28 November 2020

Open Water Swimming in Cold Water

As you may know, for the past 2 weeks a few of us have been swimming at Ventura Cove in water with a temperature between 57° and 59°f. Many people consider this very cold - too cold to swim in. Even those of us still swimming think we are crazy because it IS cold! The thing is, if your options for swimming are limited (COVID19, $$?), OWS might be an answer. If you were to ask me over the summer if I’d still be swimming out there right now, I would have said “No” with total conviction. I hate cold water and my definition of what cold water is has steadily gotten warmer as I’ve gotten older. I don’t know why but it’s different now.

The thing is, we’ve been swimming since long before the water temp got below 60°. Besides wearing lots of neoprene, we’ve kind of adapted to the conditions. And we aren’t doing it by ourselves - we experience positive peer pressure by resolving to get out there each time. We also refer to the conditions in certain ways. The swims are “invigorating”. The water temperature is “fifty-crazy” degrees. 

Another thing we are experiencing is that it is very tough getting in, swimming to buoy #1, and even swimming from buoy #1-5. After that, our faces are cold and fairly numb and our feet and hands are cold too, but honestly it’s not terrible at all! It’s harder to talk because your jaw doesn’t work quite as well but other than that, it’s actually fine. 

Here are the things we are doing to allow us to keep doing this. Just like with any swimming, it’s important to pay attention to the potential risks and minimize those risks.

  1. We all are wearing full wetsuits. Sleeveless wetsuits let too much water in and expose your armpits to the cold.

  2. We all have neoprene hoods (caps) that keep core warmth from escaping. These hoods also cover the ears, which is an important benefit. We also have a silicone or latex cap over that to make us more visible and to add an extra layer of insulation.

  3. Some of us have neoprene swim socks/booties that help keep the feet warm, at least at the beginning. A couple of us wear neoprene gloves for our hands.

  4. We don’t swim alone and we swim relatively close to shore. Regardless of what level swimmer you are, cold water hypothermia is a risk and having someone there to help you if you need it is important.

  5. We splash our faces and backs of our necks with water as we wade in. This helps eliminate cold water shock (and danger) and gasping for breath due to sudden immersion in cold water. (Never dive into cold water.) Being about waist deep, bending over, and blowing bubbles for 30 seconds or more would be even better! Also take your time getting in - don’t rush it!

  6. We give ourselves time to adjust. If you get in, start to swim, and then turn around and come back in, you aren’t giving yourself enough time to see if it actually, really is okay.

Additional tips:

  1. Use a tow float for visibility if you decide to go well beyond the buoys in Ventura Cove or Glorietta Bay.

  2. Bring a dry towel, absorbent changing robe, parka, and/or changing ‘tent’.

  3. Warm up after! Bring a warm beverage to consume afterward so you warm your core from the inside, if needed. A hot shower is NOT the way to warm yourself up. Remove any cold, wet things, dry off, and put dry clothes on and cover up if needed. Note that your core body temp continues to drop some after you’ve gotten out of the water so that’s a big reason why a warm drink can be very helpful.

  4. Ear plugs can be a help in keeping your head warm and as a way of keeping your equilibrium if you only breathe to one side.

  5. If you haven’t been swimming in colder water like this, make sure you start with short swims and then build up your time.

  6. Doing arm swings and similar warm up movements will help you be more ready to swim once you get in.

  7. Always swim close to shore. The buoy line is a fine distance but if you get in trouble AND have to deal with cold water, it’s much better to be reasonably close.

  8. Know the signs of hypothermia just in case! Being “tough” or being a good swimmer has nothing to do with hypothermia. You cannot just stick it out. Be smart: if you have any signs, get out of the water!

    1. Shivering: It’s your body’s natural response to certain conditions. If you begin to shiver, it’s time to get out.

    2. Gross motor control: If you start losing some control over your motor function, e.g. your fingers don’t do what you want, you’re done.

    3. Stroke rate: If your stroke rate slows significantly below what is normal, head for shore.

    4. Thinking: If you aren’t thinking clearly or your thinking has slowed, that’s a sign to go in.

    5. Euphoria: Usually a late stage of hypothermia, if you’re feeling euphoric out there then that’s a clear sign that you need to call it a day. This usually happens after 1 or more other signs appear.

There is little doubt that when we swim out there we feel good about ourselves, are invigorated, and feel more than a little accomplished!


  1. Great read Skip! I bring almost 3 layers of post-swim clothing. Any comment on keeping the clothing warm? Also there is discussion of footwear - fleece lined and slip-on. Shopping time. Seems like i’m always discussing accessories shopping when cold water swimming.

  2. Hey Chip! Some people really like the gloves... once they get used to the loss of feel of the water. More of us like the socks. We mostly use BlueSeventy lined accessories, especially the lined hoods. I don't know if the lining makes a significant difference but it feels like it matters. I find the socks to be great for getting in and the first 10 min of swimming. After that I could probably do without.
    As for post-swim layers prewarmed, it seems like you could put them in your dryer, pull them out very warm, and put them in a small ice chest, without the ice of course. I think the warm beverage is the best strategy if it's not sunny and/or warm out. What do you think?