Sighting is an essential skill for any open water swimmer. Here’s how to incorporate it into your stroke

Croc Eyes sighting

Sighting is a key skill to develop as an open water swimmer: once you leave pool lines below it is only sighting that will help you swim straight. Sighting is the looking up from your stroke to identify your surroundings and guide the direction you are swimming in. It identifies hazards and keeps you on your swim path.

Being good at sighting stops zig zagging, giving you a competitive advantage in races. But it is equally important for recreational swimmers, who need to look out for hazards ahead, whether that’s fallen trees in a river or boats (avoiding other water users is a two way responsibility).

The greater the distance you are covering, the more important sighting is – once you reach events like the Swoosh and the Dart 10k effective sighting will be up there with overall stroke efficiency and fitness as a determinant of how long the swim takes you.

‘A few years ago I swam Windermere with two men who were 20 years younger than me and fitter and faster than me,’ says OSS Director Kari Furre. ‘I came out first, a performance I put down largely to my ability to swim in a straight line.’

Choosing your landmark

Choosing your landmark is a key part of the skill – an easily and instantly identifiable marker is needed, like a monument or solitary tall, wide tree. Pick something near to where you are attempting to finish (or swim next) and direct your swim towards this. Ideally pick a landmark that is not going to be obstructed on the way, by waves for example – something taller than a person and visible in different light conditions.

How to sight

There are generally two approaches to sighting: either lift your whole head out of the water when looking ahead or to just lift your eyes above the surface of the water (like a crocodile). Both are considered fine to use in your swimming, so experiment with what feels most comfortable and natural to you.

CROC EYES: Some swimmers find that bringing just their eyes above the water level expends less energy and interferes less with the rhythm of their stroke.

WHOLE HEAD LIFT: Some swimmers prefer to lift their whole head out of the water and find this large movement easier to incorporate into their swim. It can give the swimmer a longer amount of time to see their surrounding area. Try not to lift your head too far out of the water as this can waste time and energy.

Simon Murie from SwimTrek full head sighting on Hellespont swim
Ross Edgley full head lift sighting. Red Bull Content Pool.

The technique and how to combine this into your swim

When first attempting to incorporate sighting into your stroke, try to maintain a normal rhythm when it comes to breathing. It is important to remember that you want sighting to work for you and what feels comfortable to some swimmers may differ from others. The most popular technique is Crocodile eye sighting.

CROC EYES: When you first catch the water, reaching forward with one hand, push down on the surface to create stability and lift your eyes just above the water’s surface to sight. The goal is not to bring your head out of the water, but to bring your eyes out (like a crocodile) and then continue your stroke and breathe to the side as normal, repeating if necessary until you have sighted adequately.

HEAD LIFT: Alternatively, using the power from your pull, the aim is to bring your whole head out of the water to sight and breathe at the same time. The push down on the water from you pull will help surge you forward and up, giving the time to be able to take in the surroundings as well as taking a breath.   

Croc eyes sighting on River Thames. Chad Brown, Swimtrek

Take pictures

The most common mistake when sighting is lifting your head up until you find your bearings. This is tiring and inefficient, so try to take mental pictures instead. Use your croc eyes to peek and do it frequently so you never break your stroke or rhythm.

While you are taking these little peeks, you should be compiling them in your head creating a bigger picture of what’s ahead. By doing the little lifts means you can adjust your course without having to make big adjustments to your swimming direction and stroke.

“Taking mental pictures as I’ve swum along in my race events and in my day to day swimming adventures has ensured I’ve stayed in a straight line when others diverge. It has helped build my confidence in familiarising myself with my surroundings.” Ben McIvor, SwimTrek Group Sales Manager and qualified open water coach.

Problems around sighting

Poor sighting technique can lead to problems such as stiff and sore necks and the misalignment of the body, causing hips to drop in the water and affecting swimming speed and technique. Being able to sight quickly and effectively is a skill, and it can take time to work this into your stroke and adapt this for different water conditions.

Croc sighting on the Swoosh


When waves pick up, attempt to sight at the top of the wave so that you’ll have the widest view of what is ahead of you and avoid getting a face full of water!

When there is increased chop or swell moving you around, increase the frequency of sightings (the moving water will move you about)

Whole head lift sighting at Bantham Swoosh


When swimming in a group or a race it’s often possible to get away with following the swimmer in front of you. This option may not always be available to you and it is advisable to learn how to sight so as not to have to stop your stroke to see where you are.

The essentials for sighting

  • Pick an identifiable marker in the landscape to sight against
  • Use your pull to lift your head out of the water
  • Make sure to sight frequently to not lose direction, but don’t feel tied to having to sight after a certain number of pulls, have the flexibility to adapt to your conditions  
  • Don’t be afraid to change your marker as your surroundings change



  • Kate Rew is the founder of The Outdoor Swimming Society and author of The Outdoor Swimmers’ Handbook – which includes a full chapter on how to ‘swim better’ and adapt your strokes to the outdoors. (Also available signed in The OSS Shop).
  • Swimtrek are the original and leading provider of swim holidays.
Olivia Weatherill & Kate Rew