Just Keep Swimming, Just Keep Ocean Swimming

Girl standing on paddleboard preparing for ocean swimming,with mountains in the background

Live in the sunshine, swim the sea, drink the wild air‘ [Ralph Waldo Emerson]

Karla Gilbert discusses her love for the ocean and ocean swimming.

Since winning her first professional Ironwoman title at the age of 15, in 1990, Gold Coast super fish Karla Gilbert has drawn inspiration from the ocean, riding an unprecedented wave of success, including two world Ironwoman championships, three national titles and seven series crowns.

Inducted into the surf lifesaving Hall of Fame at local, state, national and international levels before switching to stand-up paddling, the self-professed ‘salt water addict’ turned life coach shares her tips on ocean swimming – recognised as one of the fastest growing recreational sports on the planet – and why being in, on or near the ocean holds the secret to health and happiness. 

What do you love most about ocean swimming? 

Like anything we do purposefully in a natural environment, ocean swimming involves all the senses and is beautifully grounding. Unlike swimming in a pool, with a black line, ocean swimming demands that we are very present to conditions around us and where we are going. There is nothing quite like a good session of salt water therapy!

Top five tips on fun, safe ocean swimming?

1. To be safe, you should be a competent swimmer before you tackle the ocean. Being able to swim okay in the pool is very different to being able to swim in the ocean and a lot hinges on being able to control emotions. For this reason, and if you are quite new to ocean swimming, it is always wise to swim with a buddy in or near patrolled areas or at least tell someone what you are doing.
2. Learn to read the ocean dynamics before entering and avoid any rips, currents and dumping waves.
3. Never panic (I know this sounds easy)! If you find yourself in a difficult situation, wave your arm for help, take deep breaths, float on your back and never try to fight the current.
4. Learn to body surf and use a stroke that allows you to lift your head every 5-10 strokes so you are staying on course while being alert to any oncoming waves.
5. Be present! Involve all your senses and feel every part of your body moving in sync with the flow – the rhythmic ups and downs of the ocean.

Favourite ocean swimming locations?

I love swimming laps in the mouth of Tallebudgera Creek at high tide. The water that runs along the rocks is crystal clear with a breath-taking white sandy bottom. Body surfing at Kirra is great fun – combining it as part of a fitness session, running in between to allow for current drift.

How does Queensland compare to other locations?

Queensland’s water temperatures allow for year-round swimming. Our water quality is amazing compared to many overseas locations I’ve swum in and, more than anything, it is safe. With our lifeguards and surf lifesavers watching patrolled areas all year, you can feel safe and know that the flags have been placed in safe locations for swimming.

Advice on reading ocean conditions?

Being able to read ocean conditions doesn’t happen overnight and comes with experience. Generally, if you see a deeper section of a lot of water running out (more white water with a higher water mark on the beach), this is a rip. Rips are great if you’re competing in ocean events as they are a free ride out to the back of the breaking waves, but not so great if you’re not a strong swimmer and can’t get back in. By simply standing knee-depth in water you should also be able to tell if there is a current along the beach. Allow for currents and always remember to find a landmark on the beach where you know you can return to.

Life lessons from ocean swimming?

Ocean swimming always brings a sense of grounding to me. The beauty of the ocean is that it shows no favourites and demands respect and being in tune with what it dishes out. Everybody is an equal in the ocean, so it doesn’t matter how much money you earn or what status you have in society… we are all equals in nature. Regularly swimming in the ocean reminds me of this and helps in keeping a level head and perspective in life.

Pinch yourself encounters with nature?

Oh, well to tell you the truth from a very young age I’ve always swum with one eye shut to avoid seeing what is at the bottom of the ocean (what you don’t know doesn’t hurt you, right?)! I much prefer coming in contact with nature when I’m on some kind of ocean craft, which happens quite often now that I do a lot of stand-up paddling. But I’ve only had positive encounters ocean swimming – including the odd dolphin sighting!

Best warm-up exercises before ocean swimming?

Take a nice warm-up jog along the beach, complete with arm circles while evaluating ocean conditions.

Is it normal to feel nervous if new to ocean swimming?

Absolutely! The only thing that calms nerves is experience, so the more you do, the easier it will become. Enjoy the challenge that ocean swimming brings and know that the rewards will be there.

Tips on overcoming nerves?

Knowing that water can’t hurt us is one step to feeling at ease. The energy of waves is ever present, so this is something we can’t change. Perhaps choosing to swim on days when the ocean is calm. Also gradually build up is way to help overcome any past traumas and regain confidence.

Dos and don’ts if you get caught in a rip?

Don’t panic. Keep your emotions in check and tell yourself everything is going to be fine. To understand the ocean, most rips feather out the back of breaking waves. So, here you will find yourself in calm water again. If you see a wave coming, take a big breath and try to get to the bottom and hold the sand. Drowning happens when people take in too much water, so reduce the risk and only focus on what is happening in the ocean. Eventually, and if you stay relaxed, the rip will guide you to safer water, so conserve energy and stay calm until help arrives (if you still need it). Rips are only short sections along the beach where water is being returned to the ocean. Usually you can swim back to the beach away from outgoing rips.

Why is getting breathing right so important in swimming and ocean swimming?

Being able to control emotions and breath is the number one rule of safety around water and energy conservation. Holding your breath under oncoming breaking waves and while catching body waves is paramount to ocean swimming (and to avoid swallowing mouthfuls of water!).

Must-have ocean swimming gear?

Keep it simple. A pair of togs (wetsuit if cold), cap, goggles (secured tightly), flippers (if desired) and sense of adventure!

To celebrate summer Queensland-style, there’s no better time (or place) to dive into some of the world’s most epic ocean swimming events from the Gold Coast to the Great Barrier Reef. Check out Queensland’s Top 5 Ocean Swims (guaranteed: this video will bring out your inner mermaid/merman) then mark your calendars for ocean swimming events and other epic fit-cations heroed on the It’s Live! in Queensland calendar of endurance events

Did you know? Ocean swimming can help you live longer, look younger, burn more calories than running and football and even boost your IQ. Find out more.

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