Kudos to the Wall Street Journal for having excelled once again with such acuity.

By Wolf Richter for WOLF STREET.

The WSJ published a funny article on cold-water swimming – “Wetsuit Shaming in San Francisco Divides Bay Area Swimmers.” And once again, I’m going to have to whack the WSJ over the head with its own article.

The author, Robert McMillan, says he is a member of the South End Rowing Club in San Francisco, which is next door to the Dolphin Swimming & Boating Club, where I’m a member. Both clubs, among the oldest athletic clubs in San Francisco, share the same beach. From the article, I gather that he swims with a wetsuit, but I can’t tell for sure. I used to swim with a wetsuit, until I took it off one day – but not, as he claims about someone else, because of “wetsuit shaming.”

Robert says hilariously that “some Bay swimmers refuse to wear these potentially lifesaving devices because they consider them a form of cheating.”

With this comment, Robert revealed that he doesn’t get cold-water swimming, which then led him neck-deep into nonsense, published by the WSJ. So, I’ll help him out.

Some basics.

From the article, it seems Robert isn’t aware of what cold water does to you when you swim in it, just you, your swimsuit, goggles, and thermal cap – how it impinges on your skin with ferocious intensity while you’re totally immersed in nature, in currents and waves, amid waterfowl that don’t take you seriously, the occasional seal that comes up to check you out, or the sea lion that you really want to stay away from.

Your body generates a cocktail of chemicals to help you survive in this water. Before Christmas, the temperature dipped below 50° F, but has since warmed up to 52° or 53°. Afterwards, you get this beautiful high. You walk around with a smile on your face for hours.

This is why, for some people, this experience is addictive. That’s why we swim without a wetsuit. Other people don’t have that kind of experience. They might try it once, and it’s just a horror. And they swim with a wetsuit henceforth, which is great. At least they’re swimming in the Bay.

I started out swimming with a wetsuit, but then one day in the summer, when the water wasn’t cold, I took the wetsuit off, and it was liberating and wonderful and intense. I got used to the cold water, and I got addicted.

That’s the reality of cold-water swimming: It’s wonderful, it’s intense, it immerses you in nature like nothing else. It takes your mind off everything. It’s addictive. A good swim is like two weeks’ vacation. That’s why people swim without a wetsuit in cold water.

Fairness in a race, not “wetsuit shaming.”

Let’s return to Robert’s masterpiece, where he failed to say that a wetsuit makes you faster, a lot faster, because the buoyancy lifts your body further out of the water, which reduces drag. This is particularly advantageous to a lean body-type like mine that sinks. The fact that they make you faster is why they are not allowed in pool competitions.

So the swim events that the author mentions – they’re competitions! And it would be unfair if wetsuit swimmers are allowed to compete on an equal basis with everyone else. We don’t allow fins and other “swim aids” either. That has nothing to do with “wetsuit shaming,” but with fairness in a race.

Avoiding a mess, not “wetsuit shaming.”

Robert goes on to bitch about South-Enders not being allowed after the swim to take their wetsuits off inside the locker-room, but that they have to take it off outside on the dock.

Same at the Dolphin Club. The reason is simple. A wetsuit, after you get through swimming, holds water, mud, sand, and assorted plankton. As you peel it off, this stuff drips and trickles all over the floor and makes a huge mess.  People can put on their dry wetsuit in the locker-room, but they have to take it off outside and let it dry outside, which makes perfect sense. That’s not “wetsuit shaming” but just practical.

That’s how it was explained to me when I first showed up at the Dolphin Club with my wetsuit. Everyone knows this – except our friend Robert.

Rolling out a professor stunned by “wetsuit shaming.”

So, in good old WSJ manner, Robert goes on to cite a professor of biology. Robert says: “In 50-degree water, the first stages of hypothermia can kick in after just 10 minutes, according to John A. Downing, a professor of biology with the University of Minnesota’s Large Lakes Observatory. “Wetsuit shaming. I find that hysterical,” he [the professor] says. “Why would you shame someone for trying to stay alive?”

First: Dear Prof. Downing, don’t worry, “wetsuit shaming” is a figment of Robert’s imagination. And yes, it’s ridiculous.

Second: Yes, hypothermia can be deadly, and swimmers can die if they get it wrong. People die skiing, bicycling (get hit by a freaking car!), running, hiking, rock-climbing, crossing the street…. Cold water swimming is intense. Lean people like me lack the natural neoprene layer that others have, and we have to manage our time in the cold water prudently. Other swimmers with enough natural neoprene can swim in it for hours. I have to exert myself to stay warm in 50° water. But I see other folks just treading water and chatting about their latest recipe or whatever. Everyone has to learn how it works for them. And for some people, swimming with a wetsuit may be the way to go, and that’s great.

Other silliness in the piece.

So Robert goes on: “With the water hovering just above 50 degrees this month—and air temperature in the 50s too—that is just one of many hazards Bay swimmers face: they could exhaust themselves fighting strong currents, be bitten by aggressive sea lions, or even cross paths with the occasional ocean tanker.”

The last item — “cross paths with the occasional ocean tanker” — is just silly. Where we swim on our own, at the Aquatic Club “cove,” and outside going east near the breakwater and the piers, or going west past Fort Mason towards the St. Francis Yacht Club, there are no ocean tankers. There are no ships at all.

Further offshore – but we don’t swim there on our own – there is a shipping lane, and container ships mostly ply it in direction of the Port of Oakland. The tankers pass a couple of miles further north, north of Alcatraz, to go to the refineries in Richmond and along the San Pablo Bay. Robert, go have a look at a map of the Bay.

For swim events that cross the shipping lanes, such as the swims from Alcatraz back to the club, well, the swim commissioner schedules them with the Coast Guard well in advance, and they shut down traffic in the shipping lane for the time of the event. And boats from the club accompany the swimmers.

Kudos to the Wall Street Journal for having excelled once again with such acuity.

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