Swimming in a Rough Sea – Good Advice or Reckless Encouragement?

As more and more of us are finding confidence in open water, and with the seaside holidays just on the horizon I thought you might find this article of interest.

Published in 1913 by the ‘London Religious Tract Society’: The Boy’s Own book of Outdoor Games and Pastimes, contains some interesting observations from that champion of sea swimmers Captain Webb.

Swimming in a Rough Sea

Matthew Webb, the son of a country doctor, was born in 1848, learned to swim in the Severn, and as a little boy saved a brother from drowning. This was but the first of several gallant deeds of life-saving by Webb. Trained on the ” Conway,” Webb took to the sea, but relinquished a sailor’s life in 1875. In the August of that year he swam the English Channel. Plunging into the sea from the Admiralty Pier at Dover at one o’clock on August 24, he reached Calais at 10.40 the next morning. He was in the sea nearly twenty-two hours, and swam in all about forty miles. In 1883 Webb attempted a more daring feat, though its extreme peril was urged upon him. He sought to swim through the rapids and whirlpool at the foot of the Niagara Falls. He plunged into the river from a boat on the afternoon of July 24, 1883, and passed safely through the worst of the rapids; but, on reaching the whirlpool, he sank and was drowned. Webb’s Channel swim did much to increase public interest in swimming, and to popularise it as an exercise.


Victoria Park London

There are very few landsmen who know what a really rough sea is. The largest waves ever seen round the English coast, even in winter, give no idea of a storm in mid-Atlantic, or what is to be seen in the China Seas between Singapore and Hongkong when the monsoon is on. It will be of no use for me to describe how to swim to shore through such waves as these, though I do not say but what it is possible. The reader may remember the story of how our old friend Robinson Crusoe landed on his island, when the boat was upset.


The two chief things to guard against are, being dashed by the waves on to the ground or against a rock, or being sucked under by the great wave on its return from the shore. Few people realise the enormous force of the waves.

Webb Swims the Channel

Webb Swims the Channel

Those who have been in a really rough sea in the Atlantic or else­where, will remember how a huge wave often seems to follow the ship as if it were going to overwhelm it, when, instead of the wave coming over the vessel, the ship rises and it passes on. Just so in swimming ashore. You will see a tremendous wave behind you ; if you are not too near the shore, and if there is no crest to this wave, you will find that you will rise with it, and you should then do all you can to swim on the top of the wave, which will help to carry you rapidly towards shore.

Should the wave have a crest, that is, a sort of foaming curl, you must do your best to avoid being caught in it. When, therefore, the wave is close upon you, turn round and dive into the wave, and swim under water with all your might against it. You will soon shoot out the other side, when you can again turn and swim towards the shore. It will generally be found that every third wave and every ninth wave is larger than the rest, and that a very large wave is followed by an unusually small one. When you get near the shore you should watch your opportunity, and try to land in one of these smaller waves.

Swimming in Surf

In swimming out against a heavy surf, of course you should start in one of these lesser waves, and when you see a huge wave coming towards you, dive down and swim under water through it as much as possible. You will find that you shoot out the other side, and you will by these means avoid being caught by it and perhaps dashed on shore. Recollect that the waves out at sea have the appearance of moving along at a rapid pace. This is an optical illusion. The water moves chiefly up and down. (I am not taking into account any tide.) If you watch a log of wood in a heavy sea, you will see the log rise and fall, and you will notice it is not carried along on the top of the wave—except if it gets on to the top of a wave and gets dashed on the shore. It will often get very near the top of the wave, and the wave will break in to the shore, leaving the log still swimming in the trough of the sea beyond. The best sort of swimming to practice in order to swim through a heavy surf, is to learn to swim well under water.

To be able to swim through a strong surf is sometimes very useful. Many years ago, I was at Port Natal, in South Africa, and each night I used to go out in a boat which was fastened to what is known as a surf-line, one end of which was fastened to a wreck out of which I was assisting to get the cargo, and the other end of the line was fastened to the shore.

The boat at night had to be tied to the wreck in order to keep it afloat. I had to swim back through the surf each night, and out again next morning to unfasten the boat. The natives, though generally supposed to be famous swimmers, were unable to do this themselves.

Great care should be taken by feeble swimmers in bathing, not merely in a rough sea, but in what is known as a heavy swell. Often when the sea looks almost calm, if there is a flat sandy shore, the water will rise and fall in a very deceptive manner.

Advice to Boys

When there is a swell on the sea, the depth of the water may suddenly vary from five feet to seven feet. A weak swimmer who gets knocked off his feet is entirely at the mercy of the water, and as the tide may be running towards where the ground is just a trifle lower, a person might be carried out of his depth by this decep­tive undulating motion of the water, and find great difficulty in getting into it again.

The most useful form of swimming is to be able to keep up a long time, and I would strongly advise boys before they begin to learn to swim twenty or thirty yards very fast by means of the overhand stroke, to practice first a steady breast stroke. This may seem old-fashioned, but I have always found the benefit of it. When you can keep up for, say a quarter of an hour without touching the bottom or resting, then it is quite time enough to begin what may be called fancy swimming.

A person who can swim a little is generally more liable to get into danger than one who cannot swim at all. The latter will most likely either have a rope or keep well within his depth. The former is apt to venture out just as far as he can, and too often a somewhat nervous person who can swim a little when he knows he is in his depth, gets flurried on suddenly finding he cannot touch the bottom.

Another important point to consider, even if you are a first-rate swimmer, is the temperature of the water. For instance, a very good swimmer—i.e. one who has been known to swim for an hour—might run into considerable danger if, without thinking about it, he took a swim out in very cold water.

How times have changed! Can you imagine boys being encouraged to prepare for and then to enjoy swimming in rough seas today? Ironically it does still happen, under the umbrella or the RLSS. Please read through the safety advice found on the Hung Out to Dry website before swimming in rough seas!

Swim Safe: advice for parents and children

Swim Smart: for Adults and Teenagers 

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