It’s 8 a.m. and 38 degrees. A wintry sun glitters across the water. The wind is brisk on South Beach and I’m wearing a parka.
They arrive quietly and purposefully. This is no polar bear swim. No daredevils blundering into bitterly cold water. There is no noisy bravado. These three meld seamlessly into the sea as if embracing a beloved friend. Perhaps they are.
This is a daily routine for a small group of winter swimmers who walk calmly into 44-degree waters off Point Roberts’ southern shore. The water is choppy today and the swells rock them. They turn their faces east to the sun, raise their hands in a position of prayer, and chant a soft Omm mantra. More than anything, I want to be there with them.
Of all the ways people of the Point have found to thrive during Covid, to support each other in this time of isolation, this act of solidarity stands out.
Makenna Moore describes to me how it came about. She and Laura Sampson began this ritual in June and just kept going. Perhaps that’s the secret to cold water swimming. Start when the sun is hot and don’t stop. They connected with each other over their shared commitment to the Wim Hof Method of rebooting your immune system through exposure to cold water.
Wim Hof is a Dutch athlete whose ability to withstand cold has earned him the nickname, The Iceman. The point of exposure to cold is to unleash benefits both physical and mental. His method involves repeated exposure to cold, breathing techniques and meditation.
With a little research of my own, I’ve come to understand the science behind winter swimming. It enhances circulation, supercharges the metabolism, boosts the immune system and creates an endorphin high. You feel less pain from chronic conditions, as cold water increases blood flow, improving circulation and allowing inflammation to heal more quickly. The immune system is ramped up because cold water helps boost the white cell count when the body is forced to react to changing conditions and becomes better at mobilizing its defences.
Cold water is particularly beneficial to older people – helping the body adapt to and cope with cold winters, so the seasons become less of a health risk. The endorphin high is created because cold water brings us close to the pain threshold and endorphins are released when we are in pain to help us cope. Stress is reduced, the boredom cycle is broken and a sense of calm and wellbeing prevails.
So why isn’t everyone in the water in winter? Well, in spite of the benefits, the real question is still, why is anyone in the water? And that’s where the science ends and the inexpressible begins.
Coming out of the water after almost seven minutes, this small community of bathers looks euphoric; a feeling that will carry them through their day. They’ve met the challenge. There’s a boldness to their coldness. And the bite of that cold is momentary. Like a hang-over in reverse, it’s followed by a long and happy buzz.
This community of cold-water devotees has grown to as many as 15 on occasion. And their endurance to cold is growing. Each of them finds a reward unique to themself, but the overarching result of being in the water together is a sense of group support, a feeling of trust developed through the shared pursuit of health.
Having grown up in Victoria, I’m no stranger to cold water, and in those early years, I spent as much time as possible in the water.
And now, anytime I’m in cold water, I feel like I did when I was young. Breathless, weightless, free of all worry, wrapped in the ineffable gifts of the sea.