A supposedly stupid thing that wasn’t too bad after all

The tradition of a New Year’s Day swim has grown in popularity year after year until it has become as common a calendar celebration as the Boston Marathon or Opening Day at Fenway. Thirty years ago the act of hurling oneself into the Atlantic Ocean from a New England beach on New Year’s was restricted to a bunch of organized lunatics in South Boston: the famous L Street Brownies who started their New Year’s swim in 1904, and as far as I know, a bunch of rowdy miscreants  that included myself and were affiliated with the Cotuit Mosquito Yacht Club.

New Year’s swims are classic photo opportunities for the local newspaper,  and I would guess there were probably 12 swims around Cape Cod today, all competing for front page placement tomorrow in the Cape Cod Times. You know your swim has made it when the television cameras show up, but in days gone past the Cotuit swim took place at night, ostensibly at the stroke of midnight (but usually around 3 am when the party started to stagger and someone got motivated to lead the way), with no one around to spectate and marvel at the insanity but those brave enough to do it.

My first Cotuit swim was in the 1970s at Oregon Beach at the very end of Main Street. Oregon is a very shallow beach — about a quarter mile of foot-deep water before it drops off to any respectable depth. The rules of the swim were simple. First: your swim didn’t count unless your hair was completely wet, so wading in up to the knees and splashing a little was a definite failure. Second, if you were over 30 the swim was optional. And third, he who made it back to the host’s house first, was the only person to get a hot water shower.

The most memorable swim for me happened in 1978 (the winter of the infamous Blizzard of ’78). There was a foot of snow on the ground and the dirt road to the beach was filled with frozen potholes and ruts of frozen slush. The edge of the water was frozen and cakes of frozen saltwater paved the beach down to the water. Oh, and it was dead low tide so it would be a challenge finding enough water to splash in let alone actually swim in.  There were maybe a dozen or two of us planning on swimming/wallowing that year, and the fact that midnight came and went with no move at the raging party to get the swim over with was an indication of how much we dreaded heading outside to meet the 15 degree night. These were not leisurely swims that involved undressing on the sand and carrying towels. We nuded up at the party, ran barefoot down the road, and returned naked.  Nothing about it was smart or good.

Around 3 am my step brother and a good friend, Phil, decided it was time to swim and use the cold water to sober up and thereby breathe a second wind into the party. So we stripped — men and women alike — and off we went down the road to la plage.

My bare feet immediately turned into frozen, totally numb pegs, so I was slow arriving at the beach. Most of the crew was in the water, shrieking and flailing in about six inches of water, rolling around to get their hair wet before ricocheting out and past me on their way to the single shower back at the house. So much for the hot shower. I didn’t wait and consider the consequences, I just went into the water, crunched through some skim ice and starting forging out into the darkness, looking for enough water to flop down in and finish what was quickly becoming the worst thing I had ever done to myself.

I dropped. Hit the bottom. Rolled around. Screamed and stood up. The world went blurry. Had my head shrunk from the shock of the cold water and given me brain damage? Was I that drunk on the Green Death (Haffenreffer Ale) and DeKuypers Peppermint Schnapps?

I had gone swimming with my glasses and they were gone.

I was truly completely Screwed with a capital S. I stood up and looked at the smeary flashes of the lonely navigation buoys out in Nantucket Sound and the orange loom of the lights in Hyannis to the east.  I had to return to college the next day, had no extra glasses, and these being the archaic 1970s, there were no Lenscrafters same-day-glasses places to get a replacement pair.  I couldn’t drive without them. So my initial instinct to just say f%$k it and rejoin the party wasn’t going to work. I was going to stay in the water and find them, my lost pair of gold wire framed John Lennon wanna-be spectacles.

I started clamming around with my toes, but couldn’t feel anything. They were too numb. My hair froze. I leaned over, dropped to my knees and started crawling around in a foot of water feeling around with hands. Clump of sea weed.  Oyster shell. Rock. There was no one else in the water with me by this point and I started to think about the hypothermia tables but gave up because I had no idea what the water temperature was.  Ten minutes? 30?

Success, improbable, but needle-in-the-hay stack success.  I ran from the water and started down the dirt/slush road back to the house, hit a frozen pothole and flew into the air, breaking the ice with my left buttock and covering myself with muddy water. That same ice gave me a nice cut on the butt and the mud, well, it was not taken for mud when I returned to the party one minute later, crazed and bloody, naked and smeared with brown goo. The elder non-swimming contingent was impressed.

The scene in the bathroom was total chaos with six people wedged into the shower stall and the rest shouting at them to hurry up and let them in. I was last in line but at least I could see.

There were many other swims. None of them were exactly pleasant, but all of them were memorable. As far as tribal rites for my circle of friends, the New Year’s Eve midnight(ish) swim was a big one. Wherever I am on New Year’s Eve, I think of my friends back in Cotuit screaming and splashing out of the water in the darkness.

After a decade-long break from the swim (rule 2, optional for anyone over 30), I decided to swim today at noon, in balmy 50 degree sunshine, participating in a mass swim organized to benefit the Mashpee Food Pantry. Essentially I donated $20 to dunk myself. We were blessed by the village minister and a photographer from the Cape Cod Times was there to record the hilarity. I wore an actual bathing suit, had a towel, and was completely sober. While my son and a hundred people watched I threw myself off the deep side of Loop Beach in a nice shallow dive,  screamed underwater, and emerged babbling to thrash my way back to shore where the towel was handed to me and I could say in all honesty: “That wasn’t so bad.”


Phil on the left, me on the right.

The Official Cotuit New Year's Swim

It was not an extraordinary swim to tell the grandchildren about, but it definitely was a brisk way to mark the beginning of 2012 and I’m glad I did it and I probably will do it next year.

Thanks to Marta, I have my new favorite hero.

Alcohol was involved? No way!

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

4 thoughts on “A supposedly stupid thing that wasn’t too bad after all”

  1. I remember that ’78’ night well, or sort of. I was still shivering when I was on the plane back to Seattle the next day to rejoin my studies & the U.W. rowing team. I ended up w/ pneumonia, but being a sturdy young 20-something was match fit again in a few weeks. I remember staggering down to the beach w/ you, Phillow & the horde breaking ice w/ every step out, to find enough non-frozen water in which to thrash around like a drunken crocodile & the agony of a cold shower w/ overserved, naked chowdah-heads afterwards. Thanks God, there weren’t any cameras & that we were still in the digital stone age! Our kids would not be impressed!

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