• Members of the B52s on pose in front of their sign on Boxing Day 2021.
  • The B52s - swim completed as the sun rises.
  • B52s - caption to come
  • Members of the B52s warm up after a swim: Mark Walker, Mark Simmons, Andrew Graham, Paul Cane, Jon Hooper, Theresa Wells, Ineke Graham, Kevin Patterson

The joys - and benefits - of sea swimming

Regular swimmers have a tendency to become evangelical about the benefits of taking to the ocean not just for a quick dip, but for some serious (or some seriously fun) exercise. It now seems that their beliefs are backed by science, and the sea swimming movement is gaining credence, and numbers, here and overseas. Christine Young talked to a group of local swimmers to find out just what it’s all about.

The claimed benefits of sea swimming include increasing your libido, among other more mundane benefits like boosting your immune system, improving circulation, and burning calories. One source uses arcane terms like ‘thalassotherapy’ (using seawater for cosmetic and health treatment) and says it is a practice that dates back to the ancient Egyptians. Advocates also say that sea swimming’s popularity is growing, and advise this “could be the perfect time to take the plunge and restore your body and mind”.

Voluntarily immersing yourself in cold water will be seen by some as a euphemism for self-torture – but on the Shore, the water is warm for a few months at least, and groups and individuals gather at local beaches to enjoy the social and physical benefits of an early morning swim. During summer, they join adherents of the sea swimming cult who faithfully congregate at local beaches year-round. One such group, we’re told, is the “Wild Women” who swim at daily at Narrow Neck at 8am. Another is the grandly titled B52s Swimming Association.

The B52s are a gathering of Devonport peninsula locals whose numbers have swelled over the past few years from four enthusiastic mates to a WhatsApp-driven congregation (aged from their 40s to 60s) who get together year-round  to swim at least three times a week. They have a club captain, a secretary, and a “cultural director” – presumably in charge of various ritual events, including pizza nights that celebrate the simmer and winter solstices, camps and general hilarity wherever they meet.

Mark Simmons, B52s club captain and one of the initiators of the group, says there are magazines devoted to the practice, and ocean swim clubs starting up “all over the world”.

He began swimming to help free up a permanently damaged back, doing aquarobics at the gym before progressing to swimming in the sea – and becoming hooked. His back injury, he says, “forced me to be active, to get into nature every morning”, and he loves it. At that stage there was an informal group of “coastal cruisers”. Through them, he bumped into Paul Cane, a Devonport local and a mate Mark hadn’t seen since their Canterbury University days. In turn they met up with other similarly inspired souls who came and went – especially as the weather got colder. Mark, Paul and a small hardened core continued swimming into the winter, and decided the group needed a name. They adopted the B52s Swimming Association moniker – the B stands for buckets (in homage to original sea swimming group The Buckets, started by a group of university lecturers, who swam on Sundays at Narrow Neck beach and took their swimming gear to the beach in large buckets). The 52 – of course – was testament to their commitment to swim year-round.

As Mark tells it, the group gradually evolved, but swimming remains core. Mark has developed a mellow pre-swim playlist for sunrise, before the swim, and a more raucous playlist for the post-swim shower. “Our theme became Love Shack,” he says. (Look it up – it’s by those other B52s.) The local B52s may have met through swimming, but their personalities mean they have melded into a tightly supportive group of party animals.

Up to 20 people have been admitted to the somewhat exclusive WhatsApp group; eight to ten regularly gather to swim at around 7am on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

It’s not about being fast, Mark emphasises, through there are a couple of fast swimmers in the group. “It’s about being in nature and having fun.” Those who want to, wear one fin, or two, “so if we’re slower we don’t hold each other up”.

At Narrow Neck, they go with the tide (doing the longest stretch with the tide behind them) swimming from the middle of the beach out to one of the buoys, along to the “green stick” where there is an obligatory group high five, before swimming back round the second buoy. All up, it’s about one and a half kilometres.

“I’m determined we’ll all swim together till we die,” says Mark.  “The group has become social and supportive. It’s a mix of male and female, and some couples. That brings some lovely elements to it."

“We’ve also started SSS,” he adds – the Saturday Swim Safari. Where these go depends on the tide and wind, but the weekend the Bean Rock ocean swim was converted to a “round the buoys” affair off Mission Bay because of Cyclone Dovi, most of the intrepid B52s “jumped off the Stanley Bay wharf” and swam to the Torpedo Bay wharf.  Other weeks the SSS goes from Narrow Neck to  Takapuna or vice versa, or starts from Cheltenham.

The B52s might be serious about swimming, but they’re equally serious about having fun.  “When Paul’s around we always go for breakfast somewhere – Platter or Chateaubriant,” says Mark. “It sets the day up – we get our physical exercise and saline fix, and there’s always a bit of comedy.”

Indeed. Through swimming in the Tuesday night Harcourts Beach Series, Paul got to know the Bay-to-Bay swimming group, says Mark by way of example. Paul invited this group to the B52s “camp” at his property on Aotea Great Barrier. The group adjourned to the Barrier’s Irish pub. “I put on our playlist, and we were all planking” – as you do! The Bay-to-Bay group, which had thought the B52s “were all a bit hippy, got us to do high fives, and to sing Kumbaya”, and soon the whole pub was partying. “It’s all great fun!”

But back to the swimming. Mark subscribes to UK-based Outdoor Swimmer magazine, “the world's only printed publication for everyone who loves swimming outdoors… produced every month by swimmers for swimmers…. packed full of outdoor swimming inspiration” among other things.

It seems the B52s need little inspiration; they provide their own drive. “It’s very good exercise and a social and physical exercise fix. We’re all pretty fit,” says Mark. “It’s got to the point where I have to be in the sea every day", even if that means two layers of wetsuit (never bootees or gloves though, as you lose the feel of the water; most people would lose all feeling!). If he misses his morning swim he’s “like a bear in a cage”.

Perhaps we should all emulate the B52s; an early morning swim and regular saline fix seem to make for a pretty good life.