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:
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.
L1 was completely iced over – as was most of the lakefront on Saturday morning. Fortunately, we found a patch of somewhat navigable water a bit farther north…
Even though 2017 started off a bit colder than normal, I still held out hope that the gusty winds from earlier in the week would have cleared away the ice along the shoreline. However, L1 proved to be a complete bust. So I finished my coffee and took a few photos of the carnage to prove to you all that I did at least try to give it a go.
By that time, Fred had arrived. And after a short deliberation, we decided to try out the south wall up by Montrose harbor where we’ve had pretty good luck in the winter months. And that proved to be a very wise choice!
Unlike L1, the Montrose south wall actually had some open areas in the ice where could get in some swim time if we were so inclined (and we were). Plus the ladders were clear, so getting in and out was pretty easy. So we suited up right away and plopped into the icy water.
I went with a full wetsuit this time given all the ice in the area. I have learned from past experience that the cold and sharp edges of the ice can really wreak havoc on one’s exposed skin. So I needed that extra protection if I had to climb or crawl over any of the ice floes. And that pretty much described what we had to do for most of the time in the water!
The biggest challenge once we got in the lake was finding a navigable area so we could continually swim. The reason for this difficulty was that we had to contend with a slight breeze that was constantly shifting the ice floes all around us. Because of this, we would often find ourselves coming to a dead end in the water where an open swim lane had existed just a few minutes before.
Getting back to the ladder was even more of an ordeal. By that time the ice had filled in almost all of the open swim area, and we couldn’t really see much at water level. So we ended up having to scramble over newly iced over areas in order to make it back to the exit point.
But even with all these challenges and obstacles, it was still great to get in the lake!
Winter arrived a bit early this year, and last week’s air temperature plunge really brought the lake into the basement on Saturday. Still, five of us made it out to the ole’ swim site and managed to get in a workout while we had a break in the snow storms!
The air temp out at 7:00am was a brisk 24F which, believe it or not, turned out to be the high temperature for the entire weekend. But that didn’t bother me that much as I was already pretty heated up after having to hack away at the ice around L1 in order to clear out a swim entry area for us.
As far as the lake temp…there’s no way to candy coat it. At 33.6F the water was simply ferocious.
I went with the same neoprene-based set up as last week – 1.5mm short sleeve dive shirt, 3mm shorts, 3mm hood, 5mm gloves, and 7mm dive boots. I also put on heaps of petroleum jelly on my face, neck, torso, and exposed areas of my arms and legs. Fortunately, this turned out to be more than adequate for the time I was in the lake.
I made it about 30 meters past the brilliant orange 1/8 mile mark and stopped by an ice floe to take a few shots from the water level. Fred and Tim had gone further out to where the open water ended in an ice shelf. And while I would have loved to have joined them out there, I did not want to extend my swim any longer than necessary given my limited accouterments.
Just for fun and games, I climb on top of the ice floe near me. It was much thicker below the surface of the water than it appeared, but it hadn’t completely frozen through. So instead of being able to stand on top of it, the floe just came apart beneath me (but not before barking my shin – ouch!).
The post-swim gear change experience was its usual frenetic trauma. But luckily, I only had to rush back to the North Avenue Beach lot before leaping into a heated car. Still, even with all this convenience, there was no way to avoid a vigorous afterdrop!
After flirting with 40F lake temps over the past couple of weeks, we finally broke through the floor this weekend!
Five us came out on Saturday morning, and the surface temp gave a reading of 39.6F. However, the official in-swim temp came in at 37.4F, which is about average for this time of year.
The air temp was a bone-chilling 20F, but we were fortunate enough not to have any wind. Still, it was awfully difficult getting in and out of our gear with painfully numb hands!
Because we had calm water and clear conditions – as well as a welcome appearance from the sun – I didn’t go with a fullsuit. Instead, I opted for my 1.5 ml short sleeve top, neoprene shorts, foot covers, gloves, and my Cressi hood. The lake was a bit bracing at first, particularly on my exposed arms and legs. But the discomfort subsided after about five minutes, and I was quite comfortable for the remainder of the swim.
I managed to do about 1/2 mile total. I could have done more, but I must confess that I am not in as good of swim shape as I would like to be. Plus I was still shaking off the last vestiges of the rather stubborn cold I had fought off the week before.
Post-swim was the usual Kafkaesque ritual of furtively changing into warm and dry clothes with little to no manual dexterity followed by a dreamlike trot back to the sanctuary of a heated car. And the afterdrop was predictably nasty, but mercifully limited to about 15 minutes.
We were getting a bit spoiled in November with the unseasonably warmer lake temperatures. But Ma Nature sure let us know who was boss this morning!
Six of us met out at a chilly but calm lakefront at 7:00am. I tossed in my thermometer to get the surface temperature, and the mercury came in at a brisk 45F. So we’ve definitely (and finally) hit the fall turnover!
I was wavering as to what level of “swim armor” I should wear. I’ve had a two-week hiatus from the lake, and I’m just at the tail end of a really nasty cold. But I decided to chance it and went in with just my jammers, neoprene cap, and a healthy layer of petroleum jelly.
Thanks to a perfectly calm lake and zero wind, the immersion was nowhere near as bad as I was expecting. The only issue I had was with my hands. Since I usually wear gloves in these temperatures, they were a bit painful throughout the swim. But apart from that, I was able to do a 1/2 mile without any difficulties.
The post-swim recovery was brutal. I hastened out of my wet swimwear and into dry layers as soon as humanly possible. But this was substantially compromised by my cold hands and tortoise-like reaction times.
After completing my change of clothes and gathering all my gear, I made a hasty goodbye to the others and indicated that I needed to retreat to the sanctuary of my heated car. So accompanied by new Lake Monster Cedric, I walked the seemingly endless 1/4 mile back to my Mazda in a total fugue state and managed to start my car just as the afterdrop kicked in (ugh!).
We spent the next 10 – 15 minutes shivering off the effects of the 43.4F lake (<-- yes, it was much colder in swim) before finally joining Steve at Elly's for breakfast. And let me tell you something - their hot coffee never tasted as good as it did this morning!
A hearty crew of eight Lake Monsters met out at L1 on Saturday morning. Thanks to the time change, sunrise came a bit earlier at 6:30am.
Although the air temperature was a bit crisp at 39F, we were fortunate enough to have yet another weekend with clear morning skies. So we hung out on the lakefront along with several other early morning sky worshipers and watched the sun make its grand entrance.
And what a sight it was!
Because of the plentiful sunshine and relatively calm water, I went with just my jammers and a neoprene cap. I did cheat a bit, though, and slathered on a healthy layer of petroleum jelly on my chest, neck, and arms. That seemed to really take the edge off of the 51.4F lake.
While my right shoulder was fine this time, I was plagued with a strained levator scapulae muscle which made it quite difficult to move my neck without discomfort. Fortunately, the colder water completely numbed the area, and I was able to do the out-and-back to Oak Street Beach in a fairly decent time.
I did not, however, stop at the beach and socialize this time!
The cloud cover over the city broke on Thursday and ushered in a magnificent fall weekend. And we sure took advantage of it!
Six of us met out at L1 at 7:15am, and there were already numerous people out at the lakefront. They weren’t runners – and they certainly weren’t swimmers – but they came out for the brilliant sunrise. And Ma Nature certainly did not disappoint!
The clear skies and calm water helped magnify what was to become an absolutely stunning early November sunrise that started out deep red and then blazed into a fiery white orb within a few short minutes. Not a bad start to a swim!
I had to do a double take when I pulled the thermometer out of the lake. The surface temp reading came in at an astonishing 57.1F! And while the official in-swim temp ended up at 55.4F, it was still an unexpected – yet very welcome – rise from the previous week.
I went sans wetsuit this time, although I did double up on the headgear with both silicon and neoprene caps. And after a very brief immersion shock, I acclimated right away and was quite comfortable the entire swim.
I made it down to Oak Street Beach and decided to get out and jog most of the way back as I was feeling somewhat fatigued. But the obsessive side of me decided to leap back in the lake at the 1/8 mile point and swim back to L1!
Several of us stuck around for a while afterwards as the overly abundant sunshine and lack of wind made for a very pleasant post-swim experience with only a minimal afterdrop to contend with. And the nicer weather brought out many more people who could not believe that we were actually out swimming in November.
Little did they know – the lake is MUCH colder in May!
Since we haven’t yet turned our clocks back, sunrise is around 7:05am these days. This later swim time gives us a bit more sleep which we definitely need to help fortify us from the cooler fall weather.
Fortunately, we got lucky this morning and managed to avoid the overcast skies that appear this time of year. So despite it being a crisp 40F outside, we had lots of sunshine that really helped take the edge off of the 57.0F lake.
Nine of us met out at L1 just before sunrise, and it sure was a spectacular one! We snapped several shots of nature’s show and then suited up in the nippy weather before going out to the lake to warm up.
I was able to do a full mile this time, although the swells were deceptively stronger than last week – particularly on the way back to L1. But the lake definitely hasn’t turned over yet. So we may still have a few weeks left of lake temps above the 50F level.