Cold Water Swimmer

Lynne Cox’s strange and wonderful relationship with the coldest waters on the planet began, naturally, as a youngster turning blue in the lakes and coastal beaches of Maine and New Hampshire. She went on to set world records for duration and distance in a variety of exotic cold water settings, first as a teen crossing […]

By Todd Balf

Jun 18 2007

Lynne Cox’s strange and wonderful relationship with the coldest waters on the planet began, naturally, as a youngster turning blue in the lakes and coastal beaches of Maine and New Hampshire. She went on to set world records for duration and distance in a variety of exotic cold water settings, first as a teen crossing the English Channel and most recently as 45-year-old swimming beside ice bergs in Antarctica.

Her books about her experiences — Swimming to Antarctica and Grayson — have earned her high marks from reviewers and a legion of ardent fans. If you have proudly braved the stupefying cold of a New England’s summer dip, you might wonder, as we did, what it is like to swim in 32-degree water in a bathing suit and goggles. We caught up to Cox on her book tour, just after a dip on a cold and rainy day at Good Harbor Beach in Gloucester.

Everybody relates to swimming across the English Channel — I did that when I was 15 years old, breaking the men’s and women’s record. My time [9 hours 57 minutes] was broken by David Hart of Springfield, Massachusetts, so I went back and broke his time when I was 16. It was like, ‘Okay, so now you’ve climbed Everest, now what do you do?’

In 1987 I swam across the Bering Strait. The water temperature was 42 degrees and it dropped to 38 by the end of the swim. I was in the water for 2 hours and six minutes. After that I looked at other swims and the one that was the most notable in terms of extremely cold water was the one I did in December 2002 in Neko Harbor, Antarctica. I swam 1.2 miles, actually 1.22 miles in 32-degree water and it dropped to 30 at times when I was near the ice berg. I was in the water exactly 25 minutes.

People want to know how is this possible– to swim in 32-degree water in a bathing suit and goggles. It really was the ultimate test. In the winter, it’s 28 degrees but in the Antarctic summer something like 20 percent of the ice sheet melts and becomes ocean. The temperature rises to 32 degrees so it’s a lot warmer, but still, the big thing was — could it be done? I really do equate it with the first human powered flight. People have so much imagination and creativity and ability and all that comes together with discipline — a lot of discipline — and focus and training. It has to come together to swim in 32-degree water.

It is a progression. My experience swimming in cold water started at Snow Pond in Waterville, Maine. I grew up in New England and Snow Pond in summer time was probably 70 degrees, but if you’re used to swimming in an 80-degree swimming pool, that step down is pretty cool. As we got to be better swimmers, our parents took us to Hampton Beach, Rye, and up the coast of Maine. My brother and sisters and I were all competitive and you know it was like, who can stay in the water longest.

We were all locked into the idea of becoming Olympic swimmers. We raced all across New England — instead of going to church on Sundays we were in swimming pools in Gardner, Marblehead, Portsmouth, and Keene. When we moved to California, I kind of hit a plateau.

My coach told me to try open ocean water swimming. After that, I was never the same. For me all that time swimming in pools was like learning to play the scales of the piano. But going out into the open ocean was like playing the music.

My dad was a physician and he really believed you needed to acclimate to the cold and the only way you can do it is to swim in colder water. So a huge part is training for the cold and acclimating, but it’s also how do you do it. How do you get people around you whom you can trust, because there is danger and you can go into hypothermia and you can go into cardiac arrest and die?

A friend who tried to swim one of the islands off Catalina went on a day that was colder than anticipated and he went into cardiac arrest 400 yards from shore. There is nothing that I don’t look at and take seriously. The swim in Antarctica took two years of planning, huge detailed planning for the two weeks leading up to the swim.

Who’s going to provision the boat? Who’s going to pull me out of the water if something goes wrong? Where are the defibrillators? Who’s going to have them? Are we going to warm up IV solution so we can rewarm the core from the inside out? What are we going to do at the end of the swim if I’m fine, but how do I rewarm? There’s all this stuff.

I didn’t know about a lot of risk factors until afterwards. For instance, well, in swimming in 32-degree water the problem was icebergs — you know, running into icebergs. They float at a certain rate and I swim a certain rate and sometimes you swim faster than they move or they move faster than you swim, so there’s a collision that occurs — it doesn’t feel really good.

There are huge concerns when you first immerse yourself in 32-degree water. There is a nerve in your nose called the vegas nerve and if you over-stimulate it you can go into cardiac arrest. The other thing that can occur is cold water immersion injury. Basically, the peripheral area of your nerves gets fried by the cold and you lose sensitivity to heat and cold. It’s sort of like neuropathy.

In that kind of cold water you can lose heat so rapidly. I actually think there’s an exponential effect on the body. The difference between 65 and 64, well, you can feel it and it does affect your body. But when you drop from 38 degrees in the Bering Strait just six degrees to 32 degrees, it’s as if the alarms in your body go off — like, this is so cold.

And your response, too, is you’re hyperventilating and it’s hard to swim and maintain a pace when you’re hyperventilating. I mistakenly tried to pull my breathing down to a slower level, drawing more, colder air into my lungs, but boy, that was so stupid because the air temperature was 32 degrees and if I’m breathing deeply it will go down into the lungs and cool me from the inside out.

So the body, at times, knows so much more than the mind does. Also, the mind has to stay so focused on what’s going on with the body. Are my fingers staying together or are they splaying? If they’re splaying, coming apart, that means that I’m losing fine motor control and my brain is cooling down and I’m in trouble. Is there blood pooling on my shoulders? Are they turning purple? That’s not a good sign either. Are my teeth chattering while I’m swimming — that’s also a very bad sign. I should be out of the water.

If you take a normal person or an untrained person and drop them into cold water, what will typically happen is they’ll vassal constrict the peripheral areas. The peripheral blood flow will close down and throw it all into the core of your body to protect your brain, lungs, all your vital organs.

At some point though your body will go, “You know what? We need to get oxygen out to the extremities,” and it will start pumping blood out, it will open up or vassal dilate. When it does that, it’s fine. It gets the oxygen out there but it’s then exposed to the cooler water and then it circulates back in and starts to drop a person’s temperature.

When you take me and I’ve been training, what normally happens is I will close down my blood flow to the extremities and you’ll only see a minute amount of blood flow out and back. I have very well distributed body fat that helps to keep me insulated; also, I have a lot of muscle mass that I’ve worked really hard to develop that gives me power and strength. It’s also the energy factory that creates the heat to keep me warm. If I were just a big person I wouldn’t do as well in cold water. Beyond all that it’s mental attitude, wanting to do it, really desiring to try something extraordinary.

A lot of people are like, “She doesn’t feel the cold.” I feel the cold! But the focus isn’t on, “Oh it’s cold!” You feel it, but then you get in it and the focus is on movement through the water, on processing information, on the texture of the water, the color, the saltiness of it, the way the cloud patterns move across the surface. All this water memory comes back to me and I relax.