Come On In, The Water’s Cold – Transcript

When Lorelei Russ picks me up from my apartment, I can hear Nina Simone playing from her car.

Sarah Kerson: Hello!

Lorelei Russ: How’s it going?

SK: Thanks for picking me up.

[Nina Simone song fades]

We’re on our way to the Rockaways to go swimming – in April. It’s around 50 degrees out.

We’re going with a group called SeaChanges. They go swimming together every Sunday at 2pm from November to May. And they invite people from all over the world to join them on Sundays wherever they are.

SK: Is there anything in particular you’re, like, excited about for today?

LR: Um, I want to wipe away the insomnia of the week and make my brain reset.

Lorelei’s been swimming in cold water for years, but only started going to SeaChanges this January. Making time to swim is important to her – on this particular Sunday, she drove two hours down from Woodstock, New York to make it to the beach in time.

LR: The cold water like, washes everything from my mind and relaxes my body. Everything, like just melds into one chill, existence, mental state, it’s like a Xanax, but not addictive. It’s an anchor for my week.

[Music fades in]

Lorelei’s not alone. I’ve spent the last few months getting to know people who swim in the winter, particularly this community in the Rockaways. There’s a whole world wide network of winter swimmers. Here in New York, people gather on the beach together after swimming, sometimes for hours. There’s often a bonfire. People bring snacks, tea, sometimes whiskey or mezcal. There’s Alex, the playwright from China. Simone, the artist from Brazil. Vince, the neighborhood guy who remembers everyone’s name and greets everyone with a fist bump. If someone’s late, people cheer them on as they run into the water.

[Music fades out, ocean sounds fade in]

[People cheer]

This all started for me back in February, when I took a trip out to the Rockaways with my friend Emily. I love going to the beach at any time of year, but I have a certain fondness for it in the winter. There’s a serenity to it. It’s quiet. Usually, anyway.

Emily Boghossian: Yeah, I swear I saw someone without a wetsuit on getting out of the water.

SK: Well is that what all these people are over here for?

EB: I think so.

Matt Johnson: Hi, my name is Matt Johnson, I live here in Rockaway Beach, and I am one of the hosts of our weekly Sunday winter ocean swims. It’s exactly what it sounds like. A bunch of us come down here and we jump in the water every Sunday afternoon at 2 between Thanksgiving and May Day. We actually do this with various groups of people who are all around the world in like 20 different countries, 5 different continents, who all do it at 2pm local time, on Sundays wherever they are. We encourage anybody who wants to join us anywhere in the world to do the same.

Matt is sort of the co-captain of SeaChanges. He’s a friendly guy with a big beard. He likes to make costumes, like a dress made from bicycle tire tubes.

When I first met Matt and his merry band of winter swimmers, I thought they were crazy.

Swimmer: It’s every Sunday at two o’clock.

EB: Nice, ok. Would you ever?

SK: No. [laughs]

But then I started spending time with SeaChanges on Sundays. And I heard about why people enjoy cold water swimming. I even started to think about doing it myself – but we’ll get to that later.

[Ocean sounds fade out]

SeaChanges began in November of 2020 when the pandemic was still in its first year and there weren’t many ways to gather safely with others indoors.

Riitta Ikonen is the master of ceremonies here. Riitta is a Finnish artist who lives in the Rockaways. SeaChanges, for her, began as a participatory art project, when a Swedish art platform reached out to her and invited her to conduct a winter swimming workshop. I caught up with Riitta one Sunday before the weekly swim.

RI: I’m warming up here with one shot of whiskey. [Laughs]. Getting ready for it. So I am Riitta Ikonen. I am a winter swimmer originally from Finland, but right now we are in Rockaway Beach, New York.

If you’ve never been to the Rockaways, it’s like a small beach town within New York City. It’s home to surfers and artists like Riitta, and regular New Yorkers going about their daily lives.

Before living in New York, Riitta grew up in Finland, where she was accustomed to cold water swimming in an ice hole with a ladder leading down to the water.

RI: My parents told me that my sister and I, we would really enjoy going to the ice hole. And then obviously we were too little to kind of like use the ladder or whatever. So they would grab my sister and I from our wrists and dunk us in the icy water. And we’d be screaming, “more more more! Again again again!”

So that was I guess the earliest beginnings of it.

Riitta’s other work investigates how people relate to nature, like her photo project “Eyes as Big as Plates.”

RI: We travel around the world. We meet people. We interview them: Who are you? What are you doing? How do you relate to where we are right now? What does this mean to you? And then from that, we kind of create a portrait of that person. So they get to choose the location. They get to choose a material, time, place, whatever, based on this conversation.

And then from that, we create a wearable sculpture that this person will have on them. So they kind of blend into their surroundings.

My work, my practice, my other work very much revolves around people’s relationship with nature. Just like this project. This project is really kind of primal in the way that you really take your body and you immerse and then see how it goes. So a lot of people who come swim, they come for many different reasons, there are health benefits. For me, I have not had a flu ever since I started winter swimming here. So that’s my claim but that’s just me. Not proper science, but there is proper science behind it.

She’s right – there is “proper science” behind the health benefits of cold water swimming.

John Kelly: The bottom line is that we did see an improvement and acute improvement in mood. So people felt better after the swim. And most of it was in a positive sub-scales of mood. So we saw an increase in vigor, and we saw an increase in esteem that they just felt better about it.

That’s John Kelly. He’s a senior lecturer in exercise physiology at the University of Chichester in the U.K. John and one of his colleagues published a study on the effect of cold water swimming on mood, and on anxiety and depression.

They had their participants get into cold water for 20 minutes – WAY longer than anyone I’ve seen at SeaChanges – and they recorded their mood afterwards, comparing it with a control group.

JK: So it does seem to be that cold water affects, let’s say, people with depression. It’s a shock to the system, which has an effect on the nervous system we think, and also on hormonal responses as well.

John’s a winter swimmer himself. His video chat background was a picture of a gray, choppy ocean. And he says the practice has gotten huge in the U.K. – there’s even an “outdoor swimming society.”

JK: It is an unusual thing to do, you know, it’s definitely putting yourself outside of your comfort zone. It’s an unpleasant experience to begin with.

I have the same questions as John. Why do people do this? What makes us crazy enough to run into the ocean in March?

While SeaChanges gathers every week in New York, Riitta invites people all over the world to join in a winter swim wherever they are on Sundays at 2pm. And she’s built an international community around it.

Asta Kovanen: The reason I started doing it more consistently was about four years ago. You know, there’s that time in March where it seems like winter will never end. Everyone gets that sort of, a little bit of a heavy gloom over them waiting for the longer days. And I contacted a friend and I just said, you know, this summer let’s start a swimming club and I’m not a serious swimmer. I just meant like, let’s jump in the lake more often. And she said, well, what about tomorrow? And that was April 1st. And there was a snow storm and we went down and did a dip.

That’s Asta Kovanen, a winter swimmer in British Columbia, Canada.

Asta’s family is Finnish, too, and like Riitta, she grew up with saunas and cold water as a part of her culture.

Asta says swimming in cold water helps her stay connected to nature. When she goes swimming in British Columbia, she often has to break a hole in the ice of a lake. In Finland, these swimming holes are called “avantos.” She told me about a time when it almost felt like the avanto was speaking as she began to cut a hole in the ice.

AK: It wasn’t cracking, but it was as if it was speaking and there was like pressure releases happening and it was almost spooky.

[Eerie music fades in]

But also really, really cool. And so as I was working around this edge, the whole ice started making sounds that I’ve never heard before, and I’ve heard lots of sounds on ice, but this was really particular. It was, it was almost like the lake was… obviously the lake wasn’t talking to us, but it was just such a strange experience to be having out in the middle of the wilderness that you can kind of create these little stories in your head. It was, it was like deep, like not quite whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. Not quite like that, but, but sort of almost like something you’d hear deep in the ocean. Yeah, just like a really deep resonant sound that would happen. And then stop. And we’d think it was over and then it would come again and it was almost like we thought that ice was going to crack, but it never did.

[Music fades out]

Back in the Rockaways, the Riitta and the SeaChanges community hosted an art show featuring photos of winter swimming from around the world.

[Sound of people talking at bookstore fades in]

RI: We are at a place in Rockaway Beach called Avoid The Day bookstore. It’s the peninsula’s only and best bookstore and they are hosting an exhibition of the SeaChanges winter swimming project.

They had work from six continents and ten different countries on display.

[Bookstore sound fades out]

Regardless of the health benefits, or how cold water swimming makes you feel – THIS seemed like the real reason people were drawn to SeaChanges – the community that formed around it.

RI: In my job as an artist, I feel there is that urge to act, do something fast and have maximum impact. I feel it’s really my responsibility and I want to do something that will get people to understand and care about something, because it’s often very, very hard to care about something if you don’t know about it. So if I can kind of like, induce knowledge about our neighbor, the sea, for example, here in the Rockaways, in this peninsula, which is a complete flood zone, I think that cannot be a bad thing. So the more we know about something, the more I think we can care about it. So that’s secretly, [whispers] my mission [laughs].

[Ocean sounds fade in]

In the time I’ve spent with these winter swimmers, I’ve gathered a few tips for first timers: Wear something on your head and feet. Don’t dunk your head underwater. Drink something warm afterwards. And most importantly – don’t go alone.

SK: It is… 45 degrees outside. Winds are 14 miles an hour. Feels like 38 degrees, and I’m gonna go swim in the ocean today.

Hannah Bottum: You got your hat on?

SK: Got my hat on.

HB: Got your swimsuit on?

SK: Got my swimsuit on. I’m keeping my socks on.

HB: Keeping the socks on?

SK: [laughs]

HB: Are you gonna do a dramatic slow jog?

SK: I’m gonna run, cuz it’s // freezing. // Alright, here we go!

Swimming it was not. I was probably in the water for about a minute before I ran out. But as the waves crashed into me, I had a moment where I almost forgot what I was doing and how cold it was. It was peaceful, looking out at the horizon.

HB: How did it feel?

SK: Um, it felt really refreshing. And I feel very like, awake [laughs]

HB: Would you do it again?

SK: Yeah totally. I would totally do it again.

I’d been feeling kind of groggy that day, but when I got out of the water… I felt more awake than I had in a long time. I get why people do this now. I might even become one of them.

[Ocean sounds fade out]

Music by Jason Shaw on