Cold Water Swimmer
A friend who tried to swim one of the islands off Catalina went on a day that was colder than anticipated and he went into cardiac arrest 400 yards from shore. There is nothing that I don’t look at and take seriously. The swim in Antarctica took two years of planning, huge detailed planning for the two weeks leading up to the swim.
Who’s going to provision the boat? Who’s going to pull me out of the water if something goes wrong? Where are the defibrillators? Who’s going to have them? Are we going to warm up IV solution so we can rewarm the core from the inside out? What are we going to do at the end of the swim if I’m fine, but how do I rewarm? There’s all this stuff.
I didn’t know about a lot of risk factors until afterwards. For instance, well, in swimming in 32-degree water the problem was icebergs — you know, running into icebergs. They float at a certain rate and I swim a certain rate and sometimes you swim faster than they move or they move faster than you swim, so there’s a collision that occurs — it doesn’t feel really good.
There are huge concerns when you first immerse yourself in 32-degree water. There is a nerve in your nose called the vegas nerve and if you over-stimulate it you can go into cardiac arrest. The other thing that can occur is cold water immersion injury. Basically, the peripheral area of your nerves gets fried by the cold and you lose sensitivity to heat and cold. It’s sort of like neuropathy.
In that kind of cold water you can lose heat so rapidly. I actually think there’s an exponential effect on the body. The difference between 65 and 64, well, you can feel it and it does affect your body. But when you drop from 38 degrees in the Bering Strait just six degrees to 32 degrees, it’s as if the alarms in your body go off — like, this is so cold.
And your response, too, is you’re hyperventilating and it’s hard to swim and maintain a pace when you’re hyperventilating. I mistakenly tried to pull my breathing down to a slower level, drawing more, colder air into my lungs, but boy, that was so stupid because the air temperature was 32 degrees and if I’m breathing deeply it will go down into the lungs and cool me from the inside out.
So the body, at times, knows so much more than the mind does. Also, the mind has to stay so focused on what’s going on with the body. Are my fingers staying together or are they splaying? If they’re splaying, coming apart, that means that I’m losing fine motor control and my brain is cooling down and I’m in trouble. Is there blood pooling on my shoulders? Are they turning purple? That’s not a good sign either. Are my teeth chattering while I’m swimming — that’s also a very bad sign. I should be out of the water.
If you take a normal person or an untrained person and drop them into cold water, what will typically happen is they’ll vassal constrict the peripheral areas. The peripheral blood flow will close down and throw it all into the core of your body to protect your brain, lungs, all your vital organs.
At some point though your body will go, “You know what? We need to get oxygen out to the extremities,” and it will start pumping blood out, it will open up or vassal dilate. When it does that, it’s fine. It gets the oxygen out there but it’s then exposed to the cooler water and then it circulates back in and starts to drop a person’s temperature.
When you take me and I’ve been training, what normally happens is I will close down my blood flow to the extremities and you’ll only see a minute amount of blood flow out and back. I have very well distributed body fat that helps to keep me insulated; also, I have a lot of muscle mass that I’ve worked really hard to develop that gives me power and strength. It’s also the energy factory that creates the heat to keep me warm. If I were just a big person I wouldn’t do as well in cold water. Beyond all that it’s mental attitude, wanting to do it, really desiring to try something extraordinary.