You stand on the beach, wind whipping around you and easily penetrating your wetsuit. The air temperature is in the mid 50s, but the real-feel temperature is in the 40s.
It feels wrong to be standing exposed, really wrong to be about to get in the water, which is in the mid 50s.
The small group starts to jog down the beach. Because of the rubber hood, sounds are different. Internal sounds, like your breathing and heartbeat, are uncomfortably loud, as is the wind. But everything else is muted. As you run, your heels seem to make a metallic spring sound when they hit the sand. Your feet are starting to get numb, so you’re careful to avoid shells and bits of debris. You wouldn’t feel it if you were cut.
Entering the water brings an involuntary sense of panic. Where your skin is exposed, there’s sharp pain. You force yourself not to turn back, but instead to take high steps until you get to chest deep water. Piercing streams of water creep up your legs. Then comes the worst part.
You dive in and several things happen simultaneously. The water pours down your suit from the neck. As it hits your chest you feel like you can’t breathe. But it’s hard to even think about that because the source of the most discomfort is your face. You have an ice cream headache where your forehead used to be. The skin on your face feels like ice is being rubbed on it.
And when the water enters your mouth, it hurts your gums and teeth. As you start to swim, you take a breath and ice-cold water pours into your right ear and feels like it goes all the way into your brain. This is the point that you have to trust in mind over matter. You tell yourself it will get way better in 100 strokes.
You reflect on the fact that wetsuits only work when there’s a thin layer of water between your skin and the suit. But when the water enters, it’s basically the same as jumping in the water with nothing. So, there’s a gap from entry until the suit gets water in it and the water is heated to body temperature. There’s also an adaptation period for skin to adjust to the cold, but for water in the upper 50s and higher, this will happen.
Knowing all this and reflecting on it helps a bit. Five minutes makes a huge difference. Also, experience helps you know what wetsuit thickness and pieces to wear for certain air and water temperatures, as well as activity levels. And you begin to trust that things will get better, even comfortable, for as long as your body is able to continue generating heat.
After the hundredth stroke you realize that you feel OK and you can focus on the workout.
Doing this a minimum of once a week keeps our winter crew ready to make rescues in all types of conditions.