Note: I came down with the latest variant of Covid Dec. 26, on the heels of my husband’s catching the bug Dec. 24. The virus knocked us flat, sending us to bed with achy joints and eyeballs, severe cold symptoms and fatigue. Glad to report I feel human today. Grateful our son Raymond and his partner Gino are here to care for us. Since I don’t have the bandwidth to write a story, I’ll share this one written for the Whidbey News Times, which ran on Dec. 27. Photos by David Welton unless otherwise noted–Kate

When the Covid-19 pandemic shut down Island Athletic in March 2020, Sharon Emerson and I, each swimmers at the club, began swimming at Goss Lake and in Langley’s waterfront parks. We’ve been swimming all year long ever since, expanding our group of mermaids to eight at the most. However, we average four gals on most mornings.

“When I immerse myself in a natural body of water, I feel like I slip under the skin of the world, moving from observer to dissolving into the body of the world,” Emerson wrote in an email. “It’s a deep peace. I’m not even a water sign (she is an Aries), so go figure.”

The esprit de corps of we, very different women, is an important part of our swims.

Channeling our inner Esther Williams to welcome the whales in March 2021
Sharon Emerson created this artful potholder commemorating our water dance. Photo by Kate Poss

“I treasure the women I swim with,” Emerson added. “I don’t think any of us knew each other well, or even sometimes at all, before we started swimming together. I love how slowly our relationships have developed over the last three years, like building a wall from stones found on the ground around it.”

April, Sharon, Gretchen, Kate, Linda from a 2021 photo by David Welton after they finished a swim at Langley Seawall Park.

The natural world that surrounds us also adds to the experience.

“Eagles, seals, otters, kingfishers, herons, cormorants, the mountains,” noted Emerson. “The Northwest is so gorgeous, especially when admired from the water.”

Heron and cormorants are common visitors at the Langley marina. Photo by Bryan Smith

Goss Lake temperatures drop to the 30s during the winter, and most mornings our group swims at the South Whidbey Harbor at Langley, also known as the Langley marina. Swimming twice the week before Christmas at 8:30 AM, the water temperatures were 47° one day, and 46° the next. Three of us wear full wetsuits, and Sharon wears a short wetsuit. We all wear fins, gloves, boots and caps.

In the water, harbor seals pop up and eye us curiously. Goldeneye and Bufflehead ducks bob on the surface like little tugboats. Cormorants perch on pilings with outstretched wings to dry their feathers after diving for fish. Herons and eagles fly overhead. On clear days, views of the Cascade Range frames Camano Island. The water surface reflects wind, sun, cloud and current, creating patterns that are meditative.

Goldeneye diving ducks bob on the water’s surface and dive for fish. Photo by Bryan Smith

Folks have said we’re crazy to swim in the cold water and weather, but I say it is crazy good for the overall sense of well being and strength that we get from open water swimming.

Lindsey Mattingly swims with us when she and her husband Pat are on the island. They live on Catalina Island, typically from November through the spring. Lindsey wears a snorkel and mask while swimming, and enjoys viewing baby catfish in Goss Lake, and near-tide creatures at the marina.

“This fall as I swam at the marina I began to notice the crabs on the open sandy bottom very visible and seemingly vulnerable,” Mattingly wrote in a recent email.  “One day I found the perfect depth and discovered at least eight crabs in a wide swath many feet apart from each other. I came to be very fond of them and worried that they might be discovered. Another time a flat flounder swam right in front of my mask. I must have startled him as they are usually well hidden, dug into the sandy bottom.”

We all look for the harbor seals when swimming and our morning is made if we have eye contact with them.

“The harbor seals are our friends,” Mattingly added. “I like to hum songs into my snorkel imagining they enjoy my melodies and so will come closer. On a day of cloudy visibility, one paddled right in front of me to let me know he was there. One magical day two of the harbor seals came near our group and actually gave each other a whiskery kiss.”

Harbor seals on marina dock. Photo by Bryan Smith

The sense of community Mattingly feels with the group has made her feel welcome.

“The sisterhood that has developed with our group has been wonderful,” she said. “As a newcomer to the island, and as a long-time swimmer, knowing the mermaids will be there, has encouraged me to swim more often than I do on my southern island home. They are a happy supportive clan and a positive group to start the day with. As I drive away from our morning dips I always feel energized and ready for the day.”

From left: Kate, Gretchen, Sharon, Sophie, Lindsey, Betsy at Goss Lake Aug. 25. Photo by Bill Poss

Linda Morris, one of Langley’s well known musicians and community weavers, joined us one winter a few years ago. She is taking a break this winter from swimming in the Sound, and swims at Island Athletic Club these days.

“I’m taking a break from open water swimming this winter and I miss it, sort of,” Morris wrote in an email. “I miss the camaraderie of my mermaid friends and the heady feeling of stepping into chilly chilly water and feeling like a warrior woman. It makes up for the white fingers and trembling lips after 20 minutes of swimming in the Sound. But after a hot shower and breakfast you feel like a million bucks. It’s hard to beat that feeling. I’ll be back soon.”

One of the remedies for chasing the post-swim chills is pouring hot water on our hands and feet, the most likely body parts to feel the worst cold. Our swimmer Sophie has taken to bringing a jug of hot water, which we gratefully pour over our fingers and toes to warm them up. Sharon also has a hot tub nearby, which we have visited to warm our cores. Dusty, Sharon’s Australian Shepherd, watches over us and gives us licks of affection.

Betsy O’Neil joined our group last January following a New Year’s Polar Bear dip in the Sound with some of her neighbors. Talking with her later at a neighborhood gathering the same day, I told O’Neil about our swim group, and she expressed interest in joining us. Investing in all the winter gear that month, O’Neil has been swimming with us ever since. She wears fins that seemingly give her rocket power, swimming far ahead of us.

She finds the qualities of water she swims in to be inspirational.

“Open water swimming is an exceptional experience for me,” O’Neil wrote in an email. “It is entirely engrossing. It’s an example of ‘being here now.’ As I feel the temperature, I taste and smell the salt water. I watch the waves peak and roll to the shore, I watch the rain make patterns on the surface that are mesmerizing. Sometimes the waves lift and tug at me, slowing me to their rhythm.”

Betsy, Sophie, Sharon, Kate

The bird and marine life act as a balm to O’Neil:

“I hear the waves, the birds’ calling, my breathing. The seals, when they arrive, look at me with deep black velvet eyes and flaring nostrils, their breath visible in the cold air. I feel honored by their presence and thank them for their visit. It seems that they understand my appreciation. Herons, eagles, ducks, cormorants are at home here and graciously ignore the interruption, I’m sure we are making with our chatting and uncoordinated movements compared to theirs. And then I get to do this again and again; each time deepening and expanding my connection to the experience.”

Betsy prefers to exit halfway from her wetsuit when finishing a swim

Deborah Nedelman was walking the beach when we chatted by phone for this story. She also started swimming in the Sound when the Covid-19 pandemic closed Island Athletic. Nedelman belongs to the Blue Ladies Swim Club—also with eight members, who swim all year long. A group of four swim most every day. They have the club name embroidered on their fleece-lined swim coats, which are excellent gear for chasing the chill away after getting out of the water.

“We swim regularly in the winter,” Nedelman said. “At this point, we are all wearing wetsuits; we held out (swimming only in swimsuits) until the first of November. We’ve been going in the afternoon, because the tides have been higher then. With low tides, the sand gets sinky.”

‘Sinky sand’ happens when feet, calves and knees get buried in sand holes. It can be tough to extricate when this happens, and might require the help of another to get unstuck, or if alone, crawling out on all fours.

Open water swimming is much more than just exercise, Nedelman said.

“Being part of the natural environment in water is different from the woods or mountains—I feel like I’m a part of it,” Nedelman said. “I feel lucky to see the world from that point of view. I’m the only one in the group who wears a snorkel. On clear days it’s pretty fabulous. I see a lot of life, and it’s fun to watch. I always feel like I’m taken care of in the water. It embraces you. I can just let go of the stuff that’s bothering me while I’m in the water. I’m lightened.”

From left: Deborah Nedelman, Katie Holden, Jackie Bezaire, and Peggy Taylor, Blue Lady Swim Team. Photo shared by Deborah Nedelman

The biggest swim group, Whidbey Open Water Swimmer—WOWS—has 375 members, according to its Facebook page. Many of its posts concern wetsuits—availability, thickness for withstanding cold temperatures, and inquiries about folks to swim with. Many swimmers prefer Blue 70 gear, available from a Shoreline triathlete and open water swim shop, and online. I wear a Blue 70 women’s fleece-lined Thermal Reaction wetsuit—rated to 48°— when winter swimming. My cap, gloves and booties are also fleece-lined.

To gauge tides and current, I use the Aye Tides app, which Emerson told me about, and is a valuable tool when needing to know tide and current worldwide. Visiting the island’s various beaches and using the app, I’ve become familiar with when and when not to swim. For instance, if the marina shows a tide less than four feet, I do not swim there, as it would requires walking on ‘sinky sand.’

Some of the best swimmers in WOWS meet 8:30 Saturday mornings at Robinson Beach. Marni Zimmerman is one of them, and I aspire to the kind of strength and endurance that she and her friends have achieved, which include swims to Camano Island. She has been open water swimming for 15-plus years. To get stronger she recommended taking part in the South Whidbey Island Masters Swim classes—which improve strength and endurance—and are held at Island Athletic in Freeland.

Robbie Cribbs, Marni Zimmerman’s husband took this shot of WOWS swimmers heading to Camano Island

Zimmerman said because WOWS membership is so large, smaller groups of informal swimmers post swims on the app GroupMe.

“Typically we do not want 25 people to show up for swims,” Zimmerman said. “Parking can sometimes be a limiting  factor.”

The island’s west-facing beaches are warmer by a few degrees during the winter, Zimmerman added. Her group swims mostly at Shore Meadow, Robinson Beach and Bush Point. They also swim at Langley’s Seawall Park, and sometimes at its marina.

The west-facing beaches also typically have stronger currents than the island’s east-facing beaches—I’ve found a strong pushback at Robinson’s Beach in currents under one knot, for instance. Zimmerman recommended taking pool classes and doing interval training to master the elements when the current runs strong. One way to gauge current is to throw a stick in the water and see how far, fast, and which direction it travels in.

“A lot of my friends don’t swim in the pool, though,” Zimmerman said. “With a strong current, it’s best to swim close to shore, almost scraping the bottom with your hand. The current is less strong there.”

Most of Zimmerman’s friends wear wetsuits. However, one swimmer named Joe wears just neoprene shorts all year round. The group also takes occasional short winter swims in just their bathing suits.

“Yesterday (Dec. 18), I jumped in wearing just my bikini in 46° water,” Zimmerman added. “We swam 400 yards. We call it a plunge.”

Warming up quickly when getting out of the water, Zimmerman noted, is important to avoid getting too chilled.

“Take off your wetsuit, put on your parka, drink your hot coffee or tea,” Zimmerman said. Go to a friends for a hot tub. Blast your  car heat, unless you have an electric car, which can use up the battery.”

During Covid’s first year in 2020, Zimmerman and friends began a quest to circumnavigate all of  Whidbey’s shoreline, finishing the task in August, 2022.

“We did Deception Pass—and had to plan that one carefully—there are only a few days when you can safely swim it,” Zimmerman said. “The slack current was early in the day and there’s not as many boats.”

Besides being an avid open-water, year-round swimmer, Zimmerman also serves on the board of the South Whidbey Parks and Aquatics Foundation, whose $27 million bond measure was approved by 62 percent of the voters last November. Open water swimmers who wish to improve their strength can look forward to taking master swim classes, hopefully by 2026, when the aquatic center is planned to open

“We’re so happy the bond passed,” Zimmerman said.. “One pool will have six 25-yard lap lanes. Their temperature will be kept a bit colder, at 82°. The other pool, a warmer one, will have short lap lanes, a lazy river (which contains a slight current), and be used for water aerobics, swim lessons, toddlers, people who need therapy. There will be a hot tub. While it’s all indoors, one of the walls has garage doors which will open out on a grassy glade. When the weather is nice we can open the doors.”

In the mean time, when it comes to winter open water swimming, Zimmerman advises those who wish to dip their toes in for the first time, to start up when the water is warmer, in order to acclimate one’s inner thermostat. Goss Lake, for instance, warms up to near 60° by late March. The Sound can warm up to the low 60s during the summer.

For we mermaids, some who have been swimming together for four years, we get stoked on the thrill of the chill.

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