Seattle’s open-water swimmers say it’s transformative; here’s how to get started

During the gray days of this early spring in the Pacific Northwest, do you long for nonimpact movement that might help with COVID-19 isolation, quarantine brain fog or residual cabin fever?

Devotees of wild swimming widely preach that the initial discomforts of cold water are quickly supplanted by a wonder reset punctuated by transformative health benefits that will leave you breathless and overjoyed with this hidden gem of the PNW: you.

Swimming in ancient water, full of wildlife, and with other ebullient people is about the most back-to-nature Seattle experience one can have. Here’s a guide to get you started:

PREPARE TO GET COZY — Lynne Cox, open-water swimmer extraordinaire and author of “Swimming to Antarctica,” says swims in nature are best with three things: “warm fluids, warm food and warm company.” 

Cox recommends nourishing comfort foods before your outing and warm apple juice or a thermos of cocoa prepared for your post-swim warm-up. Because caffeine constricts blood vessels, known as vasoconstriction, Cox recommends avoiding coffee or other caffeinated beverages immediately after the cold exposure of winter swimming. 

EASY DOES IT — “Start really small,” says Sarah Thomas, the prolific swimmer who holds the world record for the longest unassisted swim for her 104.6-mile swim in Lake Champlain in just over 67 hours. Thomas recommends you go to your first cold-water adventure with the understanding that you will dip to begin. 

“Open-water swimming is cumulative,” she points out. “So start small and build your way up.” If you can swim 15-20 minutes nonstop in a pool and your doctor approves of this activity for you, open-water swimming offers the best full-body workout, “with mental benefits that surpass the physical,” says Thomas.

Swimmers use floats for visibility while in the open waters of Puget Sound at Alki Beach in West Seattle on Feb. 14. (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)

PREPARE TO GET VISIBLE — “Always wear a swim cap in open water,” says Scott Lautman, chief safety officer of Northwest Open Water Swimming Association. Choose caps of bright colors such as red or orange or neon pink. If you wear a neoprene hood for extra warmth, always cover it with a bright cap.  

A neon swim buoy, or tow buoy, “provides visibility to watercraft, beach support and others in your swim pod,” says Lautman. Attached at the swimmer’s waist, these inflatable, lightweight floats do not interfere with swimming but dramatically improve visibility. Many buoys contain a “dry bag” compartment for items like keys, ID or phone. Pro tip: Both Lautman and Thomas bring flip-flops in their buoys for a safe and comfortable exit from the water every time.

GET SOME GEAR — Gear checklists differ from swimmer to swimmer, but in addition to a bright cap and buoy, earplugs are important for cold-water swimming because they stave off a drop in core body temperature.

Wear glasses or contacts? Affordable correction goggles available through Aqua Goggles and Speedo are a must to appreciate the crystal-clear winter water of Puget Sound. 

Swim socks or booties are also popular with Seattle swimmers — try local company Blue Seventy’s Thermal Swim Socks. Some open-water swimmers feel the effects of cold most in their hands. Neoprene swim gloves can bring extra insulation and comfort to chilly fingers. For instance, Zone 3’s Neoprene Heat-Tech Warmth Swim Gloves provide 3.5 mm neoprene and titanium lining in five sizes. 

The bigger purchase of a swim-specific wet suit allows swimmers to feel like they can stay in the water longer, with additional buoyancy. Kirkland’s Everyday Athlete and Northwest Tri and Bike in Kent provide a variety of wet-suit brands and important fit advice for beginners.

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION — “Because of water temperatures and boat traffic,” Cox recommends swimming parallel to shore. The ideal cold-water swim spots for beginners are long, straight sandy beaches that allow an observer to enjoyably walk alongside the athlete. The swimmer can easily stop swimming if necessary and exit the water at any time. The flip-flops stored in the buoy make a quick walk back to a vehicle easier. Avoid swimming along big rock jetties, sharp barnacle-covered beaches or weedy marshland as you begin. Cox advises “don’t swim out to a buoy offshore or out in the middle of a lake.” Swimming parallel to shore is safest to avoid traffic and for ease of exit, she says. 

GET IN SLOW, GET OUT FAST — By getting in gradually, swimmers avoid cold shock and involuntary hyperventilating. With every swim, getting in gets easier, cold-water swimmers assure beginners. 

Upon getting out of the water, swimmers should remove their wet swimming gear immediately and don layers of wool and fleecy loose clothing. Deep knee bends and jumping jack-type calisthenics help to raise core body temperatures. Involuntary shaking post-swim is entirely normal and is best remedied by Cox’s three-warm-treats recipe enjoyed between burpees and laughter.

GET A COACH! — Whether COVID-19 interrupted your lap swimming or you are curious about the buzz of wild swimming, newcomers to the local lakes or Puget Sound have access to many world-class coaches in the area — Lautman is one, another is Guila Muir, a venerable race director and veteran adviser to swimmers of various levels. Muir donates a portion of each kayak-escorted coaching session to Oceana and Puget Soundkeeper’s Alliance, for the common good of clean water and habitat protection.

DON’T BE SHY — Seattle abounds with open-water swim talent willing to share socially-distanced swims and advice. “The Western Washington Open Water Swimming group on Facebook is fabulous,” says Thomas. Or show up to the Alki Beach Bathhouse in West Seattle around 9:30 a.m. on Saturdays or around 11 a.m. on Sundays. Wear a mask, bring a bathing suit, a bright cap, flip-flops, goggles, earplugs, towels, a friend to observe (and marvel at your might), extra-warm clothes for layering, a warm drink and a warm snack for your first quick dip. Fellow swimmers will gladly share their advice about additional gear and techniques.

Members of Seattle’s open-water swim community are eager to bear witness to your mettle and celebrate your safe dip or eventual swim. “One of the reasons it’s so much fun is that it’s BEST done with other people,” Cox says.