What is Cold In The Open Water?

What is Cold In The Open Water?

Some open water swimmers diss neoprene-clad triathletes who regularly cloak themselves in black. But the ability to withstand cold water is always relative.

While some swimmers from perennial warm-water areas have problems acclimating to the English Channel, there are others like Lynne Cox who can sit in a 50°F (10°C) cold tank for 2 hours and have her core body temperature increase from 97.6°F (36.6°C) to 102°F (38.8°C).

Some swimmers have the physical and mental tools – and motivation – to delve into colder and colder water. But what is cold? Really, really cold? Is it 15°C? 10°C? 5°C?

Among the few who have swum in all kinds of temperatures, from the top of the Earth to its most southerly continent, Lewis Pugh has immersed himself in all kinds of cold. Unequivocal, absolute cold.

The water at the North Pole is -1.7°C (28.9°F) because salt water freezes at -1.8°C. If you swim off the Antarctic continent, the water will be about 0°C (32°F) because lots of fresh water pours off the continent into the surrounding water. The Bering Strait will be about 3-4°C (37.4-39.2°F) and Cape Horn is about 4-5°C (39.2-41°F).

The difference between swimming in 0°C and -1.7°C is the difference between running up the stairs of the Empire State Building and climbing K2 in the middle of winter. I swam for 18 minutes 50 seconds in -1.7°C across the North Pole and I could not feel my fingers for 4 months
.” Similar to Lynne, Lewis has been the subject of scientific research into hypothermia. “By way of example, I spent an hour sitting still in 0°C water for a scientific experiment for Professor Tim Noakes and [did not experience] problems. [But] every degree down past 5°C ratchets up the pain considerably.”

Lewis, who has swum at over 5,500 meters in altitude, also knows that high-altitude swims are more difficult. “Swimming across a glacial lake on Mount Everest with low water temperature (2°C), fresh water, and little oxygen is the most challenging cocktail.”

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