I was cutting a rug down at a place called the Jug with a girl named Linda Lou....you know the rest for sure. Spring'll be here before we know it; get ready to dance.
Our first outdoor swim of the season every year is in a man-made lake. It's a good venue, the water's clean and organization good. They also have good food! If you choose the mile swim, it's a single "lap" of this narrow but long body of water. The two mile, twice around. On the outbound leg, it's your first 800 or so meters racing of the year, everybody's feeling good, checking out the houses that circle the lake and their owners sitting in aluminum folding chairs on the docks. These folks are so close that they'll actually talk to you as you swim by. All's going well until you make the turn to head home. Then bam! The orientation of the lake is such that on a clear morning, the blinding sun is directly in your eyes! For those athletes who didn't consider this fact in their pre-swim planning, and are wearing clear goggles, the difficulty factor just hit the roof. But it's not all that easy for the rest of us either. However, it you're well-practiced in sighting your route, you don't have to look all that often to stay right on course for a fast swim. Not so for our unpracticed, untinted goggle wearing brethren.
First off, nobody swims exactly straight all the time. You need to know your pattern before you figure the rest of this out. Next time you pool swim, when you have a lane to yourself, do what they call blind swimming. Push off easily from the wall, ensure you're in the center of the lane, then close your eyes. Take a few strokes, then see where you are in relation to the center of the lane. Drifted a little to the right? Left? Do this a couple times, then wait a couple days and do it again. See if you're consistently off to the same side. Most of us are. I drift to the right. So when I'm blinded by the sun, every couple of strokes - without looking up - I just put a tiny bit of left correction in knowing I have a pretty good chance of being right. Then. after a couple more stokes I do look up, evaluate my position, and correct if needed.
I work the pier in Kona every year and on Friday afternoon help run athlete check-in with a lovely woman from the Big Island. A real hard worker. After the racer has racked his/her bike, we take them on a quick tour of the starting area/transition zone so it's not foreign to them in the morning. I always tell my "students" that the start will be so much of a washing machine, 4000 arms and 4000 legs all trying to swim to the same place, that they will not be able to see the first few buoys marking the swim course. But if they sight on a red roofed hotel I point out to them just beyond the turn around, they won't need to, they'll swim straight and fast. In your sighting, pick an object far enough in the distance that it is both easy to see when you only have your head out of the water for a split sec, and bright. Different from it's surroundings.
How frequently you need to look up varies. There are times in open water when you're in a group, some faster, some slower, and times when you're virtually alone. In the former you may get jostled or sucked off your line by a nearby swimmer so sighting frequently, as often as every left arm stroke may be needed. But the times when there's little outside influence on your direction, it would be much less often. Remember though, when your head is raised, your hips go down killing off some of your forward momentum.
Let's say you never learned to bilateral breathe. It's time. Here's where that skill comes in really handy. Say the wind and waves are lapping up from the right. No biggie, just breathe mostly to the left. In a race, it's really hard (for me anyway) to go more than three strokes without taking a breath. Each time you go to the pool, from now on, take part of your warm up and breathe to the "other" side. It'll be really awkward at first but you'll pick it up quickly and make yourself just that much more comfortable and competent in the water.
Now, how do you sight? Let's use the example that you want to do it with the right arm pull. Think fast and low, your googles just barely are above the waterline in front of you. As you begin the right arm pull, instead of rotating your head to the right to breathe, you extend your neck forward, just for a fraction of a second now, as the pressure of your right hand against the water is sufficient to hold the head up. Practice, practice, practice in the pool. Once you have it down, get your swim buddy and swim side by side sighting, say every 3rd or 4th stroke, to the other end. Once mastered, add a 3rd swimmer (that's right, three in one lane simulating a part of your swim where you have a good bit of company) so that you get used to sighting in close quarters. If you wait till the end of a workout, when people are a little tired and giddy, it can be great fun.
Once again, practice, practice so it's just second nature on race day. And the finish line will be a sight for sore eyes. Good luck!!