Swimming in Strong Wind: reading the water

//Swimming in Strong Wind: reading the water

Wind will quickly whip up a calm sea into a storm making swimming quite challenging. Good open water swimmers need to be able to read the water before jumping in. Here’s my essential guide to windy water!

Rear Admiral Sir Francis Beaufort originally described the wind strength in the age of sail by looking at the rigging of ships, his scale went from Force 1 to 12 (above which no canvas sail could be expected to survive!). Although we are past the age of sail you can still read the wind strength using the beaufort scale by looking at the waters surface,  and get a good idea of how it is going to affect your swim.

Force 0, Champagne Swimming

Rarely found in UK force zero is the absence of wind, and the water will have a mirror like quality to it.  Enjoy it, it will be smoother than your local swimming pool!


Force 1, Prosecco swimming

Light air will cause small ripples or scales on the waters surface, its not going to cause any problems for swimming, but the photos might not look quite as good.


Force 2,  Water with texture

Light breeze will form small wavelets on the waters surface, and you’ll feel the wind on your face, still no major problem for swimmers but not the day for finger dragging any more,


Force 3,  Arrival of the white horses

Gentle breeze will cause large wavelets, and occasional breaking crests (white horses) will appear.  The waters now rougher than the busiest pool sessions so might put off some swimmers stroke. Make sure you have a good definite catch to get a solid position at the front end.


Force 4, Getting windy now

A moderate breeze will make small waves,  and there will be a lot more white horses on the water. Its fair to saw that your now swimming in wind, and if youve only ever swam in the pool a force four will be challenging to swim smoothly in.

Force 5

In a Fresh Breeze the waves will be getting a little larger, so maintaining a smooth and balanced stroke will become much harder. It will be difficult to get length at the front of the stroke, and maintain a flat body position. Being flexible with your stroke and going with the flow now become an important tactic. Channel swimmers that experience this level of wind become members of the Force 5 club because of how much more difficult it makes the crossing.

Force 6

Described as a strong breeze you’ll see big branches on trees swaying and people will struggle to use umbrellas (if anyone is using an umbrella at your local open water swimming spot).  Its fair to say that you are now swimming in strong wind. On the water there will now be large waves with spray. At this point taking a breath becomes a gamble if the time is not carefully chosen!

Force 7

In a near gale the waves will be getting bigger, and there will be a lot more spray on coming off the water.  Sighting now becomes very challenging, and swimmers will be very difficult to see from shore or a boat (even if using a tow float or aid)

Force 8, Gale Force

Getting seriously windy now, this is gale force! If you make it to the waters edge you will have got past small small twigs snapping off off trees, and if you see anyone with an umbrella tell them not to open it! The water will now look pretty aggressive, and to most not very inviting. If you are swimming in stong wind of gale strength and looking silky smooth then your are a very good open water swimmer, and also a mad man! (or woman)

Force 9, hard to walk

It might not be a good idea to go swimming when theres light structural damage like chimney pots getting blown off. Force 9 is a  Severe gale, and the sea will look like it is rolling along with long lines of spray blowing downwind.

Force 10

Ok, now we are in a storm, it will be challenging and maybe even dangerous walking on dry land, really not the weather to go swimming. But if you are swimming in a storm expect the sea to have turned white with big patches of deep foam. Breathing will be a challenge.

Force 11

As for above but this is Violent Storm, and the sea is not in a good mood. Waves wont be getting any higher now as the wing is so strong it will actually be blowing the water flatter. Medium sized boats will disappear from view for long periods behind waves and swell so seeing a swimmer will be next to impossible

Force 12

If your in the water in a hurricane you are in trouble, the affect of this wind on land (over 118km/hr) is described as ‘devastation’ and the water wont be any better.


Additional notes:

When the wind is blowing in the same direction as the tide the waters surface will be calmer. When the wind is blowing in the opposite direction to the tide then conditions will be much rougher.

Even small chop such as in a force 4 can reduce a swimmers visibility in the water, therefore the risk of being hit by a boat, or losing a swimmer in the group start to rise significantly.

Swimming efficiently in strong wind is an important skill in the open water swimmers toolkit, allowing you to cope with changing conditions. However swim within your ability, and if you are training for a triathlon or swimming race then remember these will likely be cancelled in winds described near the top of this page.


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