In an episode in the tv series "I shouldn't be alive", crew members of a yacht racing team got caught in a violent storm and found themselves stranded in the Gulf of Mexico after their boat capsized. Drifting for two three days, they spotted an oil rig in a distance and decided to swim towards it. However, the ocean current that brought them near also carried them away.

Let's assume that the oil rig is of a distance 5km away and within the reach of an average strong swimmer under calm water condition. If the current speed is significant but not more than half the swimmer's average speed, there is a fair chance of reaching the rig provided that the swimmer is able to judge the current speed and direction and set his course in a direction such that the resultant path forms a straight line between his initial position and the rig itself.

Mathematically speaking, the resultant velocity (speed and direction) is the trigonometric sum of two velocity components: the current velocity and the swimmer's velocity. So my question is, how can a swimmer estimate the current velocity while floating in the sea.

4 Answers 4


Typically, if you are out in the open ocean and do not have a GPS device you don't have any useful way to measure velocity*

This may not be a problem though, as what you are wanting is not your velocity, but an indication that you are heading in a straight line to the destination (if we assume a constant current)

To do this, what you need is something to allow you to measure parallax - in this case the obvious would be a front leg and a back leg of the oil rig. When you first start swimming, check frequently to see if you are moving left or right with respect to your target. Correct your angle by 10 degrees in the opposite direction to your perceived drift (left or right) and keep swimming. You want to reduce the side drift to zero - as this will indicate you are moving directly towards your target.

Where you have varying current, for example between two islands, you would use a different tactic as the current would be strongest mid-channel so you would have to point higher in the middle.

*If you are out for many days and have an accurate chronometer, you can get a reasonable idea as to your longitude, but that seems out of scope for this question

  • I think using parallax to maintain course is a very brilliant idea! But that can only be done if there are two prominent objects positioned one behind the other along the line of sight. Not sure if there are other solutions, this is useful though. Commented Sep 18, 2012 at 7:31
  • 2
    Yes - without parallax, you are in trouble. Ancient Polynesians used to be able to track wave/ripple patterns to identify their location - not certain that skill is easy to acquire though :-)
    – Rory Alsop
    Commented Sep 18, 2012 at 10:06

You cannot estimate the current speed and direction on the open ocean without a fixed reference or navigation aid. But you can watch a star behind the rig to make sure your track is toward the oil rig.

If you can swim faster than the current, you can always swim directly toward the oil rig and get there. You'll just have a curved track and will get to enjoy a little extra exercise.

If you cannot swim faster than the current, you will have to anticipate (swim upstream at a certain angle), and even that may not be good enough depending on your initial position.


When we dive here in Florida, we often want to know which direction the current is going. The track of your boat doesn’t help much because it is caused by a combination of wind and current.

To isolate the effect of the current, try tie in one end of a string to a float and the other to a lightly weighted object. If there is current the object will lean in the direction of the current.

The float, however, must have a low profile so that the wind pressure on it is minimized (e.g. a piece of flat styrofoam) then the direction that the object leans on the string will be due primarily to the direction of the current.


It takes some judging. Stand tall. it is 13 miles to the horizon. Squat 1/2 that is 7 miles So your height to the horizon or a yard stick is better. Rough triangle. That gives you distance. Current float a stick. This takes more skill than I have. But many of the natives in the S Pacific have showed me how to do this & they are always right.

You put your finger in the fork of the stick or another stick. You watch the swing & bobble in the stick from over the side of your boat. It can be done. Takes some skill to do. You need learn how to do such. My teachers in this were fisher folk in the S Pacific islands. I use it some when out night fishing on the reefs. I am not the best at it but can tell current change fishing on the reefs. For drop offs & cut's threw the reefs.

  • 1
    Is my understanding correct, that this is an option to judge the distance to a fixed object by finding the height at which it "disappears behind the horizon"? If so, there is still the problem of detecting the direction of the current, right?
    – imsodin
    Commented Aug 21, 2017 at 12:15
  • Floating a stick will tell direction of current & current change. You need know how to do this. I learned this trick in the S Pacific from native fishermen. It will tell you direction of current & change in current. Like drop offs or a hole threw the reef. Or were a island or reef is 50 miles away. How many inch's from the bottom of your boat to the base of a other boat or well will give you distance. If you know your boats draw; The trick is to take the reading at the top of a wave. Same with your sextant. This takes some practice to do. Your stick is y shaped.
    – J Bergen
    Commented Aug 21, 2017 at 17:50
  • Can you give a rough idea how floating a stick will do that? Does it align with the current or something?
    – imsodin
    Commented Aug 21, 2017 at 18:00
  • 1
    This would be better if you could describe it in more detail. It's a new concept to me. What does it mean if the stick shifts towards your boat vs away vs staying straight? How would you go about learning this skill short of traveling to the South Pacific?
    – Karen
    Commented Aug 22, 2017 at 14:33
  • 1
    "stand tall" while overboard? k ;)
    – Beanluc
    Commented Aug 22, 2017 at 21:22

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