Cold water immersion, a pastime for bravehearted

By Jon Karpilow
Posted 12/27/23


At 8:15 A.M. on December 14, the water temperature off of Point Hudson was 49.1 degrees Fahrenheit. That's just seventeen degrees above freezing and barely two degrees below the …

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Cold water immersion, a pastime for bravehearted



At 8:15 A.M. on December 14, the water temperature off of Point Hudson was 49.1 degrees Fahrenheit. That's just seventeen degrees above freezing and barely two degrees below the surrounding ambient air temperature, not taking into consideration the wind chill factor generated by the 6-8 mile an hour breeze.

In 49.1 degree water, exhaustion and eventual unconsciousness takes place in 30-60 minutes. Survival time is 1-3 hours.

In short, the water is cold. Really cold.

So given these conditions, one has to ask the question: “What the heck are those women doing, bobbing up and down in the waves offshore?”

The trio, Janice Camfield, Heidi Camfield, and Dawn Reis are a close group of friends that firmly believe in the benefits of Cold Water Immersion Therapy (CWI). Multiple times each week, the threesome make their way to the boat launch adjacent to the Velocity coffee shop. They discard whatever protective clothing they’ve arrived in and then slowly wade into the water wearing an assortment of swimwear.

Occasionally, there’s muffled scream. Like the ice-bucket challenge that became popular in 2014, stepping   into the waters of the Salish Sea in December can be a shock one’s system. But once they are neck-deep, the squeaks of discomfort dissipate. The group turns, face the open water, and then engage in a bit of banter as they count off 9 minutes -  the agreed upon time of exposure.

CWI is not new. While the benefits of cold treatments extend all the way back to the Egyptians, the practice became trendy in the 18th and 19th centuries when physicians championed cold therapy to address aches and pains.   

Reis agrees. Standing in the brisk morning wind, she shares how she has previously suffered from painful, chronic inflammation and how immersion in the chilling Salish waters diminishes her pain and energizes her for the remainder of the day. The Camfields concur and add that a short exposure to freezing water can also combat depression by elevating endorphins, not unlike the effects observed in extreme athletes.

Genuinely excited to share their hobby with interested parties, the three reach for their phones to impart what may be the bible of cold water immersion: “Winter Swimming: The Nordic Way Towards A Healthier and Happier Life.” The 2023 book, written by Danish scientist Susanna Soberg, describes the beneficial effects of cold-water immersion on metabolism, depression, and more. Other studies and anecdotes suggest CWI can improve immune function, stress management, and libido.

Despite the enthusiasm exuded by Reis and the Camfields, the American Heart Association (AHA) and other groups offer a thoughtful word of caution when considering submersion in near-freezing water. Jumping into cold water activates what is known as a cold shock response - a physiological response that includes a rapid increase in breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure. As blood rushes from the skin to the core of the body, enthusiasts with diagnosed or undiagnosed pre-existing heart conditions such as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (a thickening of the heart wall) risk inducing arrhythmia (irregular heartbeats) and/or stroke.

For these reasons, avid CWI adopters advocate caution when considering the plunge. Preparation can include 1) slowly incorporating cold-water showers into one’s schedule before submerging your body into a cold water lake or sea, 2) identifying the proper clothing (e.g., wet suits) for submersion, and 3) identifying one or more partners who can assist you should the experience generate an adverse reaction.  

The Port Townsend trio agree and share how their own journey into cold water immersion involved building up from short, 30 second, exposures.

“It gets easier with time,” says Reis. “But once you get out there, there’s so much to distract you from the cold. Eagles, seals, and, of course, the beauty of the landscape.”

As the three enthusiasts begin to wade into the water, a 50-something gentleman wearing a thick, insulated drysuit prepares himself for a scuba-diving outing. He pauses, stares out at the women, and then shakes his head and smiles before announcing to no one in particular…

“And people say I’m crazy!”

Here’s hoping that Janice, Heidi, and Dawn continue to benefit from their safe practice of CWI.