Scared of Swimming in the Ocean: Don’t Let Your Fears Hold You Back

SwimSwam welcomes reader submissions about all topics aquatic, and if it’s well-written and well-thought, we might just post it under our “Shouts from the Stands” series. We don’t necessarily endorse the content of the Shouts from the Stands posts, and the opinions remain those of their authors. If you have thoughts to share, please send [email protected]

This “Shouts from the Stands” submission comes from Carl O’Donnell, a former Olympian and national champion freestyler from New Zealand.

Terrified of swimming in the ocean or open water? You are not alone. One of the most common things that put people off open water swimming or triathlons is the fear of swimming in deep water. This is something the majority of people who get into the sport have to get over, whether they admit it or not.

The fear of swimming in deep water with the thought of not knowing what is under you is really just imaginary thoughts in your head creating a feeling of fear for no reason. Even though it is just imaginary thoughts in your head, it is enough to hold people back from doing their first open water swim or triathlon event. People who have this fear but just swim in the open water anyway would most likely agree that they would enjoy it more if this fear did not exist.

Instead of putting off doing your first event or just putting up with the fear, take a proactive look at the reasons why this fear exists and attempt to resolve or at least minimize these uncomfortable thoughts playing on your mind.

What do you fear about swimming in the open water?

Not knowing what is under me – Fear of the unknown often causes stress in our brains, whether it is not knowing if your house will sell or not knowing what is living 8 meters below the surface of the ocean. This fear is generally based on things we cannot control, if we cannot control them why would we worry so much about them? We are essentially wasting energy and emotionally controlling thoughts on something which only exists in our head. 99.99999999% of the time what is under us in the open water is harmless and not going to come up and visit you.

Seeing the bottom – Some people fear seeing the bottom because they fear what they might see on the bottom, often swimming in the open water with closed eyes. Being able to see the bottom during an open water swim is a major bonus! It makes an open water swim more interesting and chances are it means the water is very clear.

Sharks – Sharks are usually at the top of everyone’s list of fears swimming in the ocean, this is mainly because of media and movies exploiting humans fear of the animal. Sharks, shark attack stories and movies are of high interest to people which is why the media will jump on anything to do with them. Sharks however should be the least of your worries! There are on average only 80 shark attacks around the globe per year, and on average only 1 of these is a death. Let’s put this in perspective…

Lightning kills around 24,000 people a year

Champagne corks kill around 25 people per year

The flu kills between 291,000 and 646,000 people a year

Road crashes kill nearly 1.3 million people each year, that’s on average 3,287 deaths a day

So it is fair to say that the most dangerous parts of open water swimming are, driving to the location, being exposed to the flu from another participant, and celebrating your success with champagne. Since you can’t have a road crash in the open water and your exposure to flu-infected humans is low, perhaps swimming in the open water is safer than your day to day life on land!?

Other animals – All animals in the ocean with the exception of a few are a lot more scared of you then you are of them, including most sharks.

Not being able to touch the bottom – This is an easy one to fix. Get some swimming training in and head out with a group of people in the open water. You will soon realize you have nothing to worry about and will get used to it after only 1 or 2 swims in the open water.

Waves – You do not need to swim in waves to enjoy open water swimming. Be selective of where you swim, starting in calm waters. Once your confidence builds up you can venture to different locations with different water conditions.

Face your fears and get in the water

The best way to get over your fears of swimming in the open water is to just get out and go for a swim! Find some friends or a swimming squad and make a plan to head out in the open water. Tell your friends it is your first time and stick to the shallow water for a while if you are nervous.

Take your time when getting into the water, focus on relaxing, especially when you put your face in the water for the first time.

Stop, rest and try to relax if panic starts to creep in.

Start by swimming in shallow water, up and down the beach if you have to. Stay in the shallow water until you are comfortable.

Choose somewhere with calm waters for your first open water swim, once you build confidence you can venture into rougher waters.

Imagine a life not taking even the tiniest of risks? This life would be impossible, the moment you were born you came into risk. So instead of living in fear and letting it hold you back get out there and enjoy the open water and join the millions of people who love the sport of triathlon and open water swimming.

About Carl O’Donnell 

Carl is head coach at Swim360 Coach (, a former Olympian and national champion freestyler, from New Zealand. Carl now uses his skills and passion for coaching and competing in the open water.

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11 months ago

I read this every time I go to the beach for vacation and it really helps me

4 years ago

Oh get over it more chance of being savaged by a rancid oyster while taking a selfie. Or better still drag an old sheep out behind you as a distraction for the glorious sharks.

Peter Davis
4 years ago

Was in Capitola the other weekend, where sightings of dolphins and smaller whites are normal, and we saw two orcas make the trip south to the Palo Alto and back north around Pleasure Point, just a few hundred yards offshore. That definitely made me think twice about going out past the break. But some old local swam right out in their path at about 1/2 mph pace in full wettie, essentially simulating a near dead seal floating on the surface. Some people!

Reply to  Peter Davis
4 years ago

Judging judging judging..always with the judging..try thinking one day Peter.

Peter Davis
Reply to  Quinty
4 years ago

We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think. When the mind is pure, joy follows like a shadow that never leaves. I think.

Reply to  Peter Davis
11 months ago

I think that too

4 years ago

This is a good premise, but the supporting evidence is terrible! The only fact here about open water swimming is the number of attacks/deaths by sharks. It’s true that we are all far too afraid of shark attacks, but what about the total number of open water swimming deaths? It’s surely much higher than that.

I’m an avid open water swimmer, and was hoping for some evidence to bolster this hobby to my friends and family. Unfortunately, this article really “misses the boat” on that one.

Reply to  Anon
4 years ago


Reply to  Anon
4 years ago

Nah ya can’t have that data its a secret.