The Plunge

Illustration of girls at the beach
Illustration by Christine Mitchell Adams

A bevy of Maine beaches, two friends, and one simple commitment: take a monthly dip in the ocean, no matter what.

By Leah Hurley

From our September 2017 issue.

They say that being in nature is grounding, that it quiets the mind and helps put our lives in perspective. I grew up on the coast of Maine, and even after moving to New York’s Upper West Side, I always thought of myself as connected with the natural world. I went for long runs along the Hudson River, didn’t I? I watched the weather change from my apartment window, looking down Columbus Avenue. I charted the local growing seasons at the farmers’ market outside my door.

But moving back to Maine made me realize how disconnected I’d become. Slowly, I found myself growing more aware of the timing of sunrises and sunsets, the stages of the moon, the schedules of the tides as they affected the accessibility of my favorite places to run. I acquired a catalog of gear I’d never needed in the city: a backpack, a shell jacket, sturdy winter gloves and hats that favored function over form, a sleeping bag, headlamps. The specific smells of micro-seasons — the richness of tall ocean grasses in midsummer, the crispness of the early morning after a February snowfall — summoned childhood memories I’d tucked deeply away. As I started to reacquaint myself with Maine’s woods, mountaintops, and windswept beaches, I felt the experience of nature filling a longing so underserved, I’d all but forgotten it was there.

Each plunge is a leap of faith, a baptism, a reminder of the commitment we’ve made to be present, to show up, to choose joy.

It was in this grateful state that I joined my friend Sarah two Septembers ago for a sunrise swim in Cape Elizabeth’s Kettle Cove. We were drying off in the morning sun when she told me that she’d always wanted to go a full year taking a dip in the ocean every single month. Sarah was just about to get married, and a feat like this seemed like a fitting way to honor that commitment.

“Why not this year?” I asked.

Sarah smiled. “Want to do it with me?”

It wasn’t until some months later, sitting in a warm coffee shop after a frigid March dip at Portland’s East End Beach, that Sarah told me she was hoping I’d say no.

We started with ground rules: no wetsuits or neoprene, never the same beach twice in one year, always the two of us together, and always a full dunk. Then, one month at a time, a crazy idea became a tradition, a slow deepening of friendship and of connection to the place we call home. Two years in, we are still going strong. Each plunge is a leap of faith, a baptism, a reminder of the commitment we’ve made to be present, to show up, to choose joy.

Sometimes we’re joined by friends; sometimes we carry them with us in our hearts. We’ve shouted out things we want to leave behind and things for which we’re grateful. We’ve skinny-dipped under a full moon, celebrated birthdays and anniversaries, grumbled at low tides, and probably flashed more people than we care to remember.

We have hit most every beach from Scarborough to Falmouth. At Spring Point in South Portland, a July cloudburst caught us mid-soak, and we danced in the rain in our bathing suits. At Higgins Beach in Scarborough, a November beachcomber in a warm coat told us we needed therapy. Sarah didn’t miss a beat. “This is our therapy,” she replied.

We’ve had moments when we’ve almost called it quits. This year, on the very last day of February, we pulled up to Scarborough’s Ferry Beach after work to find the tide so low and the sea so unwelcoming that Sarah proposed another beach. Off we went to Higgins, where the crashing of the surf and the flashlights of the dog walkers seemed also somehow ominous. When we finally settled on Kettle Cove, the night was so dark that I suggested it was okay to skip a month. But our eyes adjusted to the moonlight, and we waded in shimmering waters up to our waists. Then, quickly, before our brains could stop us, we were down and then up, yelping and groaning and so alive as our legs carried us back to our towels and warm clothes.

Every time we climb out of the icy water, surveying the picturesque landscapes before us, I am struck anew by the realization that none of this would be possible if I hadn’t taken a leap of faith to leave New York for Portland, two hours from my childhood home and where I knew almost no one. It makes me wonder what chapters lie ahead that I can’t yet fathom.

September marks the start of Sarah’s and my third year, which we’ll commemorate with three sequential dunks instead of one. We’ll laugh as we think about doing this in another decade or more — dunking 15 or 20 times at the start of some future year, then toweling off our hair, changing out of our suits, and marveling at the joy that a simple tradition can bring.

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