a lifeguard. "I had to bring my head up a lot to stay on course," Sarina says. "Swimming against the current helps because it forces you to focus on where you're going and what you're doing. It makes it an adventure."

Adds Rob Ripp, a competitive swimmer and West Neck Pod member from Huntington: "In open water, you have to constantly be aware of your surroundings. It is exciting because you have to adjust your swimming to the changing conditions. In the pool, the only thing that changes is the temperature."

FOR MORE

Another open-water swim option for Long Islanders.

WHAT Open Water Swim Long Island

WHEN | WHERE Open-water swims 6:45-8 p.m. Wednesdays, through August, Great South Bay, behind the Fire Island Lighthouse, Robert Moses State Park

INFO $25 per session for nonmembers, $20 for members; $50-$75 for one-hour private lesson; 516-356-5306, openwaterswimli.com

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