Nick Atkinson takes a plunge into a nameless Alpine lake. Photo: Finn Scholes

Why I love winter swims

Want to feel better and sharper, and get a better night’s sleep? Nick Atkinson has just the thing, and it’s very cold and wet

Winton’s caught a couple of great looking snapper. He’s kayaked to Te Kākāwhakaara/Watchman Island and I’m about to meet him after swimming out from one of the ratty little Herne Bay beaches. “You’re very hardy,” he says, as I haul up panting on the sandstone plinth of this tiny, uninhabited sugar-cube of an island. I compliment him heartily on his excellent pair of fish. One of his snapper looks around 40cm long. He’s happy too. We both frown while speculating about fish behaviour throughout a typical winter. It’s a friendly sunlit exchange, encouraged by the knowledge that this particular conversation will be brief. We introduce ourselves formally at the end of our chat. Winton remarks on my refrigerated hands as we shake on it. I dive in for the swim home. My face is especially cold. It seems to be the part of my body that cools quickest and takes longest to thaw afterwards.

I’ve heard regular swimming in chilly water promotes blubber growth, which isn’t going to sell readers on the idea of leaping into our waterways during our shortest days. Yet winter is a wonderful season for swimming in and around Auckland. The low sun burnishes the edges of our fair harbour. On calmer days the sea becomes limpid. The boosters playing dance music on Bluetooth speakers have migrated away from the coast leaving the popular spots peaceful. Out west the usually hell-fire hot sand becomes cool and silky on the toes. Sometimes after rain at this time of year the more remote beaches are completely free of footprints.

Obviously, the water is colder, but this quickens the pulse. The shock of freezing brine hitting your muzzle makes you feel wonderfully alive. Much has been written about immersion in cold water stimulating your metabolism, increasing your ability to burn sugars. The cold stimulates your lymph nodes, boosts the ability of your immune system to fight off infection (but make sure you warm up as fast as you can until you blush with that first mist of perspiration). Cold water swimming also helps you manage stress as the problem of the endless freezing ocean enveloping you dissolve your various issues for an exquisite moment.

By its very nature jumping into the sea during winter is extremely effective at focusing your attention on the present, which helps manage depression and anxiety. While the health benefits of a bracing dip are well chronicled, one effect stands out above all others in my experience – I get an astonishingly good sleep the night after a winter plunge. I’m out like a light and barely tug at the sheets till morning. It’s a generous reward for a few minutes gambolling and when compared to an alpine lake, you’ll find Waitemata Harbour in August balmy at around 15 degrees celsius. If you received a beer of that temperature you’d call it warm!

One winter swim I cherish above all others features that little island you can see off Herne Bay while driving over the Harbour Bridge. I’ve found it’s best to embark from the beach at the end of Wallace Street named Home Bay. There’s no freshwater shower, which is a mark against this otherwise excellent spot with steps leading directly down to the high water mark. Almost 700 meters away, Te Kākāwhakaara/Watchman Island defies the currents. Its flat summit is covered in short grass which seems, along with three scraggy pohutukawas, to be the only thing holding this squat lump together. Black back gulls rear a pair of chicks here each spring. Oyster catchers will usually hatch a clutch of speckled eggs, but the big powerful black backs deal to the chicks pretty smartly.

Te Kākāwhakaara/Watchman Island. Photo by Nick Atkinson

This winter I’m attempting to swim to the island and back every week without a wetsuit. I’ve been overjoyed to manage the swim with some regularity during July for the first time in my life, leaving August as the only month I haven’t yet managed it. It’s a swim I dread. The return trip takes about 40 minutes as the tidal currents lengthen the challenge somewhat. You get a chance to get your breath back once aboard the island and even though you’re colder and you’ve used up a good deal of energy, the leg home always seems easier than the swim out.

It’s not an expedition I’d recommend to the novice, but in summer anyone with a little fitness can complete the round trip, provided you work the tides. If you’re considering the mission to the island. make sure you’re well hydrated. You need to take on a good deal of water before stretching those calf muscles to prevent cramp, which is probably the most serious risk you face swimming in cold water. I find it easier on an empty stomach.

Many of my closest friends believe I represent the lunatic fringe when it comes to swimming in cold water without a wetsuit and while I’d encourage anyone to experience the zing of icy sea on their skin, it’s a personal preference. A wetsuit greatly improves buoyancy while enhancing your ability to endure the cold. Basically it gives you a great safety margin. I’d avoid swimming while intoxicated and you must be aware of the impact the weather and the tides have on a given swimming destination. It’s also a good rule of thumb to avoid swimming in and around Auckland within 24 hours of heavy rain. I sometimes swim while it’s pouring down and I’ve never known any ill effects, but most Aucklanders will be familiar with the sometimes pungent limitations of our stormwater drainage system.

If a musician of middling fitness like me can make it to Te Kākāwhakaara/Watchman Island without a wetsuit then anyone can safely enjoy an exhilarating plunge into our harbour purified by salt and cold. Fellow beach-goers will look upon you with awe. You’ll make new wayfaring friends as you emerge from the water. They’ll want to trade pleasantries and compliments as if you were a virtuoso descending from the stage. Fame and glory await the winter swimmer on a sunny day, but when the clouds congeal you plow a lonely furrow. Then the fruits of your endeavour grow anonymously on the branches of hardy virtue. My mantra: you never regret a swim!

Auckland’s top 5 winter swimming spots

Herne Bay

I’m talking specifically about the surprisingly generous beach at the bottom of Herne Bay Road. There are toilets and a freshwater shower here, but its main attraction is thanks to a generous 1,500 cubic metre dose of sand, barged in from the seabed off glittering Parkari Beach. Doubters like myself assumed this coastal top-up would be washed away during the next big cyclone, but 10 years later you can still find Pakari sized scallop shells at Herne Bay and the sand is still there. This beach is tidal and the best time to arrive is an hour before high tide on a calm day as the Pacific Ocean blooms into the upper reaches of the harbour. While the city-end of the beach holds the evening sun longest, beware of the slippery papa rock beneath the surface here. I’ve witnessed grisly scenes as enthusiastic graphic designers dive in nearly losing their snouts on the sharp pacific oysters that have colonised the slippery shelves at that end of the beach. The middle of the bay is a beaut for entering the water with plenty of that nice Pakari sand to tread on.

Thorne Bay

In summer you’ll be lucky to find a park on Minnehaha Road, but it’s a breeze in winter. As you stroll down this idyllic lane you can momentarily bathe your eardrums in the serene silence of wealth while gazing curiously down the driveways of the exceptionally rich. Drug deals orchestrated by Mr Asia went down here, but you forget all this as a staggering vista of the Hauraki Gulf opens up at the bottom on the street. On a clear day, Aotea/Great Barrier Island can be seen almost 90 kilometres away. Exceptionally high spring tides can wash over the path to Thorne Bay, but most of the time it’s a short trot to the beach.

I’ve swum with dolphins here and I’ve seen orca feeding close into the rocks. This beach gets diabolically busy in January and February, but in winter the lava flows from Lake Pupuke hold the heat and the sun for much longer than the steep little beach with its coarse shelly sand. While this almost north-facing spot is a diamond at high tide (you can almost dive in from the beach) it can also be a jewel at around half tide as a network of freshwater springs become exposed. As the tide drops more and more of these musical cascades are unveiled pouring fresh water into the sea via lava fissures connected to Lake Pupuke that were formed up to 150,000 years ago. They’re great for a rinse off after your dip.

Ti Point wharf

This idyllic and functional wharf catches the evening winter sun and it’s handy to get to the excellent Leigh Sawmill Cafe where you can warm up afterwards if you’re in the area Thursday through Sunday (winter hours). I used to adore Matheson Bay just down the hill from Leigh township, but this otherwise lovely spot is blighted by the entitled boomers who live above this sheltered crescent of sand. Beware of these norms who cruise the beach before dusk moving folks on while quoting improvised bylaws.

Back at Ti Point an incoming tide brings in phenomenally clear water directly from the Pacific Ocean parked, conveniently, outside the harbour entrance. Jumping from a wharf is a superb way to counter those ums-and-ahs that sometimes afflict the winter swimmer, and there are generous albeit slippery stairs and a good boat ramp to help you clamber out again. Turn right before Leigh down the road that leads to the reptile park. Keep going another kilometre or so and you’re there.

O’Neill Beach

This bay is a grand flooded volcanic caldera that many visit walking north over a dune from Te Henga. There’s a wonderfully scenic alternative to that route which you’ll find if you make a hard right immediately after the one way bridge well before you get to the main car park. A firm sandy drive leads to a parking area where “Bridge Washed Away” signs deter most walkers. This little river can become impassable in a deluge, but the ford is more than manageable in most conditions and it’s usually only ankle deep. Lord only knows when the bridge will be replaced.

O’Neill beach in winter. Photo: Nick Atkinson

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The track to O’Neill Beach is one of the most beautiful legs of the impossibly scenic Hillary Trail. It takes about 25 minutes to sidle up though the pohutukawa and manuka forest on a well-formed track and the views of Te Henga and O’Neill Beach on the way are spellbinding. O’Neill Beach has an unfair reputation as being one of the most dangerous of Auckland’s West Coast beaches. It’s certainly scary at high tide when it’s rough, but once the tide falls you can play and gambol in the shallows to your heart’s content. This is an unpatrolled beach at all times of the year – make of that what you will. It’s a true treasure less than an hour from Tāmaki Makaurau and one of the best beaches anywhere in the world.

Sloane’s Beach

Sloane’s is the colloquial name of the tiny piece of sand at the bottom of Marine Parade Reserve. This intimate spot wedged between the spacious houses occupying Herne Bay’s front row holds the evening sun longer than any of the six Herne Bay beaches. There’s a hose for a freshwater rinse off and even in summer, you’ll often be the only one there. I rate the Herne Bay beaches over the long stretch of sand at Point Chevalier because they provide a little shelter from the sou’west wind which hits Point Chev right in the chops. The water’s a little deeper too, meaning you have an ever so slightly longer window to swim either side of high-tide. I concede that for sunsets Point Chev is supreme and when the wind is in the east it’s also a great option.

 


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