Nev Judd: Online and out there

Cold comfort

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Cold-water plunges too good to limit to New Year’s Day

It’s a raw, rainy November afternoon when I join Sherryl, Donna, Maggie, Tara and Meaghan at Porpoise Bay. Some dog-walkers are around but it’s safe to say, we’re the only people wearing bathing suits.

At the water’s edge, Donna Shugar confides: “My husband Ken thinks he should be here; just in case I don’t return.”

“How come he’s not doing this?” I ask.

“He’s from California,” Donna replies. “He says he hasn’t been warm since he moved to Canada.”

It’s true, cold-water exposure is not for everyone. There’s nothing inviting about today’s leaden skies and grey ocean. But seconds later, in fading light, we’re in, submerged, swimming, floating and talking. I stifle the urge to pant.

Donna Shugar, Maggie Guzzi, Sherryl Latimer, Meaghan O’Brien Spithoff and Tara Swann are undeterred by the cold rain falling at Porpoise Bay.

“There’s always a shock but I don’t really think about it anymore, I just do it,” says Sherryl Latimer. “I do a deep-breathing exercise for the first 30 seconds and then I am submerged, and it feels great.”

Like most of the others, Sherryl is a cold-water convert. She organized today’s swim and hopes it will become a regular event for like-minded enthusiasts. Sherryl invited Tara Swann and Meaghan O’Brien Spithoff, who swim with a group that meets multiple times a week at Henderson Beach in Roberts Creek.

For reasons as varied as the growing number of people who practice it, cold-water immersion is no longer just for New Year’s Day.

Meaghan is inspired by the contrasts between “the powerful ocean and the vulnerable human that enters it”.

“It’s breathtaking,” she says. “It feels like an internal strength develops inside you the more you swim and yet the ocean soothes you at the same time.”

Her friend Tara craves the connections made in the ocean – and not just human connections.

“I felt a little like I cheated the social isolation in the last year,” says Tara. “We come alone and meet up together. We’re distanced. Anyone is welcome and it quenches a social need while you compete only with yourself.

“Every day the water’s different, the sky is different, your body feels different. I dip my head like a daily baptism. It’s like how I imagine church to feel for others – replenishing.”

“Rejuvenating” is how Sherryl describes it. “After swimming in the cold, it feels like you’ve had a massage inside and outside your body. I have underlying heart and lung issues, and I live with depression. This just makes me feel so good. It lifts my mood and spirit. During Covid, I found the periods of depression came more often and for longer. When I swim more, the depression spells lessen.”

Sherryl keeps a detailed log of all her swims, recording weather conditions, tides and time spent in the water. Her attempts to form a weekly group are now making headway and she draws inspiration from a group in Powell River.

“I went up last spring and swam with them. It’s mostly women and 10 or 12 who swim every day. Right away you feel a camaraderie because it’s a special kind of person who does this. Now with the few women who have joined at Porpoise Bay, you have this thing in common, it’s out of the ordinary and there’s a sense of adventure.

“The overall benefit is of feeling wonderful afterwards and sharing that feeling with others.”

Storms, wind, rain and snow are no deterrent to the women, who are not about to let the weather come between them and their cold-water fix.

Tammie Lumsden and George Vourtsis relish a rare sunny Fall swim at Georgia Beach in Gibsons.

The stormier the better for George Vourtsis, who started a group pre-pandemic as an extension of the Gibsons-based boxing club. The group meets Sunday mornings off Franklin Road.

“Storms! That’s the best time to come out,” says George. “When it’s nasty and the wind’s blowing and the swells are up and you know you’re going in, you get a rush – it’s a good feeling.”

Another regular, Tammie Lumsden, can vouch for George’s enthusiasm. “One Sunday was super stormy, and I was standing at the edge, saying ‘I just can’t do this, there’s just no way’. And George said, ‘yes you can, you can do it’. I just got in and it was totally fine.”

Ironically, it’s a cold, calm, crystal-clear Sunday when I join the group. (Two humpback whales even make an appearance!) More than one person remarks that the weather’s actually too good. Most of the group remain immersed for at least two minutes, although one or two prefer to quickly run in and out.

When I ask why swim, I hear familiar feel-good responses of camaraderie, connection and health benefits, including better circulation, stronger immune systems and improved mental health. That word “rejuvenating” comes up again.

Simplicity also strikes a chord for Tammie.

“It’s free! You live on the Coast! I grew up next to water my whole life. Why wouldn’t you?”

Almost all the people I speak to are familiar with Wim Hof, a Dutch extreme athlete and so-called Ice Man, who has popularized specialized breathing techniques and cold therapy in books and videos. Less known to us now is Vincenz Priessnitz, who extolled the virtues of hydrotherapy more than 150 years ago. Hippocrates, considered the founder of medicine, was prescribing cold water as a curative circa 400 BC.

Science would seem to validate some of those shared but subjective feelings of exhilaration. A 2000 study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology (“Human physiological responses to immersion in cold water of different temperatures”) found that the increase in dopamine from cold water exposure is comparable to levels recorded after taking cocaine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that in sufficiently high levels can lead to feelings of bliss, euphoria, greater motivation and concentration. The dopamine release triggered by cold water, unlike cocaine, is sustained, continuing to rise for up to three hours, long after exiting the water.

New year’s day swimming in Roberts Creek. It’s always a little faster getting out that going in.

I’m beginning to understand why a free, legal, non-addictive, long-lasting high might be so appealing!

For all its potent stimulus though, swimming here at this time of year is not to be undertaken lightly for first-timers. Sherryl heeded her doctor’s advice of “take it slow and listen to your body” before becoming a full cold-water convert. “It’s at your own risk, learn about what you’re getting into and have someone spot for you if you’re swimming by yourself,” she adds.

I’d add that neoprene booties and gloves are pretty skookum, too!

For now, Sherryl is hopeful more people will join the group, which currently meets at Porpoise Bay Provincial Park one to two times a week. (Search “Sechelt Cold Water Swimmers” to find the group on Facebook.)

“Perhaps we’ll be doing this every day,” she says.

Written by nevjudd

February 5, 2022 at 1:30 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Always enjoy me a bit o’ Nev Judd Hugh

    Hugh

    February 8, 2022 at 6:41 pm

    • Thanks mate! Cold water swimming tricky in your neck of the woods.

      nevjudd

      February 8, 2022 at 6:51 pm


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