By Wolf Richter, editor of Wolf Street. Originally published at Wolf Street.
The author, Robert McMillan, says he is a member of the South End Rowing Club in San Francisco, which is next door to the Dolphin Swimming & Boating Club, where I’m a member. Both clubs, among the oldest athletic clubs in San Francisco, share the same beach. From the article, I gather that he swims with a wetsuit, but I can’t tell for sure. I used to swim with a wetsuit, until I took it off one day – but not, as he claims about someone else, because of “wetsuit shaming.”
Robert says hilariously that “some Bay swimmers refuse to wear these potentially lifesaving devices because they consider them a form of cheating.”
With this comment, Robert revealed that he doesn’t get cold-water swimming, which then led him neck-deep into nonsense, published by the WSJ. So, I’ll help him out.
From the article, it seems Robert isn’t aware of what cold water does to you when you swim in it, just you, your swimsuit, goggles, and thermal cap – how it impinges on your skin with ferocious intensity while you’re totally immersed in nature, in currents and waves, amid waterfowl that don’t take you seriously, the occasional seal that comes up to check you out, or the sea lion that you really want to stay away from.
Your body generates a cocktail of chemicals to help you survive in this water. Before Christmas, the temperature dipped below 50° F, but has since warmed up to 52° or 53°. Afterwards, you get this beautiful high. You walk around with a smile on your face for hours.
This is why, for some people, this experience is addictive. That’s why we swim without a wetsuit. Other people don’t have that kind of experience. They might try it once, and it’s just a horror. And they swim with a wetsuit henceforth, which is great. At least they’re swimming in the Bay.
I started out swimming with a wetsuit, but then one day in the summer, when the water wasn’t cold, I took the wetsuit off, and it was liberating and wonderful and intense. I got used to the cold water, and I got addicted.
That’s the reality of cold-water swimming: It’s wonderful, it’s intense, it immerses you in nature like nothing else. It takes your mind off everything. It’s addictive. A good swim is like two weeks’ vacation. That’s why people swim without a wetsuit in cold water.
Fairness in a Race, Not “Wetsuit Shaming.”
Let’s return to Robert’s masterpiece, where he failed to say that a wetsuit makes you faster, a lot faster, because the buoyancy lifts your body further out of the water, which reduces drag. This is particularly advantageous to a lean body-type like mine that sinks. The fact that they make you faster is why they are not allowed in pool competitions.
So the swim events that the author mentions – they’re competitions! And it would be unfair if wetsuit swimmers are allowed to compete on an equal basis with everyone else. We don’t allow fins and other “swim aids” either. That has nothing to do with “wetsuit shaming,” but with fairness in a race.
Avoiding a Mess, Not “Wetsuit Shaming.”
Robert goes on to bitch about South-Enders not being allowed after the swim to take their wetsuits off inside the locker-room, but that they have to take it off outside on the dock.
Same at the Dolphin Club. The reason is simple. A wetsuit, after you get through swimming, holds water, mud, sand, and assorted plankton. As you peel it off, this stuff drips and trickles all over the floor and makes a huge mess. People can put on their dry wetsuit in the locker-room, but they have to take it off outside and let it dry outside, which makes perfect sense. That’s not “wetsuit shaming” but just practical.
That’s how it was explained to me when I first showed up at the Dolphin Club with my wetsuit. Everyone knows this – except our friend Robert.
Rolling Out a Professor Stunned By “Wetsuit Shaming.”
So, in good old WSJ manner, Robert goes on to cite a professor of biology. Robert says: “In 50-degree water, the first stages of hypothermia can kick in after just 10 minutes, according to John A. Downing, a professor of biology with the University of Minnesota’s Large Lakes Observatory. “Wetsuit shaming. I find that hysterical,” he [the professor] says. “Why would you shame someone for trying to stay alive?”
First: Dear Prof. Downing, don’t worry, “wetsuit shaming” is a figment of Robert’s imagination. And yes, it’s ridiculous.
Second: Yes, hypothermia can be deadly, and swimmers can die if they get it wrong. People die skiing, bicycling (get hit by a freaking car!), running, hiking, rock-climbing, crossing the street…. Cold water swimming is intense. Lean people like me lack the natural neoprene layer that others have, and we have to manage our time in the cold water prudently. Other swimmers with enough natural neoprene can swim in it for hours. I have to exert myself to stay warm in 50° water. But I see other folks just treading water and chatting about their latest recipe or whatever. Everyone has to learn how it works for them. And for some people, swimming with a wetsuit may be the way to go, and that’s great.
Other Silliness in the Piece.
So Robert goes on: “With the water hovering just above 50 degrees this month—and air temperature in the 50s too—that is just one of many hazards Bay swimmers face: they could exhaust themselves fighting strong currents, be bitten by aggressive sea lions, or even cross paths with the occasional ocean tanker.”
The last item — “cross paths with the occasional ocean tanker” — is just silly. Where we swim on our own, at the Aquatic Club “cove,” and outside going east near the breakwater and the piers, or going west past Fort Mason towards the St. Francis Yacht Club, there are no ocean tankers. There are no ships at all.
Further offshore – but we don’t swim there on our own – there is a shipping lane, and container ships mostly ply it in direction of the Port of Oakland. The tankers pass a couple of miles further north, north of Alcatraz, to go to the refineries in Richmond and along the San Pablo Bay. Robert, go have a look at a map of the Bay.
For swim events that cross the shipping lanes, such as the swims from Alcatraz back to the club, well, the swim commissioner schedules them with the Coast Guard well in advance, and they shut down traffic in the shipping lane for the time of the event. And boats from the club accompany the swimmers.
Kudos to the Wall Street Journal for having excelled once again with such acuity.
Brits may read this with other things in mind. I remember when, with big fanfare in the news, the Thames was no longer declared a “dead river” – plenty of fish could be caught for first time since before the industrial revolution. (NB The Thames still *looks* disgusting in central London but that’s just silt.)
Now with almost daily stories of people finding themselves covered in feces, condoms and other stuff from sewer overflows, people are rightly disgusted with the quality of water in UK rivers and many key beaches. You’d definitely want a wetsuit….. And to have it sprayed down when you exited the water before taking it off.
A little story from the 1990’s. I used to belong to an organisation called, the SAS, Surfers Against Sewage, it campaigned against… well, raw sewage along the coast. They kept a close eye on reports of gastrointestinal illnesses from surfers. They identified one hotspot along the south coast, but were constantly rebuffed by the Environment Agency at the time stating that the local water company had a new, advanced water treatment system, which included UV post-tertiary treatment of the wastewater, so it couldn’t possibly be the result of human sewage. The UV system consisted of banks of UV strips that were intended to provide a final sterilisation of post-treated water before discharge to the bay.
After much campaigning, the agency agreed to an early morning no-notice inspection. They found the UV system was not turned on. They tracked the electrics to the office of the most senior manager. He literally had a switch beside his desk which he used to turn it on whenever there was an inspection. Apparently, he and his company were utterly convinced that the UV system was a waste of electricity and money, and no viruses could possibly survive their modern treatment system. Or so they claimed, it could well have been that they just didn’t care so long as nobody complained about the smell.
I don’t think its online, but this story was widely published at the time in the professional literature at the time (interestingly, the general media didn’t pick it up), but as so often, its lesson was quickly forgotten. Private companies are only interested in metrics that can be easily measured, anything else is ignored.
SIGH – this just reinforces everything I knew already or suspected.
Round my way its not wetsuit shaming thats the issue (because nobody wears wetsuits swimming here unless you are a kitesurfer or a tourist), its Robie-shaming. Robies are a sort of outdoor insulated dressing gown that instantly marks you out as a hopeless newbie. Real swimmers just use a little teatowel to dry off, even in the coldest winters day just to… well, just because.
The biggest controversy in coastal swimming in Dublin (where it is hugely popular through the winter) was a couple of decades ago when a famous men only nude bathing spot, the 40 foot, had a choice of staying nude or removing its ban on women swimmers. Now they (just about) reluctantly accept Robies as well.
Thousands go out every year for a Christmas Day swim, its the perfect way to sharpen your appetite. It continually amazes visitors to Dublin walking along the coast to see many (usually older, frequently not in the best shape) people wandering around in just a swimsuit. Mind you, I’ve heard Russians and Finns complain that the Irish Sea is just too warm. They are usually told its because of Sellafield emissions.
Well, Russian, Finns and Estonians call it ice-swimming, and the water is usually only a fraction above freezing. I know some people who do it regularly, but have never heard of any kind of shaming in those circles. One swears by using neoprene shoes and gloves to allow more time in the water. I believe none of them have ever even though about putting on a wetsuit to spoil the experience.
Have visited Ireland once, in August. Our tour guide took us to what I assumed was a large public beach*. There were lots of beachgoers wearing wetsuits and they were all young. They were young and wearing wetsuits in Ireland. I’ve never seen so many wetsuits anywhere… or redheaded kids with freckles. No adults, just teenagers, in wetsuits. Ten years later my brain is still trying to resolve the seizure of cognitive dissonance. Ireland. Beach. Wetsuits. Redheaded freckly teenagers wearing them… aiiiiigggggh.
*More of a cove really.
My older brother maintains that the greatest revolution in summer childcare in Ireland was cheap wetsuits sold by German discount supermarkets. It meant that on west of Ireland summer holidays they could let their kids go wild at the beach all day without a problem and the parents can relax.
In contrast, my memory of beach holidays in the west of Ireland as a kid is of jellyfish stinks and sunburn interspersed with occasional bouts of hypothermia and trench foot.
It’s curious about local norms. When I was a teenager on Miami Beach, we would generally look with amazement at the northern tourists arrayed on the beach getting their tans in fifty and sixty degree (F) weather. That was too cold for we locals to disrobe.
“When did the Polar Bears arrive?” was a common question.
We would have problems with tankers though. Occasionally, a passing empty tanker would flush it’s tanks after cleaning up stream in the Gulf Stream and blobs of gooey oil tars would wash ashore on the beach. The local Chamber of Commerce took that seriously and would raise a ruckus about it. Not because of the ecological damage, but because of the financial damage to the local tourism trade.
I swam in Aquatics Cove years ago with and without a wetsuit.
I find that cold water swimming either way has a kind of intimacy with nature. So too does cross-country skiing.
In Copenhagen, people swim in the sea (Oresund) year-round. In winter, the water is in the mid to upper 30s at most, so most folks take brief dips.
There is also a club that has a large wooden facility built out over the water with a sauna for before and after swimming.
It being Scandinavia, most of this winter swimming is skinny dipping.
I had the opportunity once to swim in Lake Baikal in winter.
Everyone took brief dips. There were folks there to help you put your clothes on if you got too stiff. Delicious fish caught in the lake and cooked over an open fire. Vodka, though that is not my style after a good cold swim.
When the water is around 50, I can swim with just a swim cap, but much lower than that, I really need a wetsuit if I go in for more than a quick dip. A nice thick one.
I even use a thinner wetsuit in water up into the 60s if I am going to swim for an hour or longer.
What I have experienced is a camaraderie among those cold-water swimming.
This is ridiculous. I’ve done open water and regular swimming for 40+ years and participated in many competitions, and the rule was always no wetsuits. FINA banned full body swimsuits in pool competitions for the same reason. Triathlon competitions are different, they allow wetsuits for the swimming portion. Also, this is why swimming competitions are never held is salt water pools, salt water provides extra buoyancy and makes everyone faster, so records would be meaningless. McMillan clearly has no experience with competitive swimming, and is too entitled to ask why things are done the way they are.
I reckon that people are either mountain or ocean oriented, and seldom do the 2 mix…
I’ve swam in about 250 lakes in the High Sierra and when I say swim, that might entail jumping in the water and very nearly jumping out, some lakes still having ‘icebergs’ in them when I went about my business.
And no wetsuit either, that would take up half my backpack space, a no go.
This is so cool to hear about. Over the course of this last year I’ve changed to my hiking habits to include a day or two of hitting the beach early in the morning and wading for a couple miles. At first your legs and feet hurt from the cold, but it goes away soon enough. It’s kinda fun to see other people all wrapped up staring at some goofy 50 year-old, in shorts and a t-shirt splashing around in 45 degree weather. Anyway, I’ve totally noticed a huge post hike high from it, nice to know it’s not my imagination. A new extreme sport is born, I give you…Cold Water Wading!
How is it important to make this piece part of exhilarating. This is what happens when Yves takes time away?
Next up: shoveling snow from sidewalks on a sub-zero day while wearing several layers in Iowa. Talk about exhilerating.
RE: Rubber swimwear in SF for cold water swimming!
Forget it. I can’t/don’t do cold water. My back locks up.
When we visited the Grand Canyon a few years back my wife picked up a book called “Over the Edge, Death in Grand Canyon”. It chronicles, and categorizes, just about every recorded death there. Seems the biggest risk factor is being male.
The highest percentages are what you’d expect; photo opportunities (back up just a bit…), men relieving themselves over the edge (of the canyon or the river), exposure, thirst, hold my beer, etc. What caught our eye was the frequency of fatal heart attacks in people tossed into the river from rafts (or slipping off the rock they were relieving themselves from) into waters as cold as 46*. “Cold-shock” syndrome resulting in cardiac arrest in older people, as well as hypothermia in all ages, was attributed to the temperature of water drawn from the penstock of Hoover damn, that is, the bottom of the reservoir, as opposed to warmer surface water.
My favorite part, though, is the last page of the epilogue: a kid sent the author a letter asking about “DiGC” The Movie, and the related toys and video game.
The most common way to die in Sequoia NP involves water, especially in years such as this whopper, which will have massive spring output and people will underestimate how quick the flow is, combined with the water having been snow not so long ago.
We used to have 1 local whitewater raft company in Tiny Town and 4 others who were kind of like gypsy companies who went where the river called them-setting up shop, and then the drought hit and the outside raft companies stopped coming, and then the local guy gave it up and then there was none.
It’s a fun 10 mile long raft down the main fork of the Kaweah River, full of Class 3 & 4 action, and one time I fell out of the raft just before a Class 4 rapid, and I did one of those slow motion gigs* where time slowed to a crawl, so I could maneuver past a boulder, etc. The water was awfully chilly even with a wetsuit on.
* the other time it happened to me was when I was in a Bank of America that got robbed takeover style 30 years ago.
The kind of unfounded whining by the WSJ oped writer feels vaguely Karen-adjacent, but I don’t know if there’s a word for it? And then there should be a word for the nagging annoyance these people inspire. It feels like it’s such a part of social life among highly educated Americans and Canadians in the 21st century.
I feel such a super-First Worlder because I too get annoyed like Wolf about stuff like this while so many other people are dealing with wars, Long Covid, wage theft, homelessness, severe disease, mental health crises, etc.
When I get irritated over First World issues, its usually something stupid such as Rolex spokespersons that are ballerinas, golf or tennis players, none of which keeps track of time with the exception of tennis, which has strict 3 minute limit toilet breaks now.
Nonsense in the WSJ, perish the thought! As one who grew up swimming in a warm ocean on the other coast, my hat is off to you! I remember the first time I saw Dolphin Swimmers in San Francisco. Very impressive! I tried it in the San Juan Islands once while working at the University of Washington Marine Laboratory. By accident, fully clothed. 52-degree F water is a shock to the system, but my coworkers were very entertained! I think I could have gotten used to it, but for these things. Most of the jellyfish in the San Juans are innocuous, and many are bioluminescent. Not this one! I have seen specimens of Cyanea capillata with a bell diameter of 2 feet and an infinitely long trail of tentacles. No, thanks.
Hah! Great swimming story KLG! As it happens, in a few weeks I’m moving to the island where the Labs you mentioned are located. Pulling up the drawbridge.
Wolf’s piece was a beautiful riposte. It’s unbelievable how editors will allow their self-appointed “elite” reporters to opine as “experts” about various and sundry topics without the slightest context other than their boundless self-importance. Poor McMillan turns out to be an English major out of a fourth-rate Canadian “university” who appears to be quite out of his depth…
Friday Harbor and San Juan Island are sweet! Summers are perfect, winters gray and great for reading and walking. I’ll join you when my Lottery Ticket comes in, David! Be sure to go to the floating docks on darkest nights and stir the water. It sparkles with luminescent dinoflagellates and jellyfish, Aequorea and Halistaura and Phialidium. Plus the occasional ctenophore. Rowboat is best to see them.