Sea Swim Skills

Most Swimming skills are beyond the scope of the information here, however a few pointers from the Surf Life Saving Racing world are very useful for the beach lifeguard and in particular advice on how Surf Swimmers negotiate surf. These are observations from training sessions and competitions over the decades and work best when tried out, appraised, discussed and worked on with other experienced lifeguards. Varying opinions and techniques may arise but these are some of the man points to consider.

This section should be understood before you attempt the INS + OUTS and is always enhanced by technique advice from an experienced lifesaver.


  • Picking an attack point:- Entering the sea at the best place is paramount. You can save lots of effort by thinking about this first.
    1. Is there a Rip Current you can use rather than fight your way out through surf?
    2. Is there a drift close in or further out?
    3. Where is the marker buoy in relation to the currents? (Where is the casualty going to be in relation to your swim course? – PREPARE by evaluating the seas whilst on patrol. Always be aware of the conditions and the best means of rescue available. Think ahead.
  • The Run In:- Run hard into the sea using high steps in the shallows using a high hurdle technique on the rear leg whilst minimising drag in the water.
  • Dolphin:- When it is too deep to wade/hurdle efficiently you should emulate a dolphin by :
    1. Diving forward under the sea using momentum and style to efficiently glide a maximised distance (not maximum – speed out is the essence).
    2. Reach out with your hands and dig into the sand pulling yourself forward into a crouch.
    3. Push up and forward with your legs to the surface and down again – taking in a breath and observing the oncoming waves for timing.

Some people find this difficult and may need lots of coaching. Dolphin races across the beach are a good way to work on your style. Race out to waist depth then set a 50m – 100m across beach distance at about waist depth.

Once swimming full stroke you need to develop the following skills :

  • Be aware of sandbanks where you may switch back to dolphin
  • Looking out to sea: – You need to look ahead to check your direction, to see when a wave is coming and to spot casualties/swim buoys. Head down between waves for speed is also important! The best place to look ahead is at the top of an unbroken wave.
  • Diving under a wave: – Practise again makes perfect. Small waves just need ducking under in a very quick, shallow duck dive or just a punch stoke at the lip and a dip through pulling hard. Bigger waves need a deeper dive, which should be a smooth switch from crawl into a duck dive. The angle of the dive should be forwards but VERY BIG STUFF may want a deeper dive.

Your aim is to avoid the forward mass and energy of the wave.

  • In most Surf Swimming situations you will be able to get a grip on the bottom. Dig your hands and fingers in and hold. Wait for the force of the wave to pass and drive upwards with your legs and maybe a good pull with the arms through and behind the wave. Break the surface take a breath and strike out. Look up to judge for your next dive.

WARNING: – Big relentless “white water of 4 foot” or more may mean that you will get very few forward strokes and may need some good breaths in order to maintain a comfortable balance with the succession of dives. Be aware of this and practise to ascertain your limits. If you end up in this impact zone, it is often easier to keep progressing out rather than to head in for the shore. Consider staying outside big, heavy surf with a casualty to wait for backup from a board or boat (IRB or ILB).


  • Bodysurfing is surfing with just your body. You need to pick out a wave that is just about to break and swim at speedin front of and with the wave. The theory being that your momentum will match the wave and at a critical point, as in surfing, you will feel the wave pick you up. Take a good breath and hold. Throw arms forward and off you go.
  • A good shape wave may allow you to lift your head forwards and breathe whilst surfing on your chest with arms back, or with one hand forward with one arm stroking, maybe still breathing to the side.
  • Powerful leg kicks, dolphin or freestyle will help keep you on the wave. Try alternate arm pulling for some extra speed to keep you on the wave and back to surfing with arm or arms out.
  • PRACTICE is critical and you will soon find where your skills and abilities lie and what works best for you. You may find that some surf means you only go as far as you can hold your breath. If you wish to go back for more, don’t surf all the way in.
  • Exit a big wave by completing a forward roll and coming back up behind the wave.
  • Wetsuits and Fins make body surfing easier.

Typical training leg summary

  • Run hard into the sea using high steps in the shallows
  • Begin dolphin when running is slowed by water depth (thigh high)
  • Keep an eye on the waves and ensure surfacing between waves
  • When dolphin style is difficult to maintain due to depth (chest or lower ribs) – SWIM
  • Dive or Duck under waves maintaining fast forward progress
  • Stop, Recover, Wait for a wave


Fin swimming can follow the basic format of the FREE SWIM Session. Ins and outs are great for practising the fins-ontechnique and developing the core principals. Bodysurf sessions will have an extra enhancement and make catching waves easier. Distance swims will build up your leg power and endurance for fin use.

FIN Ins + Outs and Distance could be used in conjunction with a Rescue Tube for technique and safety respectively.

If you are not familiar with fins then try and get some specialist training or build up your leg strength with short sessions. Fin swimming will exhaust you quicker than a free swim, so breathing every stroke is a good idea. The technique needs practice. With High Seas and Strong Currents every lifeguard on patrol should have fins. The basic technique of a fin rescue is:

  • Run in with fins in one hand (and tube in the other if using a rescue tube).
  • Let tube trail from ankle depth ensuring that it trails free behind you.
  • When you are ready to dolphin keep the fins in hand and dolphin, best with a fin in each hand
  • When you reach waist-chest depth and would normally start swimming, tuck one fin under an arm and get the other one on by completely rolling into or under the sea and pulling on the fin.
  • Grab a breath (or two) and duck under to get the second fin on.
  • Strike out into the waves duck diving and using good dolphin kicks under the waves
  • Make sure you get a good look up in front to see when waves are coming.

When a patient is secured and your legs are strong enough (more practise) backstroke finning is strong and allows you to keep an eye on the patient and breathe more easily. Bodysurfing will be a dream with fins so enjoy it but be wary of using a rescue tube whilst bodysurfing.