New Year’s Day. A time when the world is fast in bed, not ready to wake up at least until noon, and places outside look as populated as the moon. The last thing you expect is hordes of people on a windy beach at the edge of chilly water dressed, or rather, undressed to their nines (trunks, swimsuits, Speedos) ready to hit the water. But that’s the brazen scene at the annual Coney Island Polar Bear Plunge, which involves taking a dip in the waters off New York at temperatures around a shivery 10-12oC, even at 1 pm, when the yearly plunge is scheduled. The swim, which seems like the invention of a sadistic mind, is organized by the titular Polar Bear Club, which apart from this one day in winter, takes weekly swims in the period of November-April in the neighbouring Atlantic Ocean. There are legions of similar takers worldwide, in some of the globe’s colder places (such as around the English Channel and even the, brr, Nordic countries), for swimming during winter (or “swimter”, to do an Urban Dictionary). They do it for various reasons, ranging from thrill to challenge to habit, and wouldn’t have it any other way, not matter how twisted it might seem.
So, how about swimter in namma Chennai? Think about it. Due to its reputation for having only one season (hot) – or three (hot, hotter, hottest) – Chennai is home to a multitude of swimming pools across the city. These pools see a flurry of activity in summer (with schools out, kids in the water, and parents on the edge… of the pool), but wear thin during the cooler months of November-January (first due to rain, then followed by winter). But due to that same “notoriety” of having a mostly hot climate, the city also experiences the mildest of winters. Minimum temperatures range around an amiable 20-22oC, higher than in air-conditioned offices in summer. Indeed, the most concession middle-aged men, who normally hang around bare-chested at home, make for the cold is to don a vest over their veshti. Contrast this with most other parts of India, especially a place like Delhi, where people put on at least two inches of warm-wear and most pools are closed during winter.
Conduciveness and availability apart, there are other practical benefits of pursuing swimming during the cold season here. The New Year holidays are getting over and kids and grown-ups are getting back to tests and targets respectively, resulting in non-crowded pools: no one swimming in your lane, or worse, across. The sun is also at its most sublime self, sometimes snoozing late in its cloudy bed itself, so you don’t have to worry too much about tanning either. And on days the sun does peep out from its cloudy/misty cocoon, its gentle warmth is welcome, making the swim even more enjoyable, with the jill of the water around you and the sunshine above.
Seasoned swimmers especially talk about the health benefits of going for a few laps in the cold. How it increases metabolism (good news for those keen on fighting winter weight), builds lung power, and increases resistance. But this is really about the simpler joys of hitting the pool during the cool. Tingling water around you; less crowds and cacophony so that you feel you’re meditating while doing an easy stroke such as the frog, or better still, while floating; a soothing zephyr grazing the exposed parts of your body when you take a moment’s rest, making you do a mock or real shiver and then having you grin goofily, making you feel like a child again; the thought of having a hot shower after this to get back the warmth. And if all that doesn’t appeal to you, then on your way back after the swim, consider this: a cup of steaming kaapi and a plate of piping hot bajjis from the nearest kadai. Coney Island calling already?
Now, before you run to your wardrobe pulling out those trunks or suit, a few tips. First, know your medical capability. (Even for summer swimming, most pools require a medical fitness certificate.) Consult your doctor as needed, though there’s no danger of developing hypothermia or hyperventilation; Chennai organizes a running marathon in winter, not a swimming one. (Incidentally, if the cold does get to you in the pool, the best remedy is swimming itself: a few laps up and down, and the body heat will be up too.) If really needed, wear a wetsuit (full or semi, and polyester is fine, unless you want to look all pro and loaded and don neoprene); however, a sport like swimming was really invented for you and your body to enjoy water coolth. If still not, urm, fully warmed up to the idea, go a little later in the morning, when the sun is more out and the water warmer. After changing, take a shower; the jet of water will acclimatize you. Head toward the pool, stand on the edge, test the water with your toes. And then, depending on your proficiency or bravado, slide or dive in.
Winter has barely gotten into Chennai, but given that the sun never really leaves the city, it will soon be over too. There are a few wintry weeks still left; mid-Feb, the sun will be back to doing what it does best here. So, go on and take the plunge. The kaapi and bajjis await.