Cold t*ts, warm hearts: the cold water dippers of Maine
On the first day of January, people all over the world dive into the water as a way to start the new year fresh. It’s often referred to as a “polar plunge”.
But cold water dipping is different.
It’s not a breathless in-and-out plunge, but a slow submersion: lingering in the cold water for 5 or 10 minutes. No wetsuit.
This fall, Outside/In producer Justine Paradis got to know a community of dippers along the coast of Maine. Many of them described something happening once they’re in their water.. Something which they say changes their relationship to the cold, the ocean, and themselves.
In this episode, we’re ringing in the new year by sharing a little more from those conversations.
Featuring Kelsy Hartley, Caitlin Hopkins, Puranjot Kaur, Betsy Dawkins, and Judy Greene-Janse.
Thanks to everyone who sent in suggestions for winter surthrival. We featured ideas from James in Bend, Oregon; Kyra in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada; and Annie in Portland, Maine.
Thanks also to Gin Majka, Guenola Lefeuvre, and Annie Ropeik.
A word on the risks of cold water immersion
People engage in cold water dipping and swimming around the world. Many claim health benefits, like a boosted immune system and reduced inflammation. But it’s not a risk-free activity.
"I'm not sitting here as the fun police stopping people doing what they want to do. It's just we would encourage them to do it safely,” said Mike Tipton, a professor of Human and Applied Physiology at the Extreme Environments Laboratory at the University of Portsmouth. He shared a couple risks to consider before jumping in.
- Cold shock response, which occurs as you enter cold water and lasts a couple minutes. This prompts an involuntary gasp and hyperventilation – bad news if you’re underwater or in choppy water.
- Cardiac triggers. Cold water shock sends a signal to your heart telling it to beat faster, but face immersion tells your heart to slow down. These competing signals to your heart can potentially cause cardiac arrhythmia, especially when plunging and breath holding. On top of that, the cold water constricts your blood vessels, pushes up blood pressure, and makes your heart work harder.
- Swim failure, the result of direct cooling of the superficial nerves and muscles (especially in the limbs). This can occur before other effects of hypothermia. “This is where we see people swimming out to sea offshore, turning around and finding they can't get back because they become physically incapacitated… one of the obvious bits of safety advice is don't swim out of your depth and swim parallel to the shore, not away from it,” Mike said.
A few basic safety tips:
- Don’t go alone.
- As one cold water swimmer put it, “Keep your feet on the ground.”
- Get yourself checked for any pre-existing conditions that might be triggered by a sudden change in blood pressure.
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Caitlin Hopkins and Kelsy Hartley are also known as Ebb and Flow, the founders of Two Maine Mermaids.
Puranjot Kaur is a member of Cold Tits, Warm Hearts on Mount Desert Island. There’s also another group in midcoast Maine called Wicked Nippy Dippahs.
In addition to dipping, many of the women featured are open water swimmers. Puranjot Kaur wrote this account of her second attempt to swim around Mount Desert Island, fueled by congee and community.
Check out these gorgeous photos by Greta Rybus of a community dip in an ice-hole in York, Maine, and these photos of some of the dippers in our episode.
A good interview with a “wild swimming” scientist on both the risks and benefits of immersion
Reported, produced, and mixed by Justine Paradis
Edited by Taylor Quimby
The Outside/In team also includes our host Nate Hegyi, Felix Poon, and Jessica Hunt
Executive producer: Rebecca Lavoie
Music in this episode by Blue Dot Sessions, Quesa, and Autohacker
Theme music: Breakmaster Cylinder
Outside/In is a production of New Hampshire Public Radio.
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