This is a great poll question and I appreciate everyone's responses, especially the triathletes and ocean lifeguards. I'd say that any answer needs to be prefaced with "It depends . . ."
For pure open ocean swimming (with no surfboard, paddleboard, bodyboard, etc.), like in a competitive event such as a triathlon, or a beach patrol guard swimming out to make a rescue, it sounds like freestyle with head above water or bilateral breathing technique is the best option for speed. I am not so sure about "efficiency," if one defines efficiency as getting from pt A to pt B with least amount of energy used. I think cases can be made for breaststroke or sidestroke (which are no doubt slower than freestyle) as being less tiresome, especially for the person who doesn't have a competitive swimming background. Experienced competitive swimmers have a very efficient freestyle stroke because they've probably spent hours training and have gone through countless stroke clinics with coaches who help improve arm and leg movements for the entire stroke cycle.
I think for surfers, bodyboarders, and paddle boarders who lose their board while in the surf, this question becomes more important, and everyone should think about what they would do in bigger, heavier, or rougher conditions. I lived in Hawaii for 15 years before moving back to my home state of Maryland, and I had several instances on Oahu's North Shore where my leash broke and I lost my board on big days. If my board was near enough and I thought I could get to it before it got washed in, I would go for it using heads up freestyle. If my board was inside and I knew I would be in for a long swim in through the impact zone, I would do sidestroke (facing either left or right, or sometimes switching). I used sidestroke to conserve my energy, and I could actually go pretty fast, at least as fast as I could breaststroke. I preferred sidestroke over breaststroke because it was easier to look outside to see when sets were coming, while still swimming towards the shore (or towards the channel where waves weren't breaking). It definitely sucked getting hit by a big set without your board and you were starting to feel tired swimming. My technique when I was sidestroking in and a big set or wall of whitewater was approaching would be to keep swimming in until the wave or whitewater got pretty close, then I would turn and face the wave/whitewater, take a big breath, dive down and take a couple of pulls and kicks (but not too many to save energy), turn so I was facing the surface with my back facing the bottom and spreadeagle my arms and legs (one of my navy surf bros called this the "human sea anchor" technique), and swim up for air after the turbulence subsided.
Having a swim-in plan or idea of what you're going to do if you lose your board is probably a good idea, although now that I surf Assateague or Indian River these days, "plan" is probably too strong of a word for "head to beach." In Hawaii, if we were out with people we knew and someone lost a board, we always had someone with a board "escort" the person swimming in through the impact zone. Even if someone lost a board whom we didn't know, we'd still keep an eye on him or her and sometimes escort them in. It was also standard practice to retrieve someone's board and either hold it for them or paddle it back out to them (usually as they were simultaneously swimming in), while towing your own board by its leash (realizing your own board posed a risk if others were nearby while you had it dragging behind you).
Of course, if I could do the Man from Atlantis dolphin swim, I wouldn't have posted this long-winded response and I probably wouldn't even need no steenkin' surfboard to catch waves . . .
I have such big stones that I can simply walk along the ocean floor. Slow but steady
Swim whenever you like on your own schedule at your own perfect place. No traveling, no crowded pools, no heavy chlorine. I am a distance swimmer (1500m in the pool, anything more open water!) I mostly preferred freestyle.
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I misunderstood and thought this was a survival type of post. I was thinking survival stroke. I lifeguarded from age16-22 on the Atlantic Ocean and agree with the "it depends" answer. Triathlons are way different than being shipwrecked 5 miles offshore and call for different techniques.
I'm impressed so many folks are into ocean swimming here...
I used to switch up running/ swimming (even did a sprint triathlon) in Micronesia which was sharky but crystal clear water with maximum visibility and very reefy inside a mile or so cutting down on chop but Florida is too murky for me to feel comfortable about the sharkyness
i dont know what freestyle is.i usually doggy paddle or breast stroke.i find it hard to do the swimming where u have ur head in water and lean to get a breath.all u really gotta do for the ocean is tread water.if u can tread water for 30mins youll be ok.water comes in,water goes out.thats all u need to know.use the oceans energy instead of wasting your energy.go out with a rip,and bodysurf in!
my mothers boyfriends grandma,is supposedly some crazy olympic swimmer.idk,idc,but grandma can swim.u can catch her anyday in the summer between sea bright and sandy hook.she swims like a half mile out,then swims parrelel to beach.me and my buddy were out on day,and seen her,not kknowing who she is,we tried to swim out to her to rescue her,if she was in stress,which she wasnt,but shes a hell of a swimmer.if ur a local at sandy hook,you definitly know who im talking about.old white lady with short hair.
lets see, I do the oh-jesus-dear-lord-save-me-entire-face-above-water-freestyle-where-the-f*CK-did-my-board-go-oh-****-what-just-touched-my-leg stroke
I would say if you're trying to get back to the beach after losing a board, and you're like the rest of us on the east coast where you are basically going back in through a heavy beach-break, your best bet will be either breast stroke or side stroke. One advantage of side stroke is you can actually see what's coming down on you from behind, keep your head out of the water for constant breathing, and make fairly good progress if your side-stroke kick technique is pretty good.
Keep in mind that efficiency in swimming comes from control over your rhythm and timing, especially your breath timing. You will quickly become exhausted no matter how in-shape you are if you start flailing in the water and gasping for air. Whatever stroke you choose, you want strong, deliberate (not rushed) strokes, and as controlled and consistent a breathing rhythm as possible. I often personally like to count my strokes to make sure they are happening to a consistent beat. You do not want to constantly find yourself having to accelerate/decelerate in the water ... THAT will wear you out very quickly.
It's these criteria that make me believe that in heavier surf, freestyle is a poor choice. Efficient freestyle is all about relaxing and gliding through the water, but none of that is going to be possible in heavy surf. Additionally any breathing rhythm you may attempt to maintain will be shot each time you tilt you head and get a mouthful of water. In order to avoid that, you're going to have to over-rotate to really get your head to the side or even out of the water, but at that point, you're actually in the correct position for side-stroke, and in very bad form for freestyle.
While freestyle is definitely much faster than any other stroke in ideal conditions, when the surf gets big and the water is rough, you're going to lose a lot of the efficiency that normally makes freestyle fast. In order to maintain the ideal scenario of consistent rhythm with strong, smooth strokes, a swimming style such as side-stroke or breast-stroke will most likely be the best bet, even if it's not the fastest way back to the beach.
^^^ THIS, perfect explanation
Originally Posted by jasorod