I live along a spectacular stretch of California coastline that runs from Pismo Beach up to Avila Beach and recently I’ve been on a mission to find new swim spots along it. I already have an excellent swim spot in downtown Avila Beach, but I know there must be some amazing swim spots just waiting to be discovered below the cliffs and beyond the kelp. I’m not looking for new places to swim because I’m bored with what I’m used to, I just want to make sure I’m not wasting what my piece of coast has to offer by not going out and finding it.
Once you get used to certain routes in a certain spot you start to develop these artificial boundaries of where you “can” and “can’t” swim and you really need to break out of that. If someone asks you why you don’t swim beyond a certain point and the only answer you have is “um, because we don’t?” then maybe it’s time to do some investigating. My local open water swim group doesn’t cross a certain pier and I get anxious when we get too close to it. It’s kind of funny really. Over the summer I finally found an excuse and organized a swim for a friend and I through the pier and over to the next beach. We survived. It was a good swim. New seas are suddenly available to me because we took the initiative to push one of our artificial boundaries.
I’ve been fishing around in Google Maps, visiting different sites, finding beaches, figuring out how to get to them, and doing reconnaissance at different times of day to see how safe and/or treacherous they may be for swimming. Right now I have one solid contender in Shell Beach and am looking forward to swimming and a few more spots with potential yet to be fully investigated.
So how does one go about scouting new swim spots?
1. Get Friendly with Google Maps
It’s amazing how much imagery intelligence you have at your fingertips thanks to Google Maps. Remember what a novelty it was to see an aerial photo of your town 15 years ago? Now you can pull up better images on your computer, or even your phone, for anywhere in the world. I suggest you use that to your advantage. Use the satellite and Earth views to help you find beaches you might not know existed and trails that could take you there.
In the map below I’ve pointed out 3 pieces of beach. You can’t see any of them from the road above and after living here 15 years I was only aware of the existence of one of them until recently. Two of the beaches have staircase access although one is a lot harder to find than the other, and the third you can only get to from the water.
The other bonus to Google Maps is that you can draw out and measure possible routes in it. You can learn how to do that on my website over here.
2. Go Exploring on Foot to Make Sure it’s Accessible
Sometimes the satellite imagery shows you cool beaches that are at the bottom of 40 foot cliffs with no way down to the water. Or you may find a patch of sand that spends most of the day under water and is only exposed at low tide. You need to talk a walk around the actual area to figure these things out. I’d also recommend talking with local surfers if you’re friends with any. They may not be particularly forth coming with this kind of information however, they like to keep their waves secrets.
3. Visit Multiple Times at Various Tide Levels to Look for Hazards – Take Pictures!
Pismo and Avila Beach are both sandy beaches, the coastline between them is extremely rocky. The lower the tide the more rocks you’re going to see. I’ve been visiting certain beaches the last few weeks at different tides to see what they expose. I’m doing my best to find and map out rocks so that we know what areas to avoid when swimming. I have a whole collection of pictures on my phone and other cameras cataloging all the rocks I can find which has helped me figure out where the best channel to swim out would likely be. The other thing I’ve done is watch how the surf breaks. In one spot I’m scouting on big surf days it breaks on the left and right edges of the beach but not the middle where the bottom must drop away. That’s where I want to be when swimming out into opener water. If possible tour the site by kayak or SUP for the best view of the situation.
4. Explore From the Water with a Buddy
Once you have a good idea of what you’re working with and are convinced you have a contender it’s time to get wet. Grab a buddy and go exploring. This isn’t a training swim so much as a stroll through a new patch of water. See if your assertions in regards to waves, entries, exits, rocks, kelp, and other factors are correct. Look for things you would sight off of on a real swim and take mental note. Ideally you want to bring a camera because a picture is a lot better than your memory.
5. If it’s a Good Spot Share and Document Your Findings!
Once you’ve fully vetted a spot share it with the rest of us! Swimming isn’t like surfing, a crowd isn’t going to ruin the fun so don’t keep your find a secret. If you have a blog, post a summary of the spot. If you don’t at least post it to Facebook and share with your swim friends. Ideally every regular open water group should have some kind of web presence to help new swimmers find and join you, but that’s a topic I’ll get a little deeper into at a later date. In the mean time go out and explore! It’s a big ocean and you have beaches to discover!