After participating in Cold Water Boot Camp, I have discovered
that it has been one of the most remarkable experiences of my
life. Not because of all the fantastic people that were involved
in the project, the chance to work with the world’s leading
experts in the field of cold water immersion or the first hand
knowledge that I will take to my students. These are the most
obvious reasons and rightfully so. What has made this experience
most remarkable are all the little thoughts and experiences that
occurred since first hearing about Cold Water Boot Camp. Only
after completing the project did this become apparent.
January 2008. Looking for Volunteers
Late in January of 2008, I had received an e-mail describing Cold
Water Boot Camp and seeking volunteers. Being involved in boating
education and having always been the type of person drawn to sporting
activities considered outside the mainstream I jumped at the opportunity
to participate in Cold Water Boot Camp. This project would give
me a chance to work with the world’s leading experts in
cold-water immersion, improve my knowledge of the subject, and
allow me to experience firsthand something that I would never
want to do in a non-controlled situation. The organizers of the
project were looking for a particular demographic group of volunteers.
I seemed to fit in all the categories except age. They were looking
for people slightly younger. Not willing to consider myself old,
I thought it would be fun to put my name in anyway. After all
how many people in the U. S. are willing to become hypothermic.
If I did not get picked I could tell my wife D’Anne that
I tried and was turned down because of my age. Although I would
have to pass a physical exam and get a cardiogram, D’Anne
was convinced if picked for the project I was going to die.
In addition to working for the Connecticut Department of Environmental
Protection’s Boating Division, I also work part time as
a deckhand on one of the local ferry services. While standing
on the car deck with a fellow deckhand one frigid February night
the subject of Cold Water Boot Camp came up. While looking into
the very dark cold water, I began to wonder if I had made the
correct decision to volunteer.
February 9, 2008. Cold water practice
A Connecticut canoe and kayaking retailer was running its annual
cold water work shop. It was a dreary damp cold grey day, the
kind of day that gives retirees an excuse to move to Florida during
the New England winters. dam was dressed in warm cloths, while
I was wearing a dress shirt and pants.
We each put on a drysuit and proceeded to jump into the barely
liquid Housatonic River. I stayed in longer, my hands and feet
quickly became very cold and painful. The cold started penetrate
the thin layers of clothes and to reach all of the portions of
my body that were covered by the dry suit. It was not a sensation
that I was unfamiliar with. What did surprise though was how intently
I was paying attention to all the different sensations and intensities
of cold. My thoughts quickly turned to how swimming in cold water
with no protection would feel. Suddenly it became very clear that
if chosen to participate in Cold Water Boot Camp, I was going
to become colder than I ever had been before. I hadn’t even
started to shiver yet and I was beginning to doubt my decision
to volunteer for Cold Water Boot Camp. Yet I still had the desire
to participate and experience hypothermia.
March 3, 2008. Selected for participation
Ted Rankin of Cold Water Boot Camp call to inform me that I was
one of lucky eight people chosen for the project. After I'd hung
up with Ted a sense of accomplishment came over me. I had been
picked from a list of candidates from the entire country. Then
suddenly the reality and the magnitude of what I just agreed to
set in. I was going to go swimming in Lake Erie during the first
week of April. As the first week in April approached, I often
found myself on the deck of ferry looking at the cold water and
wondering just how cold that water was. Just how cold does a person
who is hypothermic feel? Will I be able to jump in when the time
comes, after all I do teach people about the dangers of cold water
and know what to expect. Was I up to the challenge? Of course
I was. I’m not a wimp, I’d tell myself.
March 31, 2008. Packing for the Experience
As the designated time to report to Boot Camp approached, instructions
were sent to the Boot Campers. The topics on the list included;
what clothing would provided, footwear, clothing on arrival, itinerary,
and forms. Nothing stood out as unusual except the clothing on
April 4, 2008. The flight to Ohio
The spring weather in New England is always unpredictable. Having
been looking at the weather forecasts for both Mentor, OH and
Hartford, CT for weeks today’s weather was no surprise.
The day was yet another one of kind New Englanders love to complain
Arriving very early (wearing the hat) at the airport with no problems
and just as a cold drizzle started, I headed to the appointed
airline to check in. I was able to walk right up to the counter.
When the airline representative asked for my destination, I told
her Cleveland OH. She immediately suggested that I board the flight
that was moments away from departing. She said that she’d
call the boarding gate and have them hold the plane until I got
there. I replied that I was not in a hurry and she did not need
to cause anyone any sort aggravation. She kindly informed me that
if I did not catch this flight out there was no guarantee that
the flight I was scheduled to be on would be available due to
the weather. Quickly taking her up on her offer to board this
plane and I ran to security.
While sitting in my seat looking out over the clouds contemplating
my good fortune having departed Hartford before bad weather set
in, it hit me. My stomach tightened, my pulse quickened and my
skin became clammy. I thought what did I eat or was I getting
seasick and then it came to me. I was somewhere up around thirty
thousand feet on an airplane bound for Cleveland and it was not
going to turn around. I was committed to Cold Water Boot Camp!
Iwas told from the beginning that the volunteers would not be
forced to anything they did not feel comfortable with. That we
could chose to withdraw without consequence at any time. Yet there
was that pressure to perform, live up to expectations, bow to
peer pressure and even give the people what they paid for. This
was what I was feeling. Making poor decisions based on these pressures
are well documented contributing factors of major accidents. While
being the Captain of a ferry or teaching sailing, I have felt
these feelings first hand and been fortunate enough to have made
the correct decisions.
April 4, 2008. Arriving in Ohio
Now being confident in my decision, it was time to enjoy the trip.
Having never been to Cleveland or Lake Erie I was eager to see
portions of our country that I had never seem. Landing in Cleveland
at the designated time, I made my way to the rendezvous location.
Once there I met Nathan Duer our designated driver fellow Boot
Campers Rachel Burkholder, Victor Gamboa, and Chuck Yost
April 4, 2021 Dinner Reception
All the Boot Campers were to meet for the first time at Cecilia
Duer’s house. Cecilia is the Executive Director of the National
Water Safety Congress whose organization, is a major sponsor of
the Cold Water Boot Camp, and Executive Producer of Cold Water
Boot Camp . Upon arriving at Cecilia’s house, everyone randomly
lined up to enter. I happened to be ones toward the end. As everyone
entered, they introduced themselves to Cecilia and as well a few
others who’d gather at the front door. When I got to the
front door, Cecilia said “Hello Mark” I was surprised.
I never had met anybody at the house before. I asked her how she
knew my name and she replied “The Hat.” It seems that
the hat has some magic (Like Frosty’s, another irony) and
more than one person introduced himself or herself and even Ted
asked about it.
April 5, 2008. Let’s Get Reeeaaaddyy Tooooo Shiv iv iv ver!
Just like real Boot Camp, we all told to wake up early and meet
in the lobby for breakfast. I can’t speak for anyone else
but my mood seemed one of strange mix excitement, anxiousness,
and nervousness all rolled in one. As with any major event, there
were last minute details, confusion, and problems that the production
staff were anxiously working out. All of the Boot Campers were
finally divided up, put in to cars and driven out to the Mentor
Coast Guard Station.
I had never been to the Fairport Harbor Coast Guard Station before
but as we drove up the feeling I felt was surreal.
After pulling into the parking lot and getting out of the car,
the magnitude of this project started to emerge. A huge metal
arch had been set up over the path leading to the beach with a
banner proclaiming Cold Water Boot Camp. I recognized a large
boom crane setup for carrying a camera high overhead. There was
a small tent city setup on the beach and there were many people
scrambling around feverishly setting still things up. Until now,
I knew very little. Sure, I knew we were going to make a video
documentary about cold water immersion and that I was about to
get very cold. But what I didn’t know was the scale of this
project. When we entered the CG Station and I saw the classroom
they had set up, complete with railroad tracks used to move large
cameras around smoothly. All the clues to the size of this project
fell into place. Cold Water Boot Camp was big!
Lorenzo had told us that everything was running a little late
because ice needed to be cleared off the beach. Apparently, as
the ice begins to melt on Lake Erie it breaks up into enormous
sheets and the wind pushes them around the lake. Up until late
last evening the entire harbor and beach area surrounding the
Fairport CG Station had been iced in. This ice still visible on
the horizon blew out when the wind shifted, but left large chunks
on the beach.
We walked down to the beach, where we received surprised looks
from people working on the set. We saw the last pieces of ice
being taken off the beach. The sky was a glorious blue color and
on the horizon was a ribbon of white. At first, it I thought it
might be a very low fog bank, then it dawned on me that it was
the ice pack, not fog. Coast Guard personnel were anchoring their
boat in position for the days events. Rescue personnel were checking
their gear. The entire beach was a filled with nervous energy.
We heard that a coast guard helicopter was soon to arrive. The
helicopter had been brought in as an extra medical precaution.
It was to be available should any of us need immediate medical
Soon after, the distinctive screeching, whining, whistle of a
Coast Guard HH-65 Dolphin helicopter could be heard in the distance
and in moments, it was overhead. Everyone was looking up as the
pilots slowly circled overhead checking the landing zone.
Lorenzo gathered us up and brought us behind one of the larger
tents. He explained that we would be taken one by one to an area
they had setup to do interviews with us.?
When Ted had finished interviewing all the Boot Campers, the camera
crew needed setup for the next scene. During this scene, Dr. Giesbrecht
was going to be talking to us on the beach. He was also was going
to randomly pick the order in which we were about to go swimming.
Dr. Giesbrecht had written numbers one through eight on pieces
of paper and we picked them out of my hat. I drew number three.
It wasn’t that I was scared to go swimming, I just think
that it was nervous anticipation.
Ashaunte had drawn number one. Tim was to be the second and I
the third swimmer. Lorenzo call for Ashaunte. At that moment,
I got a feeling somewhere between getting one step closer in line
at the deli or motor vehicle department and one step closer to
be call in to see the Doctor for your annual physical. We all
made some type of joke and wished her well as she left but, we
all knew our turn was coming. Ashaunte disappeared with Lorenzo,
not to be seen again until later that day.
Again, Lorenzo appeared and this time he was looking for me! My
turn had come, I was about to go swimming in Lake Erie for the
first time ever and it just happened to be the first week of April.
The remaining Boot Campers again joked and wished me well. Any
feeling of nervousness disappeared and were replaced by feeling
of excitement, the type of excitement you get just before a big
race. I couldn’t wait to jump in!
April 5, 2008. Finally! It’s
I was called over to speak with Dr. Giesbrecht. Dr. Giesbrecht
and I chatted for a few minutes. He gave the final instructions.
Dr. Giesbrecht wanted me to jump in the water wearing only my
tee shirt, a pair of sweat pants and NO LIFE JACKET. I was to
swim to at least the buoy and if I could turn around and swim
back to the boat. If I made it back to the boat, I was to keep
swimming back and forth until I could not swim any further.
Dr. Giesbrecht assured me that I would be safe. There was going
to be a rescue swimmer within an arm’s reach of me. Who
at the slightest hint of trouble would check to see if I needed
assistance, wanted to continue or even get out of the water. He
then directed me to board one of the fire department’s boats
that was beached nearby. This boat was to transport me to the
larger Coast Guard boat that had been securely anchored about
fifty yards off shore.
Someone on the boat asked me if I was going to wear my hat and
eyeglasses. I can’t see a darn thing without my eyeglasses,
I wear them for all my waking hours and certainly didn’t
want to miss anything. Knowing a large part of one’s body
heat is lost from your head I absolutely wanted to wear my head.
The folks on the boat were concerned that I’d lose both
the hat and glasses. On second thought, even though that I’d
packed a second pair of glasses I changed my mind about wearing
the glasses. I asked someone on shore to hold on to my glasses.
The people on the boat were still concerned I would lose the hat
and said that if I lost it not to worry, they’d pick it
up. I told them that with Velcro like hair I wouldn’t be
losing it. They all had a good chuckle and we shoved off the beach.
Arriving at the Coast Guard boat my pulse quickened, the decisive
moment had arrived. I couldn’t turn back now, not with all
the planning, preparation and not to mention all the people watching.
I can’t remember exactly who was the person in charge on
the Coast Guard. This person told me when I was ready, to step
up on the gunwale of the boat and jump in and swim to the buoy.
This fellow also said “Mark, we need you to jump into the
water. We don’t want you ease yourself in, we need you to
JUMP in” I stepped up on the gunwale and time seemed to
enter super slow motion. As I stared down into the mirror smooth,
muddy brown waters of Lake Erie, thoughts of standing on deck
of the ferry and wondering about this moment popped into my head.
I thought I knew what to expect, I teach safe boat classes, I
have told countless people what to expect but now, I was about
to experience it firsthand. I knew I’d gasp it’s a
involuntary reaction. I didn’t want to let my face go under
the water and suck up cold muddy water. I knew that I’d
HAVE to control my breathing to avoid hyperventilating. And not
least of all I knew it was going to be extremely cold and that
it was going to hurt, like nothing I’ve ever know before.
I took a few deep breaths and simply took a big step off the gunwale.
If time was in super slow motion when I was standing on the gunwale,
it seemed to enter a surreal dimensional super, super, super slow