A “Tale” of Starting a Cold Water Swim Group
by Suzy Happ
It was Oct 6th 2020. The pandemic was in full swing and the pools were all closed. Being part of the Merfolk open water swim group had been my summer’s saving grace. But the water temps were falling in Portland, OR, and Merfolk didn’t swim sub-60 degrees, so my mind turned to what to do over the winter. I really didn’t want to stop swimming, but the water was going to get so cold, and only really bonkers or really brave people swam in really cold water, right?! Not middle aged moms who tended towards anxiety.
So I posted an article about the benefits of cold water swimming on my Facebook page and kind of nervously floated it out there that I wanted to try it. My friend Jeanine commented, saying she’d like to give it a go, even if only once. (HA!) Another swim friend Christina replied, “You know I am with you!!” And a third friend, Moe, messaged me separately, almost too vulnerable to make it public. “I think I’d like to give this a try–I’m a really sucky swimmer but I can do a little breast stroke”. As serendipity works, when you start to think about a thing, you begin to notice that thing everywhere. A little snippet of conversation here, an article there, and the ball just kept on rolling. I heard of a webinar on cold water swimming which I attended with the friends who had expressed interest. After the presentation, I mustered the courage to ask the presenter how to join a local cold water swim group, and her answer to me was, “I would like to encourage you to start your own!” What? Me? It seemed preposterous, really; I mean, I didn’t know anything about it! And I didn’t quite understand why I couldn’t just sign up with some existing group. (Let me assure you that now, a year later, I fully and completely understand).
So we picked a date and showed up at Broughton Beach on the Columbia River a few miles from home and got in the water and swam. It already seemed cold, perhaps 58 degrees? Little did we know what was to come! From there, Christina told Jen M, who posted on a Facebook swim group, and she told Leah and Maggie who she knew in other swim circles; and Maxx, who doesn’t often use Facebook but was looking for company in the water, read the post, and Brad, who NEVER uses Facebook (for philosophical principles), logged in for a day hoping to find other swimmers, and gave his email address, which Maxx responded to immediately. Jeanine brought Marc and Jen S who were talking about it in their anti-racism group. Moe told Kristen, who was a mom at the same school as her daughter. Elsa found out from Andrea, who had found out from Christina. Robin swam with another cold water group and lived in the neighborhood and would also occasionally join us. Brad invited Debra just under the wire before we closed our group, around New Year’s. And in this manner, slowly but surely over time, the pool refugees arrived at Broughton Beach to try this new thing.
What came next is a bit of a blur, in terms of nailing down exact timelines, but in looking back, I think it was somehow infused with a bit of magic. Early on, we got a name. Ballenas is Spanish for whale (the double LL sounds like a Y btw). It came to me easily. I’m bilingual and there are many words that just sound so much prettier in Spanish, plus it began with a B and we swam at Broughton Beach. Plus whales are really cool cold water swimmers. So it has stuck. We swam, we talked about safety, we swam, we tried to communicate with each other, we swam, we tried to figure out how many people we could actually accommodate in our group, we swam some more. We found out cool things about each other, like what we did when we weren’t cold-water swimming. So many amazing things–music and art and poetry, oh, my! The temps dropped more. I made some mistakes pretty early on with communicating by these unwieldy group texting threads that we kept adding people to, but would invariably drop people when someone replied to an old text instead of a new one; then people would miss out on information. Same with email…it was just dumb. But soon I realized there were people with greater tech skills than me in the group (a trained monkey would have been better, honestly, I mean, not to dis monkeys by saying that, but…). So I started reaching out to Brad who became fondly known (to me anyway) as the IT guy, who introduced us to the GroupMe texting app and got us in a Google group email. It was not very complicated stuff, he assures me, but the point is that we all have our skills and it’s good to delegate. And those two things REALLY helped with our communication problems. And we swam some more.
We paid attention to basic safety. We informed ourselves through internet searches about hypothermia. We didn’t swim alone, and we all used swim buoys. We shared emergency contact numbers. We swam in sight of each other between the “teeth”, or fence-posts going out into the channel on the eastern border of the beach, and the “wall” on the western side separating us from the marina. We increased our times gradually to avoid “cold shock”. Then we decreased our times when it got too cold. Some used wetsuits, or some combo of paraphernalia meant to reduce the pain of cold water swimming: swim shirts, booties, gloves, thermal caps, or in Debra’s case, a fashionable wool cap perched upon her head-out-of-water, and some just in our suits; many of us ditched the props along the way to see what it felt like to “swim skins’ which is NOT naked btw, it just means a bathing suit and a latex cap. We were all different levels of swim skill and competitiveness, and it just didn’t matter. We had our common denominator.
And the water got colder. And when the water temps were somewhere in the 40s, we started noticing how Elsa would stagger up the beach like a drunken sailor and one time Christina could not possibly think through the task of getting into her warm clothes, so our social worker in the group, Kristen, had to talk her through each step, as if she were a kindergartener, but not at all condescendingly, of course. Sorry to pick on Christina, but on another occasion, she couldn’t add 6+3 in the parking lot so we had to temporarily confiscate her car keys. BTW these are all signs of hypothermia. The health care workers among us started freaking out, knowing that, if this escalated, we would have to deal with the emergency until the ambulance arrived. We realized we needed help; we were all pretty much newbies at this and it was starting to get scary. So we consulted with a few of the Yetis by Zoom. The Yetis are a legendary and iconic group of cold water swimmers in Portland with 4-5 more years worth of experience than us. It was so helpful to meet them, and be able to ask very candid and pointed questions; to hear the way they did things, especially how they kept each other safe while keeping things fun, and the ways they cared for each other on the beach which led to their sense of community.
After that Zoom, we started trying to warm up more on shore instead of the “car sauna” technique, though that was always an option if needed! And the more we hung out, the more community really started to build. We admired Maxx’s excellent warm-up beach prancing, Jen S’s dedicated beach cleaning, and everyone’s ridiculous efforts to be modest as we changed our clothes right there on the beach, to get out of the dreaded hypothermia-inducing wet bathing suit into our cozy stuff. We zipped zippers and pulled down sweaters and fetched keys and towels and snappy heat packs for each other. We laughed A LOT! We doubled down on rules. In warmer temps, we could keep a “loose eye” on each other as we swam, but as it got chilly we started to buddy up more formally. And when combined air/water temps dropped below 100 degrees, we had to have at least one designated shore support person watching out for us, mostly Debra’s husband, Super Shore Support Steve, or SSSS for short. Or my hubby Chris, or Brad’s wife Mare. Or Leah who didn’t like swimming below 50 degrees, or Robin who was just a generous person and willing to brave the ugliest of weather. More often than not, though, we would just divide into 2 groups so one group could watch the other and vice versa.
And we swam some more. We braved all kinds of weather, some more bravely than others. The snowstorm hit and Jen S flew down the snowy beach on a sled into the water while Kristen cackled maniacally in the background and became an internet sensation. The water temp dropped below 40 and swims got REAL short. And the teeth got buried beneath the flood waters at one point and it was cold and choppy and gray and rainy and windy, and we loved it. And we hated it too at times, but underneath the hate was a joy and a fierce clinging to the weird state change and the after-drop and the shivering and the ultimate euphoria. And all our friends thought we were nuts. But we unearthed parts of ourselves previously unknown. We marveled at our own bravery; this motley crew of wonderful people all thrown together by an impossible dream of cold water swimming. And now they are my family.
By the end of the season, we were ready to give something back to the world and to our river; Maggie, our resident sunshine-bringer who was also a fundraiser, proposed a week of swimming fundraising for Columbia Riverkeeper and we embraced it. We raised about $14,000 and at the end of the week we had a big (socially distanced) celebration on the beach with soup and awards and thrift store treasure gifts, and good feelings all around. As the group founder, I got the “anchor”, this hunking piece of metal from the bottom of the river that I absolutely hated swimming over in my shallow lane swims. But they dug it up for me and gifted it to me and it was the best gift ever. Along with a poem by Elsa that is framed and prominently displayed for any days in need of a pick-me-up.
Spring and summer rolled round; the other swim groups started meeting again, and on the first swims, everyone was like, wow! the water is so cold! and we would look at each other and laugh inside because our frame of reference regarding what classified as cold water was forever altered. Throughout the summer, many of us swam with the other groups– the River Huggers, the Merfolk, the Milwaukie Bay Peahens; and Jen M planned some really long 2 to 5 mile swim adventures for those who were up for the challenge, and we did some camping trips together that centered around swimming. But we also kept swimming at Broughton, because that is clearly the home of the Broughton Beach Ballena, and we needed to migrate back there to keep it all going.
Which brings us back to the beginning. Throughout the past year, many people have come up to us on the beach and asked us, How can I join your group? It’s always hard to answer; because at heart we are welcoming people, but over time we came to understand the reasons to keep such a group relatively small–potential issues with Covid, communication, safety, and group cohesiveness would grow along with numbers. So we have given similar answers to the one we originally got way back in Oct 2020. Elsa also put a lot of work into a sheet of paper with cold water swimming resources for folks to take away. And we did a webinar with Oregon Masters Swimming on this topic. Because it has brought such joy into our lives that we want everyone who has that little spark of an interest to find their people.
You don’t need to be a Yeti, or a Ballena. There are plenty of other names out there waiting for your group to choose them, and plenty of water for plenty of other swim groups to enjoy. Or you might just find a buddy who swims at your pace and go that route. All you need is the impulse, the guts to reach out to others around you to find out who else is interested, attention to safety in this inherently risky endeavor and maybe also a little bit of magic along the way. We’d love to help out if you have questions. We do not claim to be experts, but we do have the experience of starting our own group and becoming a whale pod family in just one year.