How do we do that? Some swimming theorists believe that an OWSer needs to lift the head immediately after an inhalation; others believe that the head lift should occur just before the inhalation. In my experience, it doesn’t make any difference - either is ok. Swimming beginners learn that we should not lift the head as that causes the hips and legs to drop - and that is true but we must do it in the open water occasionally in order to swim straight. We would otherwise be inclined to cover a much greater distance than we need to and, in a race, this can make all the difference between doing a good time and not. Even in just a casual swim, we probably do not want to wander all over the place.
How far should we lift our heads out of the water? The answer is as little as possible in order to keep to a minimum the added drag and lack of a flat body profile that a head lift brings. Bring just the eyes/goggles out of the water, only enough to see your sighting point.
What is a good sighting point? The best is a fixed natural or artificial structure like a rocky headland, an obvious tree or a building. You may well need to choose a number of sighting points consecutively, especially in a long swim. Remember that it is difficult to see very far when your eyes are at water level. On the Hellespont/Dardanelles swim, the organisers pointed out a succession of obvious sighting points to cater for a significant cross current: radio towers on the far shore to start with, then a huge Turkish flag on a promontory, then the floodlights on a football stadium closer to the destination then, finally, a ship alongside a wharf which was the finish point. In a competitive open water event, such as the swim stage of a triathlon, there will likely be a number of legs, usually separated by buoys/cans. Hopefully these will be large enough and brightly coloured to see at the start of the leg.
There will be some locations where there is no sighting point, such as along a convex or flat shoreline. You may be able to sight on an accompanying boat or paddler, otherwise just do the best you can which is likely to be trying to maintain an equal distance off the shore.
In a competitive open water event, you will likely only need to sight if you are out in front of the pack or out to a side. If you are in the pack, you almost certainly will not be able to see any sighting point at all – so just follow the splash of the person in front of you. In my first open water event, in Canberra’s Lake Burley Griffin, I visited the location many times before the event to instil the sighting points in my mind – but I had no hope of seeing them on the day as there was so much splashing and other distractions (like being kicked and elbowed, goggles ripped off and other fun things).
How often should you sight? This depends largely on the sea conditions, how balanced and symmetrical your stoke is and how relaxed you are. In rough conditions you will need to sight more often as the wind, waves and perhaps the currents will knock you off course more often. And you will likely have to sight when you are on the crest of a wave – because you won’t be able to see your sighting point (buoy, can, tree, building, rocks, etc) when you are in a trough. You may not even be able to see your swimming companions/competitors. And remember that they are experiencing the same conditions as you.
But you probably want some more precise advice, at least to start with and until you can work out your own technique. In calm conditions I tend to sight every twenty strokes to begin with, I then adjust the frequency as I develop more confidence in the conditions – sometimes every five or six in rough conditions and every fifty or even a hundred in perfectly calm conditions*. Just remember the contradictory issues: every time you lift your head, you will slow down and make your stroke less efficient – but if you don’t sight when you should, you will likely swim further than you intend to.
*Sighting every one hundred strokes? Yes, you read this correctly. Try doing it with your eyes closed. This will be part of the topic of the next instalment of OWS techniques: meditation while swimming.