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

NOTE: This was originally published in November 2015.

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” or “bucket list” 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.

Secondly, even if you are an experienced swimmer, OWC winter meetups are not the place to live out a midlife crisis or to fill some void of meaning in your life through a risky stunt.  That’s why we exercise prudence while out at the lake this time of year and closely watch for “rogue elements” that might endanger themselves, other swimmers, or the overall goodwill that OWC has built up over the years.

So do NOT come out to any of our meetups if this is your expectation or if you are unwilling to practice basic common sense. 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 (a.k.a. DEATH).

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!

Also, as I’m sure you already know, NO WAIVER, NO SWIM

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!


Bonus Swim Report – January 13, 2016 – Shipwreck Beach

While L1 is still the finest swim spot on the planet, it’s always a treat to see “how the other half swims” during the winter months…

I was fortunate enough to have an opportunity to return to Kauai earlier this month, and I wasted no time getting back into the water. The ocean temperature at Shipwreck Beach was a uniform 79.1F, and the buoyancy factor of the salt water made swimming a breeze compared to Lake Michigan.

There were some funky swells near the shore, but things were quite calm about 150 feet out. So after getting out there, it was a fairly textbook out-and-back mile swimming parallel to the shore. Plus I was able to scope out the area underneath the cliff for reasons which are quite obvious in the video.

Wish you all could have been there!

Shipwreck Beach


Out past the surf


Top of the rock



Pre-jump selfie


Swim/Jump video compilation

Swim Report – February 2, 2013 – Groundhog Day (and Xmas Redux)

I knew when I stepped outside to shovel the snow earlier this morning that it was going to be a great day for lake swimming. I was expecting the air temperature to be in the 12F range per the overnight forecast. Much to my delight, it was a quite tolerable 24F with no wind at all!

Nick and Mike were already at Tower Beach surveying the swim site. The ice floes and slush layers had drifted away from the shoreline, so we had a narrow swim lane if we went parallel to the shore. We made it to about the 1/4 mile mark before we ran into some impenetrable ice layers. By then, the ice had also moved in towards the shore. So we had to do some zigzagging on the way back to avoid the rougher patches.

Overall, it was a very easy swim other than the occasional ice obstacles. And once again, we were perfectly comfortable in the water with the exception of our fingertips. And even these didn’t get cold until the halfway point.

Happy Groundhog Day (and belated Xmas)!

Winter road


The scene at Tower Beach


At the halfway point


Nick and Mike in the slush!



Playing with the icicles


Happy to be done!


This morning’s video compilation (with a Xmas-like feel)

Winter Ice Princess

Here’s Dave’s niece getting in her winter swim out at Oak Street Beach on Saturday!

The Snowy Owl

A snowy owl made a rare appearance at Montrose Beach during the swim on Sunday (the one I missed out on, of course). Fortunately, local photographer Tom Rossiter was there to capture it on film. Check out some of his amazing shots!

Lake Monsters in Maui!

As we get ready to brave the forecasted 50F – 53F lake tomorrow, it’s good to know that others are dealing with similar challenges during their swims. Here’s Brian, Lake Monster 118, and his daughter enduring the harsh climate and bone-chilling water temperatures of Hawaii. Per Brian:

Saw your oct 16 post. Check out my swim conditions. 86 air temp. 80 water temp. 1 foot swells. water visability forever.My daughter and me in Maui.

A tempestuous lake

Here’s a pic and video clip taken earlier today up at Lighthouse Beach in Evanston. Surf’s up!

Good Luck, Amanda!

Amanda Hunt, Lake Monster #26, is on her way to the Golden State this weekend to swim the Catalina Channel. Her epic journey begins Monday evening, and we’re all just thrilled to bits that we have such an amazing athlete in our midst. Go Amanda!!!

The many moods of Lake Michigan

Nick was out at the lakefront Thursday and Friday and captured some neat images and videos. Per Nick:

I took a picture of a rainbow hitting the water crib on Thursday night right after the rain. I also shot a short video of Oak St beach yesterday morning around 6:45 and even I thought that it was not swimable as the waves were crashing everywhere.

Check these out!

Rainbow over the crib

Even more things we do not have to worry about at L1

Here’s a shot from a few years back of Diver Dave cavorting with the local wildlife in the Amazon. Could you imagine swimming in those waters?!?