‘What Winter?’ Swimmers Say

Spencer Schneider, Heather Caputo, and Jeremy Grosvenor have not stopped swimming in the ocean and bay this year. Jack Graves

When Spencer Schneider had to abandon his Montauk-to-Block Island swim attempt last summer, about halfway there, he vowed to swim here in the winter so he could better prepare for a second attempt this summer.

He began his off-season swims on Oct. 22, and soon was joined by Jeremy Grosvenor, an inveterate waterman, and a couple of weeks later by Heather Caputo, who, like Schneider, is a member of the East Hampton Volunteer Ocean Rescue squad. 

“Everybody thinks we’re nuts,” Schneider said this week. “It’s like you’re walking down the street and see a dog holding the hand of another dog. It doesn’t compute. But we’re bright people, we’re careful.”

They are also well-conditioned athletes, and, by now well acclimated to cold water.

“It’s fun,” said Caputo, who has an Ironman triathlon and ultra distance race to her credit. “It’s addicting.”

Schneider and Grosvenor have had nothing untoward befall them as the result of these thrice-weekly swims ranging between five and nine or so minutes. Caputo initially experienced some minor numbness in her fingertips, worrisome for someone who works as a veterinary technician, but Neoprene gloves, a recommendation of Grosvenor’s, prevented any recurrence. They all wear gloves now.

“I was arguing for no gloves,” said Schneider, “but then I realized you can be a purist or healthy. It was a no-brainer.” 

Last Thursday, as this writer remained ashore, the trio swam for about nine minutes — the longest thus far — in 44-degree water at East Hampton’s Main Beach. Schneider knew it was 44 degrees — “rather warm for this time of year” — because he’d thrown in a thermometer attached to a bobbin.

The coldest water he and Caputo have swum in, Schneider said, “was 30, about a week after the New Year’s plunge. There was ice and slush at the edge.” 

“Like a Slurpee,” said Grosvenor, who was in Texas at the time.

“How was it?” said Schneider, repeating this writer’s question. “It was great!”

Asked if they got a swimmer’s high, Caputo said, “It’s not so much a high, but you feel . . . really, really good.”

“It’s an otherworldly experience,” said Grosvenor. “It’s not a Red Bull thing. It’s just the three of us, who look out for one another.” Dennis Fabiszak, an ultra-marathoner, provides support from shore. “We ask each other when we’re in the water how we feel all the time.”

“Sometimes our voices get slurred,” said Schneider. “You’d be speaking gibberish if you were in for a long time, a sign of hypothermia. But we’re acclimated — we’re not coming close.”

Speaking of hypothermia, Caputo said she’d experienced it in an ocean lifeguard test she took a while ago, in 58-degree water interestingly enough. She passed the test a week later.

“As I said, it’s otherworldly,” Grosvenor said. “It’s a foreign feeling, like going into space in some ways and realizing you can survive. Then there’s the visual quality, seeing the horizon and the sky. . . . The beauty of nature is amplified. It’s a poetic experience for a very short duration of time. There’s the sky, the camaraderie. . . . It’s very rare, so euphoric. You come out smiling.”

“The environment is totally different in the winter,” said Caputo. “And swimming through the winter you don’t realize it’s winter. It doesn’t feel like it’s winter because you’re swimming. And if you’ve had a bad day and don’t feel particularly motivated, it gets rid of all of those feelings.”

“I’ll be sad to see the winter go — February’s almost over,” said Grosvenor. “In March the daffodils will come.”

“I have to really concentrate when I’m going in,” said Schneider. “I don’t want to look like I’m the one who’s the wimp. I’m hoping they’ll say this isn’t a good idea, but they never say that. They keep going and before I know it I’ve dived in. It’s a real shock, I lose my breath, but it’s never quite as bad as I think it will be. It’s really cool doing it as a group. I could beat them in a pool, but not in the ocean. Their form is flawless.”

“It is uncomfortable in the beginning,” said Caputo, “but once you overcome your initial hesitance you feel amazing, there’s a sense of overall well-being.”

“It’s not like we’re the only ones,” said Schneider. “They do this all around the world, in Scandinavia, in Latvia . . . the Russians cut out the ice. . . . Heather placed second recently at the winter swimming national championships in Coney Island, a 200-meter race. The water was 36 degrees, the air temperature was in the 40s. She was swimming against people who’d been doing this for years, including Jamie Monahan, one of the best in the world. She’s swum a mile in 32-degree water, she’s swum on all seven continents. . . .”

“I never thought I could do it,” said Caputo. “It was unbelievable.”

Schneider said he will do a warm-up swim from Town Line Road in Wainscott to Montauk Point, some 21 miles, in July to prepare for his next Montauk-to-Block Island attempt. “It will be 10 hours, a long day, and I tend to get cranky,” he said, “but Jeremy’s going to go along in a canoe, and Heather will jump in at points.”

While apparently not much research has been done on the effects of winter swimming, the three said their own experience and that of other aficionados led them to be sanguine. 

“There’s been some research that it improves arthritic conditions,” said Caputo. 

“It helps your circulation, your metabolism is increased. . . ,” said Schneider. “I’ve never heard of any adverse effects.”

“Knowing that you’re going to be cold, but that you can overcome it, appeals to me,” said Caputo. “I love that mental aspect.”

“I love having them do this with me,” said Schneider. “I don’t know if I’d do this alone, but they shame me into it, they encourage me. Heather will say, ‘We’ll stay in for a minute.’ After a minute, I look around and they’re having a great time, and I hear Jeremy saying, ‘Let’s go farther.’ The nine minutes we stayed in the other day is the longest we’ve been in so far.”

“We’ve been to just about every beach,” he continued. “To Town Line, Main, Indian Wells, Ditch, Barcelona Neck. . . . The bay too: Albert’s, Barnes Landing, Maidstone, Napeague Harbor. I love them all.”

“We’re proving that you can swim here the year round,” said Caputo.

Whereupon, they departed and went to swim at Main Beach.