Taking the Plunge: The Avila Dolphins


Taking the Plunge: The Avila Dolphins

By Jamie Relth

From the end of the pier in Avila Beach, the ocean seems like a warm, welcoming place. The smooth glassy water surface reflects a buttery, golden morning sun and the white craggy rock islands hugging the coastline to the south seem like a breadcrumb trail leading to adventure.

That’s how it seems.

The Avila Dolphins can tell you how it really is when you jump from that warm vantage point on the shore into the dark, chilly depths of the open ocean for a distance open water swim.

The group, which varies in attendance from two or three to 15 or more people, depending on the season, meets every Sunday, year-round (weather conditions allowing), for a one to two mile jaunt in the wild, wild waters. With some members wearing nothing but a bathing suit, goggles and a swim cap, they brave rough tides, gusty winds, potentially hypothermic conditions with temperatures ranging from 47 to 63 degrees, and any number of lurking sea creatures. At times, they may persevere through exhaustion, fear, bitter cold, chafing and frustration to finish the day’s designated course.

“It’s an acquired taste,” says longtime Dolphin Niel Dilworth, who has been swimming with the club for 20 years. “It’s a whole different experience than swimming in the pool: no lane lines, no turns.”

And for Rob Dumouchel, a former high school swimmer, that’s precisely the draw: “It’s a lot harder to get bored swimming in the ocean,” he says, than in a “big concrete box of water.” “Even if you swim the same route on a regular basis, it’s always different because it’s the ocean: there might be more surf, there might be more wind, the water temperatures can change. It makes it interesting,” Dumouchel says. “I can’t swim a 10K in a pool, but I can in the ocean because there is a lot more going on.”

Since joining the club five years ago, Dumouchel has raced in a 12.5 mile race in San Diego, as well as several 10Ks, and a route from Avila Beach to Pismo Beach that took him about four hours in 51 degree water, no wetsuit. Other club members regularly compete, swimming races like the Santa Cruz Rough Water Swim, the Maui Channel Relay, the Aumakua 2.4 Mile Swim and the Alcatraz and Golden Gate Bridge courses. One person in the club has even made the haul from Catalina to the California coast, a mere 20-mile dip. Many seasonal members show up to practice for open-water triathlons. Finally, some club members, such as 75-year-old Sylvia Glenn who has been plunging into the cold Avila waters for over 60 years, and Dilworth who also trains in the pool, do it simply for the love of the outdoors.

Even though cold-water swimming could boost your immune system; release endorphins, serotonin and dopamine; improve circulation; increase libido; and burn extra calories, according to TheNextChallenge.org, Dilworth says he’s never looked into the health benefits of swimming in cold water—“I just love going to the beach,” Dilworth says simply.

Of course with the benefits of the great outdoors come grave dangers, and the first on an ocean swimmer’s list must be sharks. But Dilworth down plays the danger, saying, “It’s like driving a car: if you drive a car with bald tires, bad breaks, and poor windshield wipers on a dark rainy night after you’ve been drinking, you certainly push the odds in a certain direction that something bad will happen. There’s no way to be 100 percent sure [about sharks] out in the ocean, but there are certain times of the year when it is more risky.” He explains that sharks are migratory, and the club is cautious late in the summer when the amount of wildlife in the water increases. “There are times of the year when you’re probably at more personal danger of getting hepatitis than encountering a shark,” he adds, noting that the club tries to stay abreast of water quality issues and is active with the Surfrider Foundation.

The club openly welcomes new members—as long as they are “reasonably competent swimmers,” says Dumouchel, who adds that paddlers and kayakers often accompany the group, and off-duty lifeguards often jump in with the crew, as well.

If you’re ready to dive in, just contact the Avila Dolphins at SwimAvila.com or facebook.com/SwimAvila.