I used to marvel at people who’d go swimming in the Bay in the middle of the winter. Swimming with nothing but a swimsuit. I used to think they were crazy; now people think I am!
It didn’t happen overnight, but over the last several months I’ve been swimming more and more in the bay. Now I’m hooked. Like running, it gives you a bit of a high, and after a while you begin to crave it. I can’t quite tell if it’s the warm afterglow after twenty minutes warming up in the sauna, or the sense of accomplishment from pushing yourself to do something that seems so unnatural, or if it’s just something primal about the risk taking and the elements.
Now the water beckons. On a calm day it calls out to for me to carve through it’s mirror-like surface. On a blustery day, it tries to intimidate me, but below the surface I know it’s just water. It’s definitely addictive. It’s an immersive full body experience. You plunge in and your whole body feels alive.
The best way to get into cold water is to tackle it head first. Those who stand on the beach, dipping their toes in and slowly inching forward are only torturing themselves. There is no easy way in, but there is a fast way in, and as soon as you’re in, you’re in. The best advice I’ve heard was to pretend you’re a train. I stand on the beach, let out a quiet whistle and then chug forth. Nothing will stop a train, and the water doesn’t stop me until I am waist deep at which point I dive forward and plunge my face into the murky water, and that’s it, you’re in.
It wasn’t that easy at first. Cold water shock can cause people to panic, inhale water, and occasionally drown when they find themselves thrown into frigid water. The first time I jumped in without a wetsuit, I thought I might drown too. It was cold. I hyperventilated, I swore, I flailed.
But after a couple minutes the shock wears off and you realize you’re not going to die. And if at this point you put your head down and start to swim, it can be quite pleasant. After a few more minutes it doesn’t even feel cold.
It took many swims to get used to it, and being thin, I thought I was genetically unsuitable to swim in the water for long, but friends pushed me and showed me it could be done, and now I routinely swim a mile in 40 minutes in 55 degree water. They say it’ll be down to 50 degrees next month, and I’m even looking forward to it.
If you live in San Francisco, it helps to join either the Dolphin or South-end clubs. Warm showers and sauna make all the difference after a cold swim, and so does the camaraderie and fun-times with the odd and interesting people whom you meet while warming up. They’re people from all walks of life, lawyers, executives, cooks, and teachers…. every one with something to teach.
And there is no shortage of new experiences : Swimming under piers, night-swimming, swimming out to the cove entrance and watching the sun set beyond the Golden Gate Bridge. After that, why would you go back to a 25m long chlorinated pool and share a lane with four other people.
I hear many people tell me that they could never bear swimming in cold water. I can understand, but you can bear it, and if you do you’ll probably soon come to love it.