BROOKLIN, Maine – It’s 35 degrees outside and the rain is pouring down on Naskeag Harbor. Moored boats rigged to push dive up and down with high tide and strong winds. The only sign of life in the snow-covered parking lot is an occasional seagull.
A silver-colored minivan pulls in and out of Sarah Havener Brown. She is dressed in a normal winter suit – warm trousers, boots, an insulated coat and a knit hat. After all, it’s January in Maine.
But she takes them off, layer by layer, until she only has neoprene boots, bright yellow shorts and a red sports bra. Then she takes a swim.
Brown is one of the few but growing numbers of hardy people in Hancock County who bravely dive into the cold waters of Maine in the winter. For them, this is not a New Year’s day, but a regular activity. Some do it several times a week.
Winter swimming is nothing new. People have been doing it for centuries. Although there are obvious risks – prolonged immersion can result in hypothermia – studies suggest that it may have a number of health benefits, including changes in hematological and endocrine function, fewer upper respiratory tract infections and improved overall well-being.
For many, it is a way of feeling present, in the moment. When your body hits the cold water, any stress or worry that was in your mind disappears while you focus on keeping your body going.
“I started doing it two years ago,” Brown said as she wrapped herself in a warm blanket on the beach. “I have an obsessive-compulsive disorder and it helps with my anxiety.”
Brown and a friend plan to swim every day in January as part of a fundraiser.
Most people swim slowly. There are no cannonballs or dives from ports here. As Brown waded into the water on Sunday, she moved slowly until the water was just above her waist. She waited for about two minutes before diving. She then stayed in the water a few more minutes before returning ashore.
Up on Mount Desert Island, a group called Cold Tits, Warm Hearts was formed last winter and now has a core group of about 25 people – almost exclusively women – who regularly swim outside throughout the winter.
“It really fills me personally,” said Puranjot Kaur, an avid open-water swimmer who joined the group. “There has been more and more interest in cold water swimming in this area. It’s just really fun to see it grow. ”
Over time, Kaur said the body becomes less reactive to the cold temperatures, and some other club members have gone from staying in the water for just a few minutes to between 10 and 15 minutes.
Cold breasts, warm hearts encourage everyone to listen to their body. No one is judging people for how long they stay in the water.
“If you come and stick a toe in the water, you’re part of the group,” Kaur said.
For those considering taking a winter can, swimmers encourage people to either go with a group or a buddy. At least tell someone where and when you plan to go out. Brown, who swims almost exclusively in the low season, advised people who had just started to take it slow and not stay too long.
Swimmers must be prepared to warm up again when they get out of the water. Swimmers often pack a swimsuit with warm clothing or oversized jackets, hot drinks, towels, food and mats to stand on when they are back on land.
Liz Cutler, a Bar Harbor artist, regularly wears a swimsuit under her clothes so she is ready to swim at a moment’s notice, wearing neoprene boots and matching mittens. Some wear hats, no one wears wetsuits that would eliminate the exciting cold.
When they are done, some people go home and take a hot shower. But for others, the feeling is inspiration for the day. Cutler enjoys the warm “burn” feeling she feels when she gets out of the water, and often chooses to go to her studio to paint instead.
“I disconnect from everything, I swim and look at everything with fresh eyes.” she said.
Aside from the joy of the actual swimming, the dunks have created a sense of camaraderie for the women and provided a way to connect during the pandemic.
“There’s this real connection,” Kaur said. “It really has been a nice side effect of this, too.”