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The dress code for these cold swimmers is lightly dressed




LANGLEY – Most swimmers wear wetsuits in the Sound. These guys are practically in their birthday costumes.

What’s up with this?

Brian McCleary and Joe Hempel swim year-round in swimsuits. Kristin Galbreaith wears a lycra bodysuit. Winter doesn’t stop their half-hour adventures through the icy currents in the waters around Whidbey Island.

The open cold water is part of the thrill.

“Swimming in a pool is a bit too boring for me,” says McCleary.

“I take a swimmer’s top, and I can never have that in a pool,” Hempel says.

“It’s always different,” says Galbreaith. “The current changes, the tide changes, the clarity of the water changes.”

It never gets old to watch.

Tourists on the shore bundled up in puffy coats gaze in disbelief as they see swimmers’ bare arms slicing through the gray, murky water. It hits them, it’s no swing.

For islanders accustomed to such circus acts in the sea, it’s not much, but impressive nonetheless.

Swimming in cold water takes training and endurance. It’s a leap forward from those New Year’s polar bear dives for the masses.

Sales of open swimming and wetsuits have exploded after pools were closed by COVID restrictions. The Whidbey Open Water Swimmers has clinics and regular group swims. This trio of Langley swimmers coordinate smaller meets through a messaging app.

Joe Hempel (right) and Kristin Galbreaith complete their 35-minute one-mile swim from Seawall Park in Langley.  (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Joe Hempel (right) and Kristin Galbreaith complete their 35-minute one-mile swim from Seawall Park in Langley. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

The cold rush has become a hot trend in various forms such as ice baths, daily quick showers, and cold tubs in spas. Proponents believe that the cold can improve circulation, deepen sleep, increase energy levels, and reduce depression.

For years Wim Hof, the ice-bearded Dutchman known as “The Ice Man”, was considered an anomaly. The extreme athlete has broken records related to exposure to cold, such as climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in shorts, running a half marathon over the Arctic Circle barefoot and standing covered in ice for two hours.

Hof now has 1.7 million Instagram followers. His followers include athletes Whidbey Cooper Ullmann, 18, and Kai Fawcett, 17, who wear underpants for multi-minute dunks in the Sound as part of their training to improve athletic performance.

The average pool water is 78 to 82 degrees. The National Center for Cold Water Safety says swimmers entering water below 70 degrees should proceed with caution.

Free water that day at Saratoga Passage is 43 degrees.

Hypothermia is a risk.

“Succumbing to the cold involves not being aware that you are succumbing to the cold,” says Galbreaith.

The swimmers watch each other. Sometimes they have company.

“Half the time we swim, we have a harbor seal escort,” McCleary says.

Hempel says he senses the presence of marine mammals in the water.

“You don’t know what’s there, but you know there’s something there,” he said. “As long as it’s not ‘Jaws’ coming out of there, you’re good.

Hempel, 47, a general manager of an electricity company from Minnesota, started swimming in cold water two years ago.

“It clears my head,” he said.

For McCleary, 57, a residential construction project manager, it started as a personal challenge to see how long he could stay in the water.

Joe Hempel (left), Kristin Galbreaith and Brian McCleary prepare to start their swim on January 29 at Langley.  (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Joe Hempel (left), Kristin Galbreaith and Brian McCleary prepare to start their swim on January 29 at Langley. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

“The first time was probably five minutes,” he says. “Every time I’m about to enter the water, I have to push myself. Right after swimming I feel quite alert.

Galbreaith, 60, calls this an ‘attitude adjustment’.

“Something’s going on in cold water. You feel so good, ”she says.

She toured as a helicopter pilot after graduating from the US Naval Academy. Now the former Ironman triathlete is an aquatic instructor and member of the US Masters Swimming.

The three swimmers often meet at Seawall Park on the shore of downtown Langley.

On this winter day, they arrive in warm clothes, resembling ordinary townspeople, although Hempel has sandals. He’s carrying a five gallon white Kikkoman soy sauce bucket filled with hot water.

Underneath their coats are layers of clothing to hold every shred of warmth to their core, which is essential for being able to withstand the cold water.

They strip down at a picnic table in the park under the First Street stores and the village pizzeria with windows facing the bay.

Pants and shirts are piling up on the table. A beach bag opens with a ready-to-use green polka dot towel. Silicone caps replace sock hats.

Kristin Galbreaith puts on a Rosie the Riveter swim cap before swimming.  (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Kristin Galbreaith puts on a Rosie the Riveter swim cap before swimming. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Galbreaith tucks her hair into a Rosie the Riveter “We Can Do It” swim cap and heads out for the water with the scantily clad men. They enter the frozen material without flinching.

McCleary launches into a three-quarter-mile swim. “I am slower. I cannot follow them. They are genetically different, ”he says.

His bathing companions linger a few moments before going a kilometer.

“Joe and I like to be numb first,” Galbreaith says.

This allows their lower half to acclimate.

“It does wonders with the rest of your body,” Hempel says. “It’s letting everyone know you’re about to dive.”

Then the two left, disappearing into the horizon of vast water against the backdrop of Camano Island. Ducks paddle on the surface as the late afternoon sky turns grayer. The waves hit the sea wall.

Time flies slowly ashore for those who wait. There is no sight of swimmers or a harbor seal.

Their things – nice jackets, backpacks, Hempel sandals – are lying on the table, unattended. It’s Langley. No one minds their business.

Little by little, a moving shape in the distance approaches. Then another. And another.

After 35 minutes in the water, the trio are back in the flesh.

Kristin Galbreaith (left), Joe Hempel and Brian McCleary climb out of the water at Seawall Park in Langley.  (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Kristin Galbreaith (left), Joe Hempel and Brian McCleary climb out of the water at Seawall Park in Langley. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

They relax for a few minutes in the water as if it is hot at the beach before strolling to the picnic table. You would think they would shake and be blue. They are not. They are pink and dizzying.

McCleary pulls out his earplugs and dries with the green polka dot towel.

Hempel stands in his white plastic bucket filled with hot water. “It brings the blood back to my feet,” he said.

Galbreaith searches her bag for a thermos and three tea cups. She pours hot Bengal spice tea as if it was a picnic.

“There is nothing nicer than hot tea after a swim,” she says.

A Seattle woman in a long coat watches the feat with amusement and approaches. She can no longer contain her enthusiasm.

“You must have lost your mind,” said the woman. “It’s cold. Are you training for something?”

No, just take a dip, the swimmers tell him.

“So you’re just out of your mind,” she said.

Andrea Brown: [email protected]; 425-339-3443. Twitter @reporterbrown.


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