Swimming in Freezing Winter Water

Gary Sredzienski swimming in the winter. Photo by Jeremy D'entremont

Some people have called the police, frightened by the specter of a black blob swimming in the wintry waters of the Seacoast. Is it a rogue seal? A terrorist?

“People were stopping on bridges, getting out of their cars, when they saw me,” Gary Sredzienski says. But, indeed, it was just a guy in black wet suit out for a several-mile swim in a freezing (literally) river, estuary, even the ocean, depending upon the day. He was out there in the very worst weather — storms, blizzards, high winds, no problem.

“Just because it gets cold,” Sredzienski says, “why should I stop?” That’s a question he asked himself 15 years ago, when he was swimming in Durham’s Lamprey River. Bummed because an autumn rain had ended his swimming (“it’s like anyone else who would go for a walk every day”), he experimented with gear to extend his season. Ever since then, he’s been swimming 12 months of the year.

The worst part about his winter swimming is that it gets dark so early. “This time of the year, I have to swim several miles back in the pitch dark,” he says. “Your imagination goes wild. It’s the shock factor of wildlife that makes your adrenaline shoot out. When a fish larger than you darts in front of you out of the blue ... when weed beds light up suddenly because you disturbed a school of comb jellyfish ... when a head appears next to you and then disappears ...” Of the last, he’s certain it was a just a seal checking him out.

What Sredzienski does is called wild swimming. “Swimming in God’s paintings, God’s swimming pools,” as he puts it. “Swimming in the natural environment, not man-made, and to face what nature has to offer.”

What nature has to offer in the winter is the challenge to stay warm, to stay alive, in water temperatures that, for Sredzienski, have reached as low as 28 degrees. “Water and wind are continuously moving across you, robbing your body of heat,” he says. “A refrigeration effect.” Between that and the long distances he swims, many extra calories are needed to maintain his core temperature.

That was of special importance the day in January 2008 when he became the first person ever to swim from Portsmouth to the Isles of Shoals in the winter — six miles, four and a half hours, in an air temperature of 9 degrees and a water temperature of 39.

Yet, he says, that was not his most difficult swim. Far more “challenging, exhausting and dangerous” were his charity swims (see sidebar) in the Piscataqua River, which is the third fastest-flowing navigable river in the world.

Sredzienski , who is nicknamed “The Creekman” because of his exploits, has come a long way from his time as captain of the swim team in high school (“how boring, back and forth, waiting for a gun to go off”). Now, swimming wild, he isn’t interested in distance, time or speed. Instead, he’s “communing with the natural world, prayer and meditation” in what he considers the most beautiful place in the world to swim.

‘Really,” he says, “is there anyplace else?”


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