Planning and supporting a cold swim

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Some element of planning goes into any swim, even if it’s as simple as packing up your gear, pouring a thermos of hot coffee or checking the weather forecast.

When we first started swimming in cool water (for us, about 10-15C), we didn’t put much effort into planning, it didn’t seem necessary. Everyone did their own thing; I brought along whatever I needed, and was able to dress and rewarm myself afterwards, no problem. We were more concerned with who would be bringing along the post-swim coffee and snacks. Very important detail.

As temperatures dropped below 10C and fall winds picked up, we noticed it was getting harder, especially post-swim. I forgot my flip-flops one day, and stood on bare rocks while changing; it took about 6 hours to fully regain the feeling in my feet. On one especially windy day, I lost all dexterity in my hands while standing on the shore chatting with fellow swimmers; I struggled to pull my bathing suit off, forget putting on bra and undies, I could barely pull up my own pants. On another blustery day, I was scolded for forgetting my wooly hat.

We realized then that if we were going to keep swimming progressively colder, we were going to have to put a bit more effort into planning. Otherwise I was sure to end up walking back to the car barefoot and half-naked, wrapped in only a towel (if I’d even remembered to bring it), trailing my kit bag behind me.

Planning

And so the planning began. For most swims, we were about 3-4 swimmers at any given time. Setting up on the beach was often a good time for friendly chatter:

  • What are your swim goals today? Are you here to simply enjoy the day, or do you have a specific goal you’re trying to achieve?
  • If you’ve got a goal in mind, what are you doing today to achieve it? Are you staying within your known thresholds, or are you going to be pushing any boundaries for the first time?
  • Anything we need to be aware of, anything we should watch out for on the swim?
  • What gear did you bring with you, what’s in your kit?

Whenever someone had an idea, or read something interesting, it would be shared with others by email or facebook. Ad nauseum, perhaps, but hey, it was an exciting time, we were learning new things.

Swimmers supporting swimmers

At a point, we realized we’d probably have to start helping each other more, especially dressing and rewarming after the swim. The colder it got, especially air and wind, the more frozen our little hands and feet got. We’d also started using a small tent on the shoreline, as the car was parked a good 10 minute walk away. At 7C, we could never know before the swim if we’d need help afterwards, so we went over the same questions each time just in case:

  • What are you doing today? [me: going for a bit more distance today]
  • How long are you staying in? [me: hopefully 20-25mins, depends on how I feel]
  • What do you need help with when you get out? [me: help me pull my suit off and get my first layer on, from there I’m good]
  • Where’s your stuff? [me: points to towel, thermal clothing and socks laid out in the corner of the tent]

When temps reached below 5C, questions got a little more serious:

  • Could we all agree to wear safety floats? (for visibility, and as a visual marker should something happen to the swimmer)
  • How would an extraction take place, if needed?
  • Who would call emergency services, if needed?

We actually started swimming one at a time, to ensure proper support could be given to anyone needing it. At below 5C, we weren’t in for more than a few minutes anyhow.

Back in the tent we laughed at each other’s lack of coordination, but a general rule of thumb emerged: there’s no shame in the tent. If a bathing suit wouldn’t come down, someone else would yank it down for you. If you couldn’t pull on your own underwear, someone else did it for you. Someone would even pull your wooly hat over your head, put on your mitts, and pour your hot tea, if you needed it. Having help takes a bit of getting used to, but no way were we sacrificing precious swim time for the convenience of being able to dress ourselves; swim your swim we said, someone else would help you afterwards if you needed it.

As much fun as swimming can be, doing it with a group – especially in frigid water – raised serious questions about groupthink and safety. It’s not wrong, or a personal attack on anyone, to ask yourself the following of your fellow swimmers (hopefully they are sizing you up as well):

  • Who are you swimming with, what experience do they have?
  • Do you trust them to be well prepared/informed?
  • Do they treat safety as seriously as you do?
  • Could anything they might do also put your safety or well-being at risk?
  • Are you expected to help them out, and if so, are you prepared for it?

I recently read an excerpt from a book that stated simply, “don’t swim with assholes”. Great advice. If you’re swimming together, and you can’t trust the people you’re with, best not to swim at all. You should be able to talk openly with your swim group about any concerns, and come to mutual agreements.

Dedicated support

We also became fortunate enough to have a friend volunteer her time to support our swims; we realize now it’s critical to have an extra person in extreme cold temps, someone who’s not planning to be in the water at all. Gen joined us at about 7C, and her help was especially invaluable in sub 5C swims.

Could fellow swimmers still support each other in sub 5C? Possibly, but the time it would take for the first swimmer to sufficiently recover to assist the second swimmer could be anywhere from 15-30minutes. On a windy shoreline, that’s enough time for the second swimmer to get quite cold before going in. Doable in a pinch, but perhaps not the wisest option.

The first time Gen supported for us, we sat in the tent and chatted about the swim beforehand. We went through my kit and pulled out everything she would need to help me with afterwards: towel, clothing, socks, hat, heat packs. We talked over the exit, and the order of things: towel dry torso, bathing suit off, sweater first, bottoms next, socks, gloves, cap off, hat on, heat packs under armpits.

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With a lifeguarding and nursing background, not to mention numerous marathon swim accomplishments, we knew Gen was well suited to spot signs of trouble both during the swim and afterwards. We also came up with a method of signalling from the water – at each 50m loop of my swim, I paused for a quick moment, gave a thumbs up that things were a-ok in the water, and waited for a wave from the shore before continuing. Every once in awhile, I’d also swim up to shore, chat with Gen for a few seconds (her: tell me how you’re feeling), and kept going.

Another rule of thumb emerges: direction may come from the swimmer, but ultimately support is in charge. No different than a marathon or channel swim; the swimmer in the water often thinks they know best, but their judgment is easily impaired by cold and fatigue, so support and race officials have final say. They’ll see what you can’t. Gen says out, you’re out.

Luckily, we never had any issues. We were well organized, we recognized the risks involved and communicated well, and always swam within our individual thresholds. Whenever Gen noticed something off, she’d mention it, we’d think of a solution.

Supporting someone else’s swim, especially cold swims, carries responsibility. Even if your supporter doesn’t have Gen’s very ideal swim/lifesaving/nursing background, ultimately support are responsible for taking action if something goes wrong and the swimmer is incapacitated. They shouldn’t be uncomfortable with the following questions, as scary as they may seem:

  • Are these swimmers doing something stupid? Well, it’s a valid question. Perhaps better put as, are they well prepared for what they intend to do?
  • Will these swimmers respect my instruction? Where does the boundary lie between their goals and my expectations for their safety?
  • Do I know how to recognize signs of trouble, such as hypothermia? What’s the difference between a frozen tongue (hilarious) and slurred hypo speech (not funny at all)?
  • If something goes wrong, how will an extraction take place? Do I have the tools necessary to avoid possible injury to myself in doing so?
  • Will I know when to call in emergency services, and will I be able to explain our location on the beach/water?

We worked together to figure this stuff out. Once a basic plan was in place, we tabled the details and focused on enjoying our swims.

Supporting a swim is a thankless task, so be sure to let your supporter know how much you appreciate their time. Give them a hug or a high-five, bake them cookies, or pick up their coffee next time you’re out.

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