Should you swim in icy water to clear your head?, Whidbey MFA program

Mi familia is still in Hawaii. Surfing.

August 5th, 2012

Whidbey Island is beautiful. The water is 44 degrees, and my plan is to get swimming tomorrow. Not now. I’ve had too many glasses of wine. Tomorrow. Drinking later. Swimming earlier. That’s the idea.

It’s so beautiful, you can see the trees rising into the cold air on the other side of the sound, and there’s a sailboat floating out there, rising elegant against the waves.

The first is phase of cold water immersion is called the cold shock response: It is a stage of increased heart rate and blood pressure, uncontrolled gasping, and sometimes uncontrolled movement. Lasting anywhere from 30 seconds to a couple of minutes depending on a number of factors, the cold shock response can be deadly all by itself. In fact, of all the people who die in cold water, it is estimated that 20% die in the first two minutes. They drown, they panic, they take on water in that first uncontrolled gasp, if they have heart problems – the cold shock may trigger a heart attack. Surviving this stage is about getting your breathing under control, realizing that the stage will pass, and staying calm.

I love the notion of swimming out to that sailboat where it floats like a bird. Hell, I’ve been swimming all summer. Why stop now. I swam every day in Greece, the Nebraska Olympic pool, and in Hawaii. Why stop now? Despite everything going on in my life… and there’s a lot, trust me, I think swimming would clear my head. I feel the water here coming in around me, telling me to trust in fluid. To trust that everything will be all right.

Ana Maria Spagna is here, the most brilliant writer I’ve met in ages, so sporty and smart and with a mind like a whip, and she works with her hands, she works physically, I like people who write and understand how to work with their bodies. Academics who only do academics–bore me. I want to swim tomorrow. I want to clear my head. I want to understand what is going on and I don’t think I can clear my head without running or drowning. Well, swimming. Not necessarily drowning. But my head is a cloud.

One of the primary reasons given by recreational boaters when asked why they don’t wear a life jacket, is that they can swim. Listen up, Tarzan; I swam for a living for the better part of my adult life, and when the water is cold – none of us can swim for very long. The second stage of cold water immersion is called cold incapacitation. Lacking adequate insulation your body will make its own. Long before your core temperature drops a degree, the veins in your extremities (those things you swim with) will constrict, you will lose your ability control your hands, and the muscles in your arms and legs will just flat out quit working well enough to keep you above water. Without some form of flotation, and in not more than 30 minutes, the best swimmer among us will drown – definitely – no way around it. Without ever experiencing a drop in core temperature (at all) over 50% of the people who die in cold water, die from drowning perpetuated by cold incapacitation.

What do you do at the end of the road? The place where you don’t understand how that happened? How could I have been such an idiot? What was I thinking? Clearly I wasn’t thinking. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. You think this after accidents and craziness and wildness. Or you don’t think. Maybe you don’t think and you just wild around your corridor asking yourself to be quiet. And then, if you’re me, you plan to swim. I don’t have running shoes here. I need to swim. I know I will survive.

We are all different in this regard, but I once spent an hour in 44 degree water wearing street clothes and my core temperature was only down by less than two degrees (I was not clinically hypothermic). It was uncomfortable to be sure, and I wouldn’t recommend finding your own limit, but it probably would have taken another hour to lose consciousness, and an hour after that to cool my core to the point of no return. The bodies efforts to keep the core warm – vasoconstriction and shivering – are surprisingly effective. The shivering and blood shunting to the core are so effective, that twenty minutes after jumping in (twice the “you’ll be dead in ten minutes” time), I had a fever of 100.2.

If you feel like you’re sinking. Swim. Bring your head above water. Think. That’s what I’m trying to do.


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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. I wouldn’t recommend swimming in 44 degree water without a bodysuit. Could clear more then your head. A entertaining article.

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