DISCLAIMER: Open-water swimming is inherently dangerous. Open-water swimmers risk drowning, hypothermia, hyperthermia, heart attacks, panic attacks, cramping, jelly fish stings, fish bites, boat or jet-ski collisions, collisions with floating or submerged objects (including other swimmers), and other calamities that can be injurious, disabling or fatal! The "West Neck Pod" is an informal association of open-water swimmers who swim "outside the lines" with no lifeguard protection, it has no formal membership, organizational structure or legal identity, and its participants, including the author of this blog, make no representations and assume no liability with respect to its group open-water swims. All swimmers who participate in West Neck Pod group open-water swims do so at their own risk. Be careful out there!

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Happy New Year, Happy New OWS Season!

The "Polarization" of the West Neck Pod continued into the New Year, as eight members of the West Neck "Polar Pod" inaugurated the 2012 open-water swimming season with a New Year's Day "Polar Bear" swim at West Neck Beach.  Azure skies, air temperatures approaching 50 degrees, and flat, calm water exerted an irresistible magnetic force, drawing car after car into the West Neck Beach parking lot, which was soon crowded not only with prospective "Polar Bear" swimmers but with a cadre of supporters there to cheer us on. Early-bird Kathy Wickham was just returning from her solo swim to the yellow sign and back as Annmarie Kearney-Wood, Gae Polisner, Joye Brown, Rob Ripp, and Marc Leahy, along with Carole Wickham and I (who had already tasted the New Year Salt in our midnight swim on New Year's Eve!) were pulling on our cold-water gear in the parking lot, while cheerleaders Mike Engel, Bonnie Millen, Joan Addabbo, Ken Longo, Cammy, Judy and "the other Bonnie" basked in the unseasonably warm sun and took pictures while they waited for us to hit the 40-something-degree water...Joye, whose broken ankle had kept her shorebound for most of the 2011 season, has been a frequent spectator at our late-season swims, striding the beach and keeping a watchful eye on us, so it was a delightful surprise to see her begin throwing off her clothes and pulling on her wetsuit and cap, determined to take the Polar Plunge herself! 

Off in the distance we could see a crowd of people gathered on the beach in front of the Lloyd Neck Bath Club, clad only in bathing suits and evidently intent on carrying out their own "Polar Bear" ritual to celebrate the New Year. This they did in short order while we Podders were still reconnoitering on the beach and posing for our group shots, and we could hear their screams and squeals as, on a signal, they ran into the freezing water and quickly ran out again.  Many of them lingered on the beach as they dried themselves in the warm sunshine afterwards, and I wondered what they thought when, minutes later, a half-dozen-plus wetsuited and brightly-capped swimmers materialized from the south and swam past them, stroking steadily through the icebath and casually waving to them as if it were a mid-summer's day and not the first of January and the middle of winter!  On the return trip, though, the Bath Club's beach was empty, and the wind had kicked up a chop, making the cold water feel even colder despite the wamth of the air. My hands were achingly cold even in my insulated gloves, and when I returned to the beach, I knew that I would have no regrets if this New Year's swim turned out to be my last until Spring...!  My sentiments were shared by most of my companions, and although Gae and Annmarie returned to the Salt for one more swim the following week, they, too, seem to have conceded the season -- though their January 7, 2012 open-water swim has earned them a new Pod record!

Since then the temperatures have continued to drop, and on January 21st we had our first real snowfall of the season, leaving no doubt of winter's determined presence. It seems as if this amazing open-water swimming season has finally ended. But, in taking this season into the frigid waters of January, the end of one season has blended seamlessly into the beginning of the next. With Spring literally just around the corner, and the Polar Pod's new thicker skins and thinner excuses, we'll be hitting the open water again before you know it!  I'm at one and counting for 2012 so far...See you in the Salt!

Sunday, January 1, 2012

A Stellar New Year's Eve Swim

An orange crescent moon hung low in the sky as Carole and I made our way down West Neck Road for our planned New Year's Eve swim, but to our great disappointment the gates to West Neck Beach were closed and locked when we arrived. The gates to Lloyd Harbor Beach were open, though, so that's where we headed as the minutes ticked away towards midnight. We pulled the "Pod-mobile" (my Honda CRV, now sporting birthday-present-to-myself "WNECKPOD" license plates) as far down on the beach as we could and left the headlights shining on the dark and distant water as we hurriedly pulled on our double caps, goggles, booties and gloves in preparation for a momentous event: the last open-water swim of 2011, blending seamlessly into the first swim of 2012! Emboldened by our nascent cold-water exploits of this 2011 OWS season, and with the air temperatures still inexplicably hovering in the comfortable mid-40s (in stark contrast to last year's epically cold and snowy December), a New Year's Eve swim actually seemed doable, and the idea of, literally, swimming from one day, one month, one year into the next was irresistible to us. The prospect of swimming in the dark was more than a little scary, though, yet that fear, too, on the cusp of the New Year and its aura of resolve, impelled us forward. Still, we were both nervous as we tentatively waded into the unfamiliar water shortly before midnight, with our green and orange glowsticks faintly illuminating our bodies. The water was surprisingly warm, and we were relieved to find ourselves perfectly comfortable temperature-wise, but the tide was nearly dead-low and we had to breast-stroke, heads up, through seemingly interminable shallow water, beyond the comforting glow of my car's headlights, to deeper water where we took our first few tentative crawlstrokes with our faces in water that was black as, well, night...The water was so dark that it seemed no longer liquid but a black, solid mass, and it was an effort of will to repeatedly turn my face into it....But after my eyes and my nerves had acclimated to the darkness, my fear gradually dissipated, and when I turned my head to the side to breathe and looked up to see the thousands of stars glimmering in the midnight sky and the copper moon setting on the horizon, I had an inkling of what it is that drives marathon swimmers -- or crazy Canadians -- to swim through the night in the darkness....
There is something about diving into your fears, and swimming through them, that is profoundly transformative, and the swimmers who entered the dark, still, silent waters of Cold Spring Harbor on New Year's Eve night in 2011 were not the same as the ones who emerged in 2012... Happy -- and fearless -- New Year, everyone!  See you in the Salt!