Most swimmers wear wetsuits in the Sound. These guys are practically in their birthday suits.
What’s up with that?
Brian McCleary and Joe Hempel swim year-round in trunks. Kristin Galbreaith wears a Lycra bodysuit. Winter doesn’t stop their half-hour ventures through the frigid currents in waters around Whidbey Island.
Open cold water is part of the thrill.
“Swimming in a pool is a little too boring for me,” McCleary says.
“I get a swimmer’s high, and I can never get that in a pool,” Hempel says.
“It’s always different,” Galbreaith says. “The current changes, the tide changes, the clarity of the water changes.”
It never gets old watching.
Tourists on shore bundled in puffy coats stare in disbelief when they see the bare arms of swimmers slice the murky gray water. It hits them that’s not a seal bobbling way out there.
To islanders accustomed to such circus acts in the sea it’s no big deal, but impressive nonetheless.
Swimming in cold water takes training and endurance. This is a quantum leap from those New Year’s Day polar bear plunges for the masses.
Open swimming and wetsuit sales boomed after COVID restrictions closed pools. The Whidbey Open Water Swimmers has clinics and regular group swims. This trio of Langley swimmers coordinates smaller meetups through a message app.
The cold rush has become a hot trend in such various forms as ice baths, brisk daily showers and cold tubs at spas. Supporters believe that cold can improve circulation, deepen sleep, spike energy levels and decrease depression.
For years, Wim Hof, the icicle-bearded Dutchman known as “The Iceman,” was seen as an anomaly. The extreme athlete broke records related to cold exposure such as climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in shorts, running a half marathon above the Arctic Circle barefoot and standing covered with ice cubes for two hours.
Hof now has 1.7 million followers on Instagram. His disciples include Whidbey athletes Cooper Ullmann, 18, and Kai Fawcett, 17, who wear boxer briefs for dunks lasting several minutes in the Sound as part of their workout to improve sports performance.
The average swimming pool water is 78 to 82 degrees. The National Center for Cold Water Safety states that swimmers entering water below 70 degrees should proceed with caution.
The open water on this day at Saratoga Passage is 43 degrees.
Hypothermia is a risk.
“Succumbing to the cold involves not being aware that you are succumbing to the cold,” Galbreaith says.
Swimmers keep an eye on one another. Sometimes they have company.
“Half the time we swim we have a harbor seal escort,” McCleary says.
Hempel says he feels the presence of marine mammals in the water.
“You don’t know what’s there, but you know something is there,” he says. “As long as it’s not ‘Jaws’ coming out of there, you’re good.”
Hempel, 47, an electrical company general manager who hails from Minnesota, started cold water swimming two years ago.
“It clears my head,” he says.
For McCleary, 57, a residential construction project manager, it began as a personal challenge to see how long he could stay in the water.
“The first time was probably five minutes,” he says. “Every time I am about to get in the water I have to psych myself into it. Right after the swim I feel pretty alert.”
Galbreaith, 60, calls it an “attitude adjustment.”
“Something happens in the cold water. You get out feeling so good,” she says.
She did a tour as a helicopter pilot after graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy. Now the former Ironman triathlete is an aquatics instructor and member of U.S. Masters Swimming.
The three swimmers often meet at Seawall Park on the shore of downtown Langley.
On this winter day, they arrive in warm clothes, looking like ordinary townsfolk, though Hempel has on sandals. He carries a white five-gallon Kikkoman Soy Sauce pail filled with hot water.
Under their coats are clothing layers to preserve every shred of heat to their core, key to being able to sustain the cold water.
They strip down at a picnic table in the park below First Street shops and the Village Pizzeria with windows overlooking the bay.
Pants and shirts pile on the table. A beach bag tilts open with a green polka-dot towel at the ready. Silicone caps replace sock hats.
Galbreaith tucks her hair inside a “We can do it” Rosie the Riveter swim cap and heads to the water with the scantily clad men. They step into the frigid matter without a flinch.
McCleary sets off on a three-quarter mile swim. “I’m slower. I can’t keep up with them. They are genetically different,” he says.
His swim-mates linger a few moments before doing a mile.
“Joe and I like to get numb first,” Galbreaith says.
This lets their lower half acclimate.
“It does wonders with the rest of your body,” Hempel says. “It’s letting everything know you’re about to plunge.”
Then the two are gone, disappearing into the horizon of vast water against the backdrop of Camano Island. Ducks paddle on the surface as the late afternoon sky gets grayer. Waves hit the seawall.
Time passes slowly on shore for those who stand in wait. There is no sight of the swimmers or a harbor seal.
Their belongings — nice jackets, backpacks, Hempel’s sandals — sit on the table, unattended. This is Langley. Nobody meddles in their stuff.
Gradually a moving form in the distance grows closer. Then another. And another.
After 35 minutes in the water, the trio is back in the flesh.
They relax a few minutes in the water as if it’s a warm day at the beach before strolling to the picnic table. You’d think they’d be shivering and blue. They aren’t. They are rosy and giddy.
McCleary pulls out his earplugs and dries off with the green polka-dot towel.
Hempel stands in his white plastic bucket of hot water. “It brings the blood back to my feet,” he says.
Galbreaith reaches into her bag for a thermos and three tea cups. She pours hot Bengal spice tea as if it’s a picnic.
“There’s nothing nicer than hot tea after a swim,” she says.
A Seattle woman in a long coat watches the exploit with amusement and approaches. She can’t contain her enthusiasm any longer.
“You guys have to be out of your mind,” the woman says. “It’s freezing. Are you training for something?”
No, just taking a dip, the swimmers tell her.
“Then you’re just out of your minds,” she says.