BROOKLIN, Maine — It’s 35 degrees out and the rain is tumbling down on Naskeag Harbor. Moored boats rigged for scalloping dip up and down with the high tide and heavy winds. The only sign of life in the snowy parking lot is the occasional gull.
A silver minivan pulls in and out pops Sarah Havener Brown. She’s decked in normal winter attire — warm pants, boots, an insulated coat and a knit hat. It is January in Maine after all.
But she takes them off, layer by layer, until all she’s left with is neoprene booties, bright yellow shorts, and a red sports bra. Then she goes for a swim.
Brown is one of the few but growing number of hardy folk in Hancock County who bravely dip into Maine’s frigid waters come winter. For them, this is no New Year’s Day polar plunge but a regular activity. Some do it multiple times a week.
Winter swimming isn’t a new thing. People have been doing it for centuries. While there are obvious risks — prolonged immersion can result in hypothermia — studies suggest it could have a variety of health benefits, including changes in hematological and endocrine function, fewer upper respiratory tract infections and improvement with general well-being.
For many, it’s a way to feel present, in-the-moment. When your body hits the cold water, whatever stress or worries that were in your mind disappear as you focus on keeping your body going.
“I started doing it two years ago,” Brown said while wrapping herself in a warm blanket back on the beach. “I have 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 take the swim slowly. There are no cannonballs or dives from docks here. When 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 ducking under. She then stayed in the water for a few more minutes before coming back ashore.
Over on Mount Desert Island, a group called Cold Tits, Warm Hearts formed last winter and now has a core group of about 25 people — almost entirely women — who regularly swim outside all winter long.
“It really fills me up personally,” said Puranjot Kaur, an avid open water swimmer who joined the group. “There’s been more and more interest in cold water swimming in this area. It’s just really fun to see it growing.”
Over time, Kaur said the body becomes less reactive to the cold temperatures and some fellow club members have gone from staying in the water for only a few minutes to between 10 to 15 minutes.
Cold Tits, Warm Hearts encourages everyone to listen to their body. There’s no one 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 thinking of going for a winter dunk, swimmers encourage people to either go with a group or a buddy. At the very least, tell someone where and when you plan on going out. Brown, who almost exclusively swims in the off-season, advised people just starting out to take it slow and not stay in too long.
Would-be swimmers should be prepared to warm themselves back up once they get out of the water. Swimmers often pack a swimming kit that has warm clothes or oversized jackets, warm drinks, towels, food and mats to stand on once they’re back on land.
Liz Cutler, a Bar Harbor artist, regularly wears a bathing suit under her clothes so she’s ready to swim at a moment’s notice, dons neoprene booties and matching mittens. Some wear hats, no one wears wetsuits that would eliminate the thrilling chill.
After they’re done, some people go home and take a warm shower. But for others, the feeling is inspiration for the day. Cutler enjoys the warm “burn” sensation she feels when comes out of the water and often opts to go to her studio to paint instead.
“I disconnect from everything, I take my swim and I look at everything with fresh eyes.” she said.
Aside from the joy of the swimming itself, 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. “That’s really been a lovely side effect of this as well.”