The Melbourne Open Water Swimming Club is based at Williamstown Beach.
The club is an incorporated association dedicated to supporting and providing access to open water swimming for people from all backgrounds and abilities. The club has recently affiliated to Masters Swimming Victoria.
Open water swimming takes place in a natural uncontrolled environment.
The Melbourne Open Water Swimming Club supports swimmers with safety equipment, education, squads, training, coaches, teachers, swim buddies and safety teams.
The club follows Lifesaving Victoria guidelines for open water swimming, in particular:
Don’t swim alone far from shore.
Don’t swim while cold.
Prevention is the best safety.
All swim groups are risk assessed and have appropriate safety teams.
Swim groups generally stay within the no-boating area.
The Melbourne Open Water Swimming Club is making Open Water swimming accessible to everyone.
The club is registered, incorporated and operating but we are building this organisation from scratch, with a generic name, no logo or mascot yet. We do have sponsors:
UPDATE: September 2021: The water is getting slighter warmer every week in Melbourne and now is a great time to jump and have a go. The water is usually clearer and often calmer than summer months.
Here is the executive summary:
Cold water swimming is awesome. People start out hesitant and then love it. You will be in a good mood when you get out. Cold water swimming produces endorphins more effectively than just about any other activity, so you won’t regret doing it, safely.
Yes you can swim for a short time in water temperatures from 10 to 15 degrees without a wetsuit but you will be cold and you will get colder when you get out. If you are not acclimatised to the cold water, you will probably need a wetsuit for temperatures below 15 degrees until your body gets used to the cold water. That takes weeks and months.
Walk in to the water slowly. Put your hands down in the water as you walk in. When your hands start to feel ok with the temperature (might take 5 to 10 minutes of standing around chatting), you are ready to dive in, though you might like to start with some breaststroke or water polo – head up freestyle.
The first ten minutes are confronting. Your face, hands and feet will feel the cold the most. After that you will realise that you’re starting to get used to it and you will even be starting to enjoy the amazing feeling all over. Like your whole body, nerves and and senses are being overloaded, bombarded, activated.
Don’t stay in cold water (under about 15 degrees) for longer than 45 minutes until you are quite experienced. If you are too cold, you may not realise it so set a firm time limit for yourself and stick to it.
Don’t swim in cold water alone.
Always plan for your recovery after the swim. You will get colder when you get out. Have a thermos of hot tea handy and warm clothes. Get out of the wind and out of wet swimsuits.
Be prepared to move around in the sun or sit in a car with the heater on until you warm up again. Shivering is OK, it won’t last forever but you can’t drive until you warm up. So you need to schedule recovery time. For newbies to cold water swimming this might be up to 30 minutes.
Read below for more info about the cold water swimming including the risks and more about how to do it safely.
My personal cold water swimming journey:
Like most swimmers, I have come from a pool swimming background to open water swimming. I found the cold water a deterrent for a couple of years and would stop open water swimming in Autumn and come back to it in Spring.
I now swim in the ocean year round, often with no wetsuit in the middle of winter, down to temperatures of 9 – 10 degrees and love it, look forward to it and assist other swimmers to do it.
What I wear for cold water swimming:
I used to swim with a thick 5 mm wetsuit and thermal cap (see pic below near the end of this article). Now I wear two latex swim caps and ensure I pull them down over my ears to prevent the cold getting into my inner ears.
I’ve done away with the thick wetty and now wear a thin 2mm sleeveless wetty and that is more than enough for mid-winter swimming. So your body does change and adapt and you reap health benefits from doing it. You burn heaps of calories (but beware the urge to ‘carb-load’ afterwards).
UPDATE April 2021: Cold water swimming in Melbourne is starting again for winter 2021.
Is cold water swimming healthy? Is swimming in the cold winter ocean safe or advisable? What water temperature is considered cold in cold water swimming?
Firstly, yes, swimming in the sea during winter can be healthy and safe and completely energising and revitalising. There is no doubt that cold or cool water immersion can assist with blood circulation and science says this is just the start of the benefits. Your mood will improve and your brain functions will improve as a result of more blood flowing through the head.
But, and there is a big but, you need to know some of the basics before jumping in. And you probably won’t be jumping in anyway, more like a slow walk at best.
That’s because cold water swimming done wrong can be risky and dangerous to your long term health.
Is cold water dangerous?
Cold water swimming comes with risk. Here are the major ones:
Cold water shock – When you first get in the water, you will feel the shock of the cold, especially on your head, hands and feet. The terms “Ice cream headache” and “Brainfreeze” will have new meaning for you. Your breathing will be constrained and you need to focus on your exhale to calm down. Cold water shock can lead to panic attacks requiring assistance or rescue. Enter water slowly with hands in the water. Don’t submerge your head in the cold water until you feel ready.
Hypothermia – the big one. Hypothermia is when your body’s core temperature falls below 35C. This can lead to unconsciousness, organ damage, organ failure and cardiac arrest. You may not realise you have hypothermia or how low your temperature has fallen because your brain and body is not functioning efficiently. Never swim alone, never swim when you are shivering and never swim too long.
Swim slow down – Cold water swimming causes your body to restrict blood flow to the arms and legs. This slows down your movements but you may not realise it. Eventually you can no longer swim properly. Don’t stay in the water if you are at all struggling or slowing down.
Surfer’s Ear – Cold water can damage the inner ear. Pull your swim cap(s) down over your ears to prevent the water entering your ears or use ear plugs or even blue-tak in your ears.
After-chill – When you get out, the cold blood in your arms and legs begins to circulate again, lowering the core body temperature. You may feel colder ten minutes after your swim than during your swim. Warm tea – to warm up your core from the inside and warm clothes as soon as possible is the best solution. A steaming hot shower straight from the cold sea is less effective and not very beneficial.
How to swim in winter / How to swim in cold water.
First – yes do it you will enjoy it. No one ever regretted a (safe) swim. Be prepared though if you want the benefits, not the injuries.
There is nothing enjoyable, smart, healthy or tough about swimming for long periods alone, far from shore in very cold winter water with just speedos to protect your modesty.
You can get hypothermia from swimming for long periods in relatively warm water – into the mid 20s degrees Celsius, so winter water needs to be respected.
First a wetsuit, gloves, boots, cap (or two) is the best way to protect yourself from the cold while swimming in winter. But even all this neoprene will not protect you from Hypothermia and all the associated risks after about an hour.
Second – Swim in a group, never alone, don’t stray far from shore and shorten your swim for winter.
Third: A thermos of hot tea is your best friend.
Fourth: A run along the sand before or after your swim can help keep you warmer or warm back up.
How long should I stay in the cold water?
Lifesaving Victoria say if you are in cold water for more than one hour, you almost certainly have hypothermia and are at risk of black out. Limit cold water swimming to less than one hour in winter when water temperatures are low.
If you have low body fat, you will want to be getting out of cold water after about 45 minutes, depending on the temperature.
What temperature is “Cold Water Swimming?”
Cold Water swimming is a general term but there are guidelines and health and safety regulations around cold water swimming events. Swimming Australia, FINA, triathlon organisations all have rules for cold water swimming based on health advice. All too often these rules get developed after a tragedy or many, so let’s find out more:
Cold water swimming temperatures in centigrade/Celsius:
Mid 20s degrees: warm enough for everyone
22C: Warm in Victoria, but a bit nippy for northerners from NSW and Queensland!
20C: You might like a wetsuit for long swims.
18C: Time for a wetsuit. FINA and Swimming Australia say wetsuits (not swim suits) are mandatory in OWS events under 18 degrees.
16C: FINA and Swimming Australia rules say no event can be held in water under 16 degrees.
15.5C: Swimmers who want to qualify for an English Channel attempt must swim for two hours, without wetsuit in water that is 15.5C or less. This is really cold and you will need time to recover from swimming in water of this temperature. You can’t leave the water and expect to be able to drive a car, for example.
10C: This is cold. Limit swims to well under one hour and do not attempt without a wetsuit at very least.
8C: Do not enter the water for more than a very short period of time – max 30 minutes – for the most experienced swimmers.
5C: This is called Ice swimming. Please seek medical advice.
I no longer need or want the thermal cap and thick wetsuit. My body has got used to the cold water and I look forward to winter swimming, when the water is crisp and clear and invigorating.
I have been competing in Olympic distance triathlons since the 13/14 season here in Melbourne. I have always been a good runner and the bike came naturally. The swim however was harder work and seen as a necessary evil to competing.
Leading into races, my anxiety levels would be at an all time high thinking about the swim. I always managed to get through well but knew I could do much better with dedicated open water swimming coaching.
I decided leading into the 17/18 season that I would get some coaching, as I wanted to take my racing to the next level. I looked online and came across Coach Jason’s open water swimming class on a Saturday morning at Williamstown.
After attending my first class I immediately felt much more comfortable in the open water. Coach Jason has a friendly teaching style and provides a lot of great advice and drills to help improve technique and efficiency.
I spent 4 weekends in a row in Coach Jason’s class with my confidence and technique getting better each week, Coach Jason then encouraged me to move into The Mussels group. The Mussels are a group of swimmers who get together every Saturday morning and swim in a non-competitive and highly encouraging environment. Some swim a couple of hundred metres, other swim 3km+, it’s totally up to you.
The Mussels have been absolutely incredible for my further development and I owe a big thanks to Tim and Neil for their guidance and support. I am now swimming 2.5km+ every Saturday morning in the open water. It has resulted in me taking 5 minutes 17 seconds off my swim leg PB for 1500 metres, and 6 minutes 8 seconds off my Olympic distance PB this season. I look forward to continuing to swim with The Mussels throughout the rest of the year in preparation for the 18/19 triathlon season.
If you are looking to get more confident in the open water and take your triathlon swim leg to another level, I can’t recommend Coach Jason’s class and The Mussels group highly enough. They have helped remove my open water anxiety and turned the swim into nearly my favourite leg of a triathlon.
Can we run an open water swim group – in the sea – for multi class and Special Olympics swimmers?
To tell the truth, I was reluctant to find out – but when Hans from Special Olympics persisted and we ventured into this, we discovered a whole new experience to enjoy. And that was swimming with people who don’t get to explore the deep blue sea, the salty water, the sun and the movement.
Yes the movement all around – waves, chop, windy splashes, currents. I didn’t quite appreciate how that might be the big first impression – and big first hurdle to overcome – for pool swimmers with special needs.
“Why is it moving?”
I’ve got a good answer for that question now. But there were other hurdles. The wetsuits were difficult to put on. There was no actual end to the pool.
Plus there was the feeling of unsteady sand under feet. We expected that might create uncertainty for our autistic participants but the swim buddies were all great supporters and just essential confidence builders. We got to the water!
Now, after two clinics, we seem to have created a bit of a monster. Most of the participants were so happy with the day out at the beach they have been asking when they can do it again
No OW swimming for multi class athletes
Multi class and Special Olympics athletes have, up until now, largely missed out on enjoying open water swimming. Supporting swimmers with special needs is a labour-intensive operation requiring competent swimmers to be buddies, other safety volunteers and the coaches to all work together with the athlete, their carers, coach and club. Insurance, of course, is a consideration and a risk assessment approach is required.
There has been no multi class categories in open water events in Victoria until 2016. And no way for pool squads to train in the open water.
Now some open water events, like the WOW Challenge / VOWC and a few other public participation open water swims in Melbourne recognise and support multi class swimmers. We think eventually every event will need to buy more medals for multi class athletes and think seriously about how they need to support access for all swimmers.
Bringing it all together
Hans and I first talked this idea through with Liz Gosper from Inclusive Sports Training six months before anyone got near the water. We got great support from Special Olympics (thanks Simon!) and the volunteer lifesavers at WSLSC. Nothing would have been possible without the swim buddies from The Mussels and Swimming Victoria backed us up as well. We could not have put this on without all of these organisations chipping in.
The stars aligned for us at Williamstown to bring this project together. Our first two open water clinics were a huge success.
What actually happened
At our November and December 2017 clinics, swimmers from Special Olympics Victoria looked tentatively at the sea from the safety of the Lifesaving Club’s front lawn. Looking at Mum, Dad and the coaches for assurance, these swimmers were introduced to their ‘swim buddies’ from WSLSC’s Ocean Swimming Club “The Mussels.”
The buddies helped swimmers put on some donated wetsuits (thanks Inclusive Sports) and we met on the beach for dryland exercises. We stood in a circle and joked around a bit.
A couple of swimmers found the feeling of the shifting sand under their feet stressful. We hadn’t yet got to the water. I may have been concerned at that point how this was going to turn out.
But the buddies did a great job, sticking close to the swimmers and with our three WSLSC volunteers on rescue boards we leapt into the sea. Well some didn’t quite leap. More of a slow amble.
We practised high elbows and body position in the open water and sighting before breathing. We played touch the toes and had fun drafting and trying to swim straight. By the end of the hour we had swum more than 1.5km in deep water and no one had returned to shore.
For me the enjoyment of the participants and the look of new confidence on faces proved the concept. The icing on cake has been the medals and podium finishes at open water events by participants from our clinics. These are strong pool swimmers who have rarely before ventured into the open water.
The volunteers who helped all had a great time as well, as did Hans and I, so yeah, we’ll be doing it again!
If you are planning on a great summer of swimming in open water events, triathlons or just enjoy getting out in the sea, you need to be at the pool each week.
But many swimmers waste their time, money and effort going for a swim by themselves. Nothing replaces the workout, the skills, the technique and the rapid improvement you get from swimming at the pool with a squad and coach.
And because it’s a great social experience, you’ll come back again and again, and reap the long term benefits of an active lifestyle. You’ll be encouraged to work and push your boundaries because everyone is sharing the same goal – of improving our swimming and fitness.
Making a commitment to train with a group is the step up that many triathletes and swimmers need to enjoy their swimming and perform when it counts.
Open water swimming is a rapidly growing sport and Williamstown Beach is the home of Victoria’s biggest open water swimming program.
Thousands of swimmers enjoy our beautiful beach, abundant sea life and and marine sanctuary each year. Williamstown Swimming and Lifesaving Club host the Victorian Open Water Championships each December and the WOW Challenge public participation swim festival.
Every Saturday morning and Wednesday evening after work (during daylight savings) there is a free swimming group and swim coaching classes.
A swim from Williamstown Beach, out across the deep blue water to Altona Beach … and back? That’s 7.6km of swimming in the sea.
Are you crazy??
That’s what I first thought when the idea was put to me. I’m the guy squatting at bottom left of the picture above.
In the pic above are some very good swimmers. And then there’s me.
From the left, Freya is in the pink cap is super fit and so is Adam next to her. Vince at the back accompanied us on a Rescue Board. Grant, the muscleman at front & centre is an English Channel swimmer. Behind Grant is Faris and Simon (yellow cap). These two are talented freestylers who never stop, just like Joanie on the right.
In this pic (below) is the approximate course we take to Altona from Williamstown SLSC.
Leaving from the beach, we turn right at the end of the rock groyne and swim over “the Crystals.” This area is alive with plants, animals and every colour, but watch out for spiny urchins and sharp, slippery rocks.
I thought I would stop at Altona Dog Beach and get a lift back with Mike, who kindly drove my towel and drink over. But everyone else was jumping back in to swim all the way back. I couldn’t be the only one stopping at halfway.
In the end I surprised myself and completed the 7.6km round trip. This was the first time I had ever completed a big swim out in the sea. My trip to Altona and back really opened my eyes up to a great experience.
I’ve been swimming in the sea every week since my trip to Altona, two years ago.