No matter how you slice it, you do not drift, bask, bob or immerse oneself in forty nine degree water. In that sense, Scott Bonney got it totally right when he dubbed the recent day after Thanksgiving, Burton to Dockton harbor swim as the "Too Much Turkey/ Pilgrim Plunge". There is no easy way to get into cold water, beyond the basic necessity of telling yourself that it is a wise choice to begin with. Even after you have done the mental gyration that allows you to believe that the hyper-hydrating, hypothermic activity you are about to partake of is indeed a smart and beneficial act of self discipline and athletic prowess, any sign of weakness or self doubt between the time and act of stripping down to swimming essentials and splashing down in a well chilled aquatic environment of your choice leaves you wide open to take that ever beckoning door of sanity and reason to a spot of relative safety and warmth. I know. I have been knee deep at the water's relative edge in my core-protecting shorty wetsuit and have been overcome by the desire to not be cold. Somewhere between the sensation of sharp, moist coldness lapping at my shins and a brief check back on personal options for the rest of the day, there is a box that I must fill in with one of two words in order to proceed. Those words are why and plunge.
There is a good reason for asking the why question. I learned that lesson the day, one year in late Spring, when I swung from a rope swing into a swiftly moving river. I can remember thinking, as the splash and the coldness enveloped me, "oh, I just finished my third high school swimming season as an All-American and now I'm going to drown from a dumbass swimming hole dip." If water had not been such a familiar environment, regardless of how hostile the temperature turned out to be, that might have been a different set of thoughts. This situation suddenly demanded a particularly steep learning curve, but one that relative calm and a determination to swim once again in warmer waters allowed me to reach the shore in a timely but humbled fashion. For almost fifteen years I avoided cold water until peer pressure and the challenge of the first Emerald City Open Water Swim drew me to the edge of Lake Washington and its fifty six degree environment of early June. I recall a teammate who had gone ahead of me at the start suddenly turning and running toward shore muttering "no Way" as he passed. I also remember the shock of the plunge with only two Speedo racing suits and a bathing cap between me and that particular aquatic reality, and how the first two hundred yards were spent doing head-high breaststroke until my spasming diaphragm would allow me to put my head in the water and swim and breathe without having to take panicked and semi-involuntary gasps.
So no- I did not go into the harbor last week in anything resembling an intentional bathing suit. There is, of course, always the possibility that swimming might become an unwelcome option while out on the water, so anything one wears has the potential to become a costume for a bathing of sorts. My choice of dress for this occasion was a combination of multiple, breathable thermal layers and biking gear, which also suits paddling in a kayak to a tee. There were two of us in kayaks, and we tagged along behind Scott's boat as the ten swimmers on board moved from why to plunge. In the past, the swims that have gone either way between Dockton and Burton beach have involved pretty much exclusively Islanders, or as the group dedicated to promoting swimming in the waters surrounding the Island refer to themselves: Whulgers. As well as the Salish Sea, the First People referred to the waters of Puget Sound as the Whulge. Joining the Whulgers for this plunge were fellow open water swimmers from Seattle and Tacoma. Among the notables was a friend of mine from years past in masters swimming. Scott Lautman trains in Puget Sound and elsewhere and has recently completed what is known in the world of open water swimming (OWS) as the triple crown, consisting of the English Channel swim (21mi.), the Catalina Island Channel swim (20.2mi.) and the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim (28.5mi.). Andrew Malinak made news this past summer with his attempt to swim across the Strait of Juan de Fuca. He was thwarted in his attempt by changing currents and tides and 46 degree water. He had to abandon his attempt just shy of Port Angeles after being in the water for over seven hours. He has also completed the circumnavigation of Manhattan. Guila Muir is an avid open water swimmer and runs Say Yes to Life which promotes open water swimming with organized swims around the Sound. And of course from this homefront, Wendy had to be among those plunging as a part of rounding out her year of open water swim success.
For the most part, the first Pilgrim Plunge was indeed a success. I say most, as nine of the ten swimmers made it across without a hitch. The tenth swimmer, in an email accounting of his adventure which was forwarded this way, stated that when he asked himself who was president and only could come up with George Bush for an answer, he decided that it would be best if he were towed the last hundred or so yards to the Dockton Marina by Paul in kayak 2. From there he was first warmed in the park showers and then was taken for hot tea and more hot showers at the Lynge/Johnson residence from which he emerged coherent and cognizant of who our current commander in chief really is. After I got the waterside bonfire going for the swimmers who were recounting having passed through the jellyfish universe two thirds of the way across, I was reminded of finishing my own fifty six degree swim, as I watched the shakes settle in and pass around the fire. I remembered small cups of hot chocolate that were uncontrollably drained of all warmth and fluid by the violent rotation back and forth of forearms trying to be still but couldn't, and all because somebody cried plunge. There is a fascination with doing the difficult and definitely a sense of accomplishment having done it. As far as cold water goes, though, especially this cold, I think the word that will continue to go in my answer box is- why?