The OWC Winter Swimming Guide: (Almost) Everything You Need to Know About Year Round Swimming

Introduction (Please Read this First!)

Here at OWC, a small group of us will continue to swim during the months of November through March – often in extreme air, water, and weather conditions. It is a very intense challenge that requires a completely different mindset as well as meticulous planning and preparation.

With this in mind, I’d like to take this opportunity to provide you all with more details on exactly how we engage in this type of activity. But before I dive this topic, I need to emphasize three things:

1) OWC winter meetups are NOT “polar bear” swim events.

This is not a “get in, get out” photo op moment that you do on a dare and follow up with hot cocoa in a warming tent. We are serious year-round swimmers, and you will find no support tents, lockers, changing rooms, hot showers, or equipment/gear rental services whenever you come out to any of our meetups.

So do NOT come out to any of our meetups if this is your expectation. At the very least you will embarrass yourself and be asked to leave. At the very worst, you will jeopardize your physical health and safety and potentially eliminate the OWC winter swimming opportunity for all others. Which leads me to my next point…

2) If you are unprepared for this experience, you can easily succumb to very negative consequences such as shock, frostbite, hypothermia, and untimely expiration.

During the warmer months, the key swimming hazards are infrequent and are usually limited to large waves or heavy chops. But the calculus is completely different once the air and water temperatures fall below the 50F (10C) demarcation point.

Under these temperature extremes, “system shock” due to rapid heat loss and cold temperature exposure is almost assured unless you have deliberately taken measures to prevent it. Which is a perfect segue to my final point…

3) As a responsible adult, you need to arrive at each meetup fully prepared to swim in whatever conditions present themselves while out at the lake – and to take full responsibility for your own personal safety at all times.

Bottom line – if you have any difficulties understanding and accepting the aforementioned items, then you candidly have no business engaging in this type of activity. For your sake and for the sake of others, please stay out of the lake this time of year!

Now that I’ve totally rained (snowed?) on everyone’s parade, let’s dispense with the gravitas and delve into the actual specifics of successful cold water swimming…


The OWC Winter Swimming Guide: (Almost) Everything You Need to Know About Year Round Swimming

Based upon my experiences with year-round swimming over the past several years, I believe there are five key areas that you need to focus on in order to maximize your chances for a successful winter swimming outcome.

I’ve organized this information into chapters below – just click on the links for the details:

Chapter 1: The Inner Game – How Your Brain Works in the Open Water (and elsewhere)

Chapter 2: Pre-Swim Preparation – The Real Key to Mastering Cold Water Settings

Chapter 3: Gear Selection – What to Wear During Winter Swim Conditions

Chapter 4: Taking the Plunge – How to Effectively Manage the Swim Start

Chapter 5: The Afterdrop – What it is and How to Manage it 

As with all of my instruction and advice, this is a continual work in progress.  So whenever I discover new information or experience something that adds to or alters this knowledge base, I will be sure to keep you all updated.

See you out at the lake!


Swim Report – November 21, 2015 – Sleet Beach

A larger than expected group of hearty Lake Monsters met out at L1 to take on big bad Lake Michigan. Unfortunately, L1 was a chaotic mess with 5+ foot waves and a completely unnavigable swim area. So we opted for Plan B and hightailed it down to Ohio Street Beach.

The breakwaters at OSB gave us much better swim conditions, but it was still very much of a “washing machine” out in the water. Still, several of us got in close to 1/2 mile out in the chops before heading back to the beach.

I opted to go with a wetsuit for the first time since April, so the swim itself was pretty tolerable. I didn’t have my thermometer on hand, so I am estimating the lake temperature at around 48F just based on the “pain factor” on my hands and feet (I had forgotten my gloves and foot covers – I shan’t be making that mistake again!).

We didn’t get any snow at 7:00am, so we missed the opportunity to get in our first official “snow swim” of the year. But we still earned our Lake Monster stripes in the constant sleet and 37F air temperature.

Aren’t you envious?

A raucous L1 swim area



Ohio Street Beach!




Swim shots



The mess at L1

Swim Report – October 31, 2015 – Happy Halloween!

Three of us made it out on a drizzly All Hallow’s Eve morning and managed to get a swim in the turbulent lake. Getting in the lake was easy, but the swim itself was a bit tricky since we had to endure some really goofy chops.

Fortunately, though, the water temperature came in at 53.6F – which was a welcome relief from the blustery 48F air temperature!

Spooky lakefront




Lake Monsters in their element



In the chops

Swim Report – October 24, 2015 – June Redux?

After the winterlike weather out at L1 last week, Ma Nature decided to swing the pendulum the other way for us on Saturday morning. The air temperature came in at a blazing 68F with the lake coming in at a balmy 57.7F – conditions more akin to late June versus late October!

Sunrise officially came at 7:13am, but the overcast skies didn’t really allow for much of a show. So we suited up amid stray piles of fallen leaves and gingerly entered the lake.

The swim down to Oak Street Beach was much easier due to a wind from the north pushing us south. But the return trip wasn’t really that difficult, either. The only real complicating factor was that the outer surface of our goggles would fog up occasionally in the warmer, moist air.

Post-swim was much more tolerable since the 68F air temperature really helped take the edge off of the afterdrop. So what would normally be a vigorous shivering session turned out to be quite calm – and I’m perfectly okay with that!

Lake Monsters at dawn


Swim start!


At the beach


Back at L1


Leland, Lake Monster 397


Immersion shock

Swim Report – October 17, 2015 – October Swells!

Saturday morning greeted us with a 39F air temperature coupled with a sustained 10 mph wind from the east. The lake itself was rather restless with 3 to 4 foot swells, but the water temperature came in at a mercifully temperate 56.2F. So given these conditions, the swim was a go!

We waited a bit longer for the sun to show up due to a stubborn cloud bank on the eastern horizon. But once it peeked out over the rim, we had ample sunshine for the entire swim. And it sure helped!

I swam in my usual gear – swim jammers and cap – but I did add a thermo cap on for extra warmth which really made a difference. All in all, though, I was quite comfortable the entire time in the lake.

As expected, the real challenge was getting re-acclimated to the conditions outside of the lake. I didn’t dawdle much for the first 10 minutes because the afterdrop came on quicker than in previous weeks thanks to a very cutting wind. But I had several layers of clothing on as well as a full thermos of coffee to help mitigate its effects.

Overall, we had a great turnout even with the unseasonably cold weather conditions. Even so we are fast approaching the “swim cliff” where we are not likely to see too many people out at the lake until next Spring. But that’s their loss, not ours!

Dawn Skyline


Escaping the cold!


Swim Start




Water level shot


Albert, Lake Monster 393


Hayley, Lake Monster 394


Jeff, Lake Monster 395


Ethan, Lake Monster 396


Today’s video compilation!

Swim Report – October 10, 2015 – Autumn Perfection

It was a brisk 47F outside when I stepped out into the darkness and started up my car on Saturday morning. But I could see a clear crescent moon in the eastern skies – which meant that the sunrise was going to be nothing short of spectacular.

The drive down to the swim site was agonizingly long. Even though there was almost no traffic, I confess to feeling more than a little restless while watching the pre-dawn colors come out over the lake. However, I was fortunate enough to find a free spot in front of the Latin School right away.

I made a quick stop into Starbucks to get a small coffee, and I almost popped a cork after the guy in front of me ordered some time-consuming, labor intensive specialty drink. Fortunately, one of the other morning baristas came out of the back at the tail end of his order and filled mine right away.

The 1/3 mile from Clark Street to L1 seemed to take an eternity, but I finally got to our coveted swim spot with more than enough time to spare for the sunrise.

I was quite stunned at the turnout. We had several new swimmers show up – all from out of town – along with a very large gathering of seasoned Lake Monsters. Plus we also had The Twins show up over at L2. So we all had a chance to chat for a while and suit up before the sun made its grand appearance.

And grand it was! Longtime readers of this blog will already know that I have a special affinity for October sunrises. In fact, I consider them to be the most beautiful ones of the year. I think it has to do with the special combination of the colors, contrast, and clarity that we only get this time of year. But whatever the reasons, it sure made us delay our swim start for quite some time!

When we finally got in the lake, we were pleasantly surprised at the rather balmy 59F water temperature. We had some 1-3 foot swells to make things interesting, but they were were barely noticeable throughout the swim.

We did, though, have a bit of drama during the swim. One of the CPD cruisers drove by and checked us out while we were 3/4 the way to Oak Street Beach. One of the high rise residents must have alerted them of someone being in the lake. But since we were not in any obvious distress, the patrol car decided to move on to other more important matters (whew!).

Even in the sub-60F lake, I managed to do the out-and-back mile to Oak Street Beach fairly easily. I wore just my jammers and swim cap with a neoprene thermo cap over the top and was just fine the entire time. The lack any wind coupled with the abundant sunshine really made a difference during the swim.

Being a slower swimmer, I got back when most people were already out of the water. Several of us stayed around for a bit and socialized some more while warming up. I completely lost track of time and suddenly realized it was 8:30am – well past the meter enforcement start! So I hustled back to Clark Street and breathed a sigh of relief when I saw an empty windshield.

I took that as a sign that I shouldn’t stick around for strike three. So I got in the car and headed north, cranking up the heat on my still numb feet.

Happy Autumn 2015!







Swim start




At the beach


Back at L1


Caroline, Lake Monster 388, hailing all the way from the UK!


Josh, Lake Monster 389, choosing Lake Michigan over sunny Orlando!


The fabulous South End Rowing Club contingency: Fran, Cathy, and Matt – Lake Monsters 390, 391, and 392 respectively


Sunrise video clips!

Swim Report – September 19, 2015 – Late Summer Swells

Marton, Tony, and I made it out to L1 yesterday morning at 6:30am. Given the storms from the night before and the 15mph to 20mph winds gusts, I wasn’t expecting the lake conditions to be ideal. But they were far better than we had expected!

The lake temperature came in at 61.8F – significantly higher than the air. And while we had some pretty strong sustained winds, the swells were not as intense as last week. So I opted for just my swim jammers and thermo cap and was fine with that setup throughout the swim.

It was a bit brisk upon entry, but we acclimated quickly once we were out of the wind. We swam half the distance to Oak Street Beach before turning back – about 1/2 mile total – and we definitely got a vigorous workout in the 3 to 5 foot swells.

The sun finally peeked out from behind the wall of clouds just as we were getting ready to leave. It would have been nice to have had this during our swim, but we take whatever Ma Nature throws at us.

That’s what makes us Lake Monsters.

A newly painted L1 – thanks to Diver Dave!



A cold climb down



Marton in-swim


Swim finish!



Pre-swim video

Swim Report – September 12, 2015 – Big Waves

Despite the wind, rain, and rigorous swells, we managed to get in a 1/2 mile to the beach – current assisted of course!

Daryl, Obed, and I met out at L1 6:15am and stashed all of our gear at the Chess Pavilion. My shoes and socks were already soaked through thanks to a rogue swell that caught me napping while I was taking the lake temperature. But it did give me an unplanned opportunity to get a feel for the water temperature – and it was surprisingly pretty warm!

The official temperature (in-swim) came in at just over 66F. That was at least 10F higher than the air temperature, so it was actually much more pleasant in the lake. And while the swells were a bit vigorous, it was fairly easy to swim to Oak Street Beach as long as one didn’t get too close to the side wall. Plus we had all the the wave force pushing us south – so we weren’t really expending much energy during the swim.

The real challenge, as expected, was the last 100 meters. We cut in towards the center of the beach in order to avoid “Hell’s Corner,” and that turned out to be a wise choice!

Daryl and I stayed at the beach a bit and did some body surfing on some of the larger waves. After that, I decided to tackle the surf from the other direction and swim north against the current for a while. But I got out after 1/8 mile since it was much more taxing than going south!

We decided to call it a day at that point, and we walked back to L1 – just as the sun was starting to peak out from behind the clouds!

L1 at sunrise


In-swim pics






At Oak Street Beach


The sun finally comes out!



Today’s video clips:

Swim Report – September 5, 2015 – Pre-Storm Swim

We gambled and won this morning. The forecast called for a 40% chance of thunderstorms, and we managed to finish up our swim right before they moved in! But our streak of luck really started the moment we arrived at L1.

I wasn’t sure what to expect as far as lake temperature given that it had still been stubbornly clinging to 55F up in Evanston. However, Dave had been out at L1 the day before, and he was getting consistent readings in the 67F – 68F range.

And sure enough, I came up with a 71F reading!

Other than a slight chop in the water, the swimming conditions were ideal. The only wildcard factor was something that didn’t rear its ugly head until much later – namely the lake allergens.

Even before I got to L1, I had been fighting off what I thought was a late summer cold. But the symptoms were eerily familiar to the ragweed allergies that had plagued me last year at this time. And given that they actually intensified a few hours after I had gotten out of the water, I strongly suspect that ragweed season is now in full bloom (literally).

Nonetheless, it’s a very small price to pay for the opportunity to swim in Lake Michigan this time of year. The conditions are perfect, and the views are amazing as always.

So where were you?

L1 at 6:00am


Sunrise in swim


The view from Oak Street Beach



Back at L1



Post-swim sunrise


Erika, Lake Monster 382 and Joy, Lake Monster 383


Becca, Lake Monster 384


Ashley, Lake Monster 385


Kristan, Lake Monster 386


Himanshu, Lake Monster 387


The storms move in!


Video compilation

Swim Report – August 22, 2015 – Deluge

The forecast called for heavy rain – but not thunderstorms – during the early morning hours of today. So absent any lightning, the swim was still a go as of last night. Fortunately for us, the weatherman was actually spot on this time!

It took a bit longer to get down to L1 given the inclement weather, but luckily there were plenty of open parking spots on Clark Street. I trudged through the downpour on my way to the swim site and was pretty much soaked through by the time I got there. I should have read the label more closely when I bought my rain slicker – “water resistant” just isn’t the same as “water proof!”

Not surprisingly, there were very few people out at the lakefront given the rather dismal weather conditions. But despite the rain, the lake looked fairly calm, and there was no sign of any thunderstorm activity. So given that I was already soaking wet, not swimming was simply not an option!

Much to my delight, I didn’t have to swim by myself. Phil arrived along with new Lake Monster Bill, hailing all the way from the Bay Area. We hung out underneath the Chess Pavilion and got all of our gear on before heading out to L1.

I had measured the surface temperature shortly beforehand, and it came in at 62.2F. When I got in the lake, I was very pleased to see that it had indeed warmed up from last week. There were no heart-stopping thermoclines lurking below the surface, so it looks like we are back on track to more “normal” lake temperatures!

I did the out-and-back to Oak Street Beach where they were setting up for the AVP volleyball tournament. We got some curious stares from the workers who were setting up the facilities. The event managers had fenced off the entire area from outsiders – but they weren’t expecting any pedestrians to arrive via the beach!

The swim back to L1 was a tad bit more difficult as the lake became choppier the last 1/4 mile. But just like last week, the water was amazingly clear and quite a joy to swim in!

The swim site at 6:00am


Dredging ship


Hanging out at beneath the Chess Pavilion


Testing the water


Sudden downpour in-swim!


Bill, Lake Monster 381


This morning’s video compilation (taken from my brand new camera!)