Brave the Waves
Credit: Aric Crabb / Oakland Tribune / MCT / Landov

An open-water swim is nothing like laps in the pool.

"The open water is a dynamic environment, where you're potentially dealing with fog, waves, currents, wind – all these situations that can make a beginner panic," says Gerry Rodrigues, head coach at Tower 26, a swimming club in Los Angeles. I learned that competing in my first Orca Alcatraz Challenge, a 1.5-mile race from Alcatraz Island to San Francisco. It's one of many open-water challenges held in bodies of water everywhere. There's a pro circuit, and even the Olympics now feature a 10,000-meter open-water competition.

Among the biggest challenges: swimming straight without lane lines. "Pretty much everybody swims in circles," Rodrigues says. Plus, choppy waves bounced me all over and filled my mouth with salt water. But, as I had practiced in the pool, I kept lifting my head up, aiming for a building near the finish line. Finally, 38 minutes after leaping out of the ferry, I stumbled onto the beach and looked back to Alcatraz, thinking, "Wow, I just did that."

or try these . . .

Liberty to Freedom

2.2 miles from the Statue of Liberty to lower Manhattan. [urbanswim.org]

Tropical Splash

1, 2.5, or 5 kilometers in the warm waters off Sarasota, Florida. [sharksmasters.org]