Sunday’s Richmond Tri Club open water clinic on the James–or rather, in the James–was undeniably a good way to test your wetsuit. The air temperature was mid-50’s, but with a brisk wind that assured that everyone was so well chilled on land that we almost looked forward to getting into the water, which was a balmy 60-or-so degrees. Well, perhaps “balmy” would be an overstatement. Most of the crowd (40-50 people?) wore full-sleeve wetsuits, but a few of us bared our arms. The general verdict seemed to be “cold but tolerable,” though I was definitely shivering mildly in the water and rather more violently out of the water, once I was wet. Also, I completely lost the feeling in my toes. Did I mention I have a low tolerance for cold?

Having read the Science of Sport entry on cold-water immersion, I took a (somewhat) abstract scientific interest in trying to observe how my own physiological responses corresponded with the ones I’d read about. My arms never felt particularly cold–in fact they seemed warm to the touch, at least when I touched my arm to my admittedly colder face. But of course what I knew that meant was that all that nice heat was draining out of my body and into the surrounding water.

It was hard to imagine going in without a wetsuit, but that, of course, is just what English Channel swimmers do, in often colder, choppier water with worse currents. My (two layers of) cap is off to them all.

We were divided in three groups, to work on sighting, land and in-water starts, and drafting. There was a fast current, which added to the challenge. The clinic wrapped up with a 2-3 minute out-and-back “race” with an in-water start. About 1/4 of the swimmers were too cold to be willing to hazard this finale, and I confess that I was sorely tempted to give it a miss, but every little bit of experience helps. Mass starts are simply a melee of flailing arms and legs, and swimming over people and being swum over. It’s hard to get any sort of rhythm going. Better to get a feel for it.

Add to that the murk factor–I could hardly see even the people I was swimming within inches of. In fact, as we practiced the land starts, the bottom mud got so churned up that it was virtually black when you dove in.

Today’s clinic was pretty much a crash-course, as much as anything in knowing you had the determination to jump in to the James in April and go for a swim. And of course, to state the utterly obvious, open water is nothing, nothing like swimming in a pool. Currents, slimy bottoms, wind, waves, submerged trees, floating water vegetation that insinuates itself under your suit–well that’s just a short list of elements I’ve encountered in the past year.

A friend told me about an OW swim he’d done in a lake in Canada, where divers were stationed along the course, below the swimmers, for safety. My friend remarked it was initially disconcerting to look down through the proverbial crystal clear waters to the divers burbling below.

You can sort of see your hand in front of your face in the James. Sometimes. Nessie could have been cruising three feet below me and I wouldn’t have had a clue.

UPDATED 5/23:  Here’s a photo from the day. You can see how cold everyone looks. And yet, we’re smiling.  Either we’re all just happy to be out of the water or we’re all too numb to care anymore.


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