C'mon in! The water's f-f-fine

Email|Print| Text size + By Letitia Baldwin
Globe Correspondent / June 25, 2006

CRANBERRY ISLES, Maine -- It's sunny, blowing 20 miles per hour out of the southwest, as we make our way down Sand Beach on Little Cranberry Island. The Mount Desert hills rise like blue bubbles across the whitecapped sea.

Ruddy-cheeked and bundled up against the wind, lobsterwoman Stephanie Alley, island postmistress Joy Sprague, librarian Cindy Thomas, and jeweler Barb Fernald huddle on the gravelly shore. The women are getting a jump on summer and going for their second ocean swim in April as part of the local Dip-of-the-Month Club.

The middle-aged mothers strip down to one-piece bathing suits and run into the 44-degree water . It takes their breath away. It feels sharp on the skin. As they surface, a scream pierces the air.

Out of the water, the women say their bodies tingle all over . They rave about feeling energized. They feel so good, they go in again.

Kate Chaplin, a Baltimore native who summered on Little Cranberry as a child and now lives there year-round, surveyed the scene from her beach blanket.

``I'd sooner go through childbirth than swim in the ocean," the 40-year-old mother of three said . ``I've done plenty of both."

As summer temperatures soar , New Englanders are flocking to beaches throughout the Northeast. Yet you won't catch many cooling off in the sea off Mount Desert Island. Or, for that matter, swimming in Maine waters east of the midcoast town of Rockland.

The few who do don't linger.

Saltwater bathing isn't mentioned much in the myriad guides extolling the rockbound coast. That's because the ocean temperature seldom pushes the upper 60s, and has sunk into the 40s, even at the height of summer. It's Vacationland's little secret.

``If natives of Maine are reluctant to get in the water, imagine what it's like for people used to water that is 20, 30 degrees warmer?" Tim Sample quipped by phone from his home in Georgetown.

Sample, 55, dubbed ``Maine's humorist laureate" by the late CBS newsman Charles Kuralt, swam in the ocean near Boothbay Harbor as a boy . He still goes for a dip maybe once a summer ``unless I think about it too much beforehand."

``I tend to jump in, paddle around a bit , and get the heck out," the comedian/storyteller said. ``It's like banging your head on the wall. Because it feels so good when you stop."

The Pine Tree State has the dubious distinction of having the coldest water s on the Eastern Seaboard. Several factors are to blame. There's the fact that its coast is on the Gulf of Maine, a vast body of water stretching from Nova Scotia to Cape Cod. The gulf is like a bathtub with the cold tap stuck on. The bad news is there is no hot tap. The gulf is cut off from the open ocean by Georges and Browns banks. The frigid Labrador Current, originating in the melt waters of Greenland glaciers, feeds the gulf from the north. The cold jet sweeps down the Maine coast to Penobscot Bay, where it moves offshore.

``That in a nutshell is why it is funner to go swimming in western rather than eastern Maine," explained David Townsend, oceanography professor and director of the School of Marine Sciences at the University of Maine. ``Saco Bay is probably the only warm swimming unless you get 50 to 60 miles offshore."

Maine's tides -- the strongest on the East Coast -- make matters worse. Picture a blender chopping up the sun-warmed sea surface, mixing it with colder water sucked up from the deep. Then there's the wind. Swimmers are at its mercy depending on its orientation to the coastline . Shore breezes, coupled with the Earth's rotation , spin heated surface waters offshore. If the wind is blowing from the southwest -- the prevailing wind in summer -- ocean temperatures can plummet to the 50s even at fine-sand beaches in southern Maine.

Just getting into the water can be tricky . Sand beaches and sandy-bottomed shoreline are increasingly scarce farther east. Going for a swim often means clambering over seaweed-swathed boulders and ledges and circumventing tidepools to get to the water's edge.

Maine tourism officials choose their words carefully when asked whether the terrain and chilling water are off-putting. Tourists, they assert, don't come to swim per se. They also note that swimming can be delightful at southern Maine beaches and scenic ponds and lakes .

``The farther east you go, there are so few beaches," said Dann Lewis, Maine's director of tourism. ``The rocky shoreline isn't conducive to people gathering and swimming particularly."

For Mainers and vacationers, ocean swimming is a black-and-white issue. Love it or hate it.

Many Maine fishermen , who have spent their working lives striving to stay out of the Atlantic , deride the bone-chilling practice as pointlessly painful.

Beals Island lobsterman Dwight Carver swam in the ocean as a boy. ``I can tell you, right now, that I have no desire to go jump in the ocean," said Carver, 52, the first to install a swimming pool on Beals Island. ``Why would I want to crawl in the ocean when I have a swimming pool in my backyard?"

Meanwhile, devotees say a bracing dip clears the mind, releases stress, prolongs life, and builds character. Some see it as an annual rite affirming their love of Maine and its rugged beauty.

As twentysomethings, Bayard Henry Roberts, a 94-year-old Philadelphian and longtime Northeast Harbor summer resident, and his friends sailed out and picnicked on offshore islands. Invariably, the idea of swimming would crop up.

``You could not have a martini before lunch unless you went in the ocean," said Roberts , who still enjoys a dip in the Atlantic. ``When you come out, you always feel it was worthwhile , with or without that martini."

Contact Letitia Baldwin, features editor at the Bangor Daily News, at

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