Davis Lee swam the English Channel in 2010 and has tackled several other classic distance-swimming challenges. And three or four times a week, you can find the Newburyport resident in the water just off the shore at Plum Island, usually early in the morning.
“The ocean is always different,” said Lee. “There are some days you get down there and it’s a beautiful sunrise and it’s smooth and glassy and almost like swimming in a pool. And other days you get out there and it’s choppy and windy and sort of terrifying, almost. I kind of like that. It reminds you that you’re not in a swimming pool.”
A small but growing number of North Shore residents have made an ocean swim a regular part of their routine with area masters swimming groups, said Chip Wyser, a longtime group member and organizer in Newburyport.
Their motivation ranges from fitness goals to relaxation. And the growing popularity of triathlons has brought an influx of athletes training for competition in recent years, according to Wyser and others.
But while an ocean swim can be physically taxing, some speak of it as having an effect almost like meditation.
“We swam at 5 a.m. on the morning of my wedding day, and it was such calm water,” said Heather Stevens, a longtime member of the Newburyport group who now lives in Portsmouth, N.H. “I asked people to come swim with me just because I thought it would be good for wedding-day jitters, and it was just so peaceful that day.”
Lee was a competitive swimmer as a boy in Connecticut, but it was not until he got serious about his childhood dream of crossing the English Channel a few years ago that he became a Plum Island regular.
‘The other day we went in and it was so cold that my face was burning, and I got an ice cream headache.’
“Plum Island, from a temperature standpoint, is pretty good at simulating the conditions in the English Channel,” he said. “At this time of year it gets a little bit warmer . . . but it’s a good training ground.”
While a solitary beach-walker might be surprised to see a typical group of five to 10 swimmers in the ocean at sunrise, the swimmers sometimes get surprises too.
“I was with a group on Saturday, and we swam around Thacher Island off Rockport,” said Richie Martin of East Gloucester, who is a regular with a group of Gloucester-area swimmers. “It took about an hour and a half . . . and on the back side of the island, we started being followed by a group of seals. Very big, giant heads. Anytime one of us would stop to take a drink or something, all these heads would pop up around us.
“They had to be 300 to 400 pounds. They were good-sized seals. It was kind of unnerving, but it was kind of fun. I like experiences like that,” said Martin.
“[Off Plum Island], it’s very clear, with a sandy bottom. I’ve seen a few striped bass, and a lot of skates or stingrays, and every now and then you see a lobster,” said Lee.
“At one point I had a [striper] come up and eat something that was probably a foot and a half in front of my face, and then just turn and dart away. Which was pretty startling . . . when you see something with an open mouth right in front of your face, it’s pretty disconcerting.”
The national adult swimming group for the sport is US Masters Swimming. The North Shore groups are informal, held together by e-mail chains, and the participants tend to be members of New England Masters Swimming.
While ocean swimmers do not have to be ready to tackle the English Channel to join in, they do have to be experienced swimmers. They need to be ready to handle variable temperatures, distances (typically 1 to 3 miles), and the sometimes rough water.
“Some people don’t like not knowing what’s below them,” Wyser said.
Although many people are “trepidatious,” as Lee put it, about the surf and currents on Plum Island, the swimmers move quickly past the breakers and swim parallel to the shore, 50 yards or so out.
“Playing the tides and currents and wave conditions is half of the fun and the challenge and the adventure,” said Wyser.
There is actually less boat traffic to worry about along the ocean side of Plum Island than in many other locations, Wyser said. Other concerns include fishermen’s casts and the sometimes frigid water.
“The other day we went in and it was so cold that my face was burning, and I got an ice cream headache,” Wyser said.
Although the buddy system does not work so well for distance swimming, swimmers keep an eye on one another, he said, and on long swims, groups are sometimes accompanied by kayakers carrying restorative snacks.
The gear required is relatively modest. In addition to a bathing suit, a cap and goggles are pretty standard equipment. Many, if not most, swimmers wear a wet suit at least part of the time for warmth and perhaps some additional buoyancy, Wyser said. The stroke involved is typically freestyle, he said, although some swimmers may occasionally turn to breast stroke or backstroke for a change.
The Newburyport group meets at Parking Lot 1 in the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge to swim off Plum Island, and some swim off Joppa, just inside the mouth of the Merrimack River. The Gloucester group’s regular route takes off from Niles Beach. There are one or two other groups in the area as well, with the pool at a local YMCA or YWCA being a good place to get in touch.
Group members are widely mixed in age and occupation. Swimmers keep in touch by e-mail groups — there are about 70 in the Newburyport group, according to Wyser, though far fewer turn out on any given day. Members often join up for competitive swims in places like Salem Harbor or Nubble Light in southern Maine. And there is a strong social element as well, a swimming version of golf’s 19th hole, most said.
Many North Shore swimmers take to pools in the winter, and a large contingent transitions by swimming in Stiles Pond in Boxford in spring and fall. Still, just about everyone seems to prefer the ocean.
As Lee put it: “Would you rather walk on a treadmill in a gym, or go for a walk in the woods?”
Experienced swimmers interested in joining the Newburyport group can call Wyser at 978-465-0095 or Doug Smith at 978-857-1577. For the Gloucester group, call Martin at 978-281-0670.Joel Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.