In many ways, it is not a good idea for Dan Tonge to swim alone in Lake Washington. He has been blind from birth and lacks endurance. Last winter, he lost his bearings and was stuck in 48-degree water

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IN MANY WAYS, it is not a good idea for Dan Tonge to swim alone in Lake Washington. He has been blind from birth and lacks endurance. Last winter, he lost his bearings and was stuck in 48-degree water until someone happened upon him. Yet he still goes out, posting his sight dog on shore along with a radio blaring as his audio beacon.

Could you imagine swimming out there in the pitch-black darkness? He knows it is risky, but he is tired of limits. The exercise, challenge and risk are worth it to him.

“People say I’m crazy, but I enjoy doing it out here,” he says on the shore of Matthews Beach. “It’s kind of a challenge, and I’m not bumping into a lot of people, for one thing.”

He swims alone only because he can’t find anyone to go with him. Eventually, Mary Meyer, a Seattle swimming and triathlon expert, agreed to help him.

The first thing she did was get him into a swimming pool where they could work on his form (like keeping his hand higher than his elbow during the recovery phase of the stroke) and using the lanes to help him learn how to swim straight. Meyer urges everyone to find their stroke, breathing technique and endurance in the pool before challenging open water. In the pool, you can get comfortable breathing beneath the surface and learning to completely exhale so you can inhale more air when you are above water. Taking short breaths not only throws off your timing but causes you to tire sooner.

Sounds for down under

If you must listen to your favorite music underwater, you might want to check out waterproof housing and headsets by H20 Audio. Casing for the iPod Nano retails for $79.95. Special headphones, waterproof to 10 feet, cost $39.95.

See for details.

Open-water swimming carries complications for everyone, not just Tonge and his special challenges. Meyer leads clinics to make sure triathletes and racers are prepared for everything from flailing arms to choppy water to losing sight of the finish line. Much of what she emphasizes is psychological, and while her focus is on competition, even casual lake swimmers should pay attention.

Here are some guidelines to consider:

• Swim with a partner or under observation.

• Choose a course that has good sighting options and turning points.

• Set reasonable, graduated goals.

• Check currents, waves, temperature, boating conditions.

• Wear goggles, a brightly colored cap and consider a wet suit.

• Acclimate yourself to cold water gradually by splashing your face, shoulders and arms.

• Scout out other docks or specific points along the shoreline that can serve as an emergency exit.

• Don’t try a new stroke when you are tired and in deep water.

Don’t assume swimming harder will counter cold water. Hypothermia is deadly. A wet suit or reduced time in the water with gradual acclimatizing over weeks is a much better strategy.

Open-water racing is another beast. It’s no coincidence that the swimming leg is the least favorite of most who participate in triathlons.

Again, knowing where you’re going is critical, says Meyer. Because there are no marked lanes in open water, having a “sighting stroke” is a must not just for efficiency but for safety. She urges swimmers to choose large objects well above the water such as a house, tree or even a mountain as sighting points to the finish line. Low-lying buoys get hidden by the pack and waves.

Open-water racers must prepare to handle everything from getting bumped to irregular courses, limited visibility, currents, waves and glare. They must learn to control adrenaline at the start and realize that a half-mile swim for a beginner is not an easy sprint. It requires pacing.

The mass of bodies in a triathlon or other event makes swimming in a straight line difficult for some and nearly impossible for others. Competitors must be prepared to change direction and speeds to go around swimmers and clear buoys with the least impact on their stroke. They must focus on the next buoy, not the finish line.

Meyer, whose clinics are at Queen Anne and Mercer Island pools as well as in open water (, helps acclimatize participants to what the races will feel like. She urges them to quit races only for safety or illness; in her mind, being tired or cold isn’t a good excuse.

“It’s worth the time and effort to explore new limits that define yourself,” she says. “Commit yourself to the swim. There is only one reason that you will finish — I want to!”

Richard Seven is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. He can be reached at Tom Reese is a Seattle Times staff photographer.