There were no beachgoers reclining on blankets or wading into the water at Cliff House Beach in Cape Elizabeth when Guenola Lefeuvre arrived, setting her towel on a large rock close to where the ocean greeted the sand with its rhythmic, watery handshake.
It was only 7:30 a.m., after all, and a Monday. It was also the last day in November and the water temperature was a brisk 46.9 degrees. The overcast late-fall skies reflected pink and gray on the water.
Lefeuvre pulled off her boots and socks, replacing them with a pair of neoprene booties. She shrugged off her seasonal layers – leggings, winter coat, wool sweater – and piled them on the rock next to her towel. Peeled down to her swimsuit and a navy-and-white knit hat, she walked right into the water.
Cold-water swimming is an act some find puzzling, particularly those of us who waffle our way into the Atlantic even on roasting August days. The uninitiated can only imagine a frigid dip in the offseason to be some form of masochism.
But it’s not like that at all, Lefeuvre said. In the cold water is where her mind finds quiet.
“It’s more about the mental break that it gives me,” she said. “Especially as the water gets colder, it forces me to focus on the ocean. It forces me to focus on my breathing, my movement, how I am feeling in the water.”
Lefeuvre, of Yarmouth, is a cold-water swimmer. It’s a tradition that began during summers spent with her family in Brittany, France, where she’d slide into the crisp salt water twice a day, reveling in the churn of the waves and the jolt of cold on her skin.
“It’s the Atlantic, and it’s so much like Maine: the rocks, the seaweed, the roughness,” she said. “Swimming was always freezing, even in August.”
This year, the coronavirus hindered Lefeuvre’s family’s annual pilgrimage to Brittany, not to mention the havoc it wreaked on everything else. Life came in tidal waves, and Lefeuvre was stressed out. So she returned to the water.
“Getting into cold water helped me escape,” she said, with every thought centered on the cold and the ocean. “I was no longer thinking about the stress of my life and the anxiety that awaited me on the beach. It took that all away.”
Weekly swims soon turned into a daily ritual, a dozen or so minutes of peace that she could wrap herself in and keep for comfort throughout the day.
Most mornings, Lefeuvre settles into the 40-odd-degree water with a confident calm, but that wasn’t always the case. “When I first started it took me a while,” she said. “I used to stand in the water up to my knees and think, ‘What the … am I doing?’”
These days there’s no vacillating.
Although she does give the water a quick once over to look for sharks, “I walk straight into the water,” Lefeuvre said. “I force myself into swimming right away. Once everything is under control, a kind of euphoria pops in. I’m not thinking about anything about my life. I look at the rocks and the water. I look at the sun. I look at Maine.”
For Sarah Rines of Portland, who began cold-water swimming with friends late last winter, the experience is equally calming and communal. “I always loved to swim and loved being in the water,” Rines said. “It’s such a peaceful place for me.”
When a friend suggested they go for a swim at East End Beach following a Tri for a Cure training run in early March, when water temperatures hover in the 30s, Rines was all for it. But that first swim was still a jolt.
“I was like, this is crazy,” she said. “But as soon as I got out – and thawed out – I thought, ‘I can’t wait to do that again.’”
She promptly joined a group of friends who meet for weekly swims at local beaches. What started as a few swimmers in January grew to include a dozen or more friends of friends, each intrigued by the idea of whole-body immersion in the icy Atlantic.
The group employs the Wim Hof Method, an approach developed by Dutch athlete and “Iceman” Wim Hof that combines cold exposure, breathing techniques, and meditation. “I struggled the first few times,” Rines said. “You lose your breath, it’s so cold.”
Teaching her brain and body to chill out took Rines some practice. “You really focus on slowing your breath and your mind and focusing on that,” she said, “rather than being like, ‘Oh man, I’m hyperventilating.’”
It’s a delightful contrast to witness her group, all swimsuits and bare skin, walking together into the waves at Higgins Beach while surfers in head-to-toe winter wetsuits bob on their surfboards nearby. Everyone’s soaking up the season and the salt water in their own way, Rines said, and it’s pretty wonderful.
But marching into the water still requires a lot of mind over matter.
“I will totally own that, under my breath, there are sometimes hidden shrieks,” Rines said, but sharing the experience with a crew of fellow swimmers makes all the difference. “That’s the key. A support system. To have other people moving towards the water.”
The group sticks together out in the water, only their heads visible from shore, disappearing and reappearing with each set of incoming waves. They distract each other with stories, they cheer, they keep their bodies moving and their brains attuned to slow and steady breaths.
How long they stay in varies – a handful of minutes some days, a half-hour or more on others – and depends on how their bodies feel. Rines joked that, halfway through her swim, she often starts thinking about warming up in her hot tub at home.
For both Rines and Lefeuvre, cold-water swimming has helped them feel better in their bodies out of the water, too.
“Running, gardening, pottery, everything I do involves my back, my hands, my knees, my joints. I ached,” Lefeuvre said. “After swimming, I didn’t have any more aches. It calms everything down.”
Rines found it helpful following spinal fusion in November. “My body responded well to cold water, so it gave me something I could do after my surgery,” she said. “I don’t know the science, but it does feel so good.”
It’s also a rightfully brag-worthy feat.
“When I come out of the water, I have the biggest smile,” Lefeuvre said. “I feel strong. I think, ‘I just did that.’”
Rines intends to keep swimming all winter. Lefeuvre is thinking the same thing.
“I’m going to keep going,” she said. “I really don’t want to stop. So why stop, right?”
Freelance writer Shannon Bryan lives in South Portland and is the founder of fitmaine.com, where she writes about the coolest ways to be active and get outdoors in Maine.