The air was minus-12 C at 6:15 a.m. on Friday at English Bay, but the water was a balmy 6 C as a group of plungers from the Pacific Swimming Academy went for a five-minute dip.
“Do you know there are two definitions of balmy?” asked Philip Skinder, founder and head coach at the academy.
Three mornings a week Skinder leads a group of swimmers into English Bay for five-minute, cold-water soaks before heading to the Vancouver Aquatic Centre to warm up in its pool.
Balmy, of course, means mild, soothing even. But it can also mean foolish or irrational — as in, “It’s minus-12 and you’re going into the ocean. Are you balmy?!?”
“We call our dipping group the Balmy Ice Clan,” Skinder said. “We’ve been doing this now for over a year and there are a lot of therapeutic benefits.
“But I think the thing we talk about the most is that none of us would do it if it was just by ourselves. It’s the chatting we do to keep ourselves in the water and our attention off the cold, that really gets us through.”
The group ranges in age from 15 to the late 50s (and includes 17-year-old Noah MacDonald, who finished second in this year’s competitive Polar Bear Swim on New Year’s Day).
“People are paying $100 for cryotherapy, paying money to fill up a bathtub with ice and they do a dip,” said Skinder. “We just get out with (bathing suits on) in our flip flops and we walk into the ocean and just sit there for five minutes.”
People make all sorts of claims about the benefits of cold-water immersion, healing anything from disease to depression.
Skinder relayed anecdotes from other cold-water dippers who said the ice water has cleared up hormonal imbalance, heart issues, joint and muscle pain.
“We talk about this a lot,” he said. “It’s not easy (going in the water), it’s a challenge — it’s a mental challenge, it’s a physical challenge. When you get out of the water, you feel like you can take on anything, you feel positive like you’ve achieved something.
“It’s the beginning of the day and you just feel energized to move forward.”
The air temperature had warmed up to minus-9 C by early Friday afternoon near Anmore, 45 kilometres from the aquatic centre, when Roberta Cenedese and Jessi Harewicz headed into Buntzen Lake, but a driving wind made it feel like minus-15.
Unlike the dippers, Cenedese and Harewicz are open-water swimmers who spend up to 20 minutes in the cold water and are members of Vancouver Cold Water Swimmers. They have completed “ice miles” and Harewicz has done several English Channel crossings, as well as Nanaimo to Vancouver.
Cenedese said the person who has done the most research into cold-water immersion is Dr. Mike Tipton, a professor with the extreme environments laboratory at the University of Portsmouth in England.
Tipton told the Guardian newspaper in September that, “One of the main positives that people claim is that (cold-water immersion) awakens you, sets you up for the day, makes you feel enlivened. And it’s unsurprising that plunging a tropical animal, which is what we are, into cold water will surprise them.”
It’s cold-shock response that is responsible for feelings of alertness, Tipton said, a sudden fall in skin temperature causing a rush of adrenaline and cortisol. If it’s this you’re looking for, a two-minute dip will suffice.
“There is evidence of benefits, but we’re in the realm of snake oil if you start telling people that it’s a cure-all that will solve all your problems,” he added.
The best approach, Greg Whyte, a professor at Liverpool John Moores University, said in the same article is to start gradually, even if it is only a cold shower before trying an outdoor swim.
Cenedese and Harewicz pulled off parkas and walked to the water from their warm vehicle in flip flops before kicking those off and wading into choppy Buntzen Lake.
Cenedese said she shed her wetsuit for good a decade ago and has been cold-water swimming in a one-piece ever since.
“I come from a competitive background in free-diving and I like challenging myself, exploring how much I can adapt my body and what’s possible,” she said.
She teaches cold-water safety. Just 1.5 litres of swallowed water can drown a person — a swimmer can take two to three litres into their lungs in one gulp if they are hyperventilating.
“I follow the research as closely as possible and I don’t usually feel comfortable talking about the kind of feelings you get (from cold-water immersion) unless there’s peer-reviewed scientific research that proves something’s happening,” she said. “Like any other kind of sport, I’d say (cold-water swimming) offers communion with nature year-round, especially in our climate when a lot of people spend winter indoors.
“It just puts your body under stress, your mind under stress, and you’re learning how to calm yourself down in that environment and take control. I just find that really neat.
“It’s a really magical experience.”