Under the low winter sun at Gyro Park beach, the ocean radiates a definite chill. Yet, Rhyanna Bunniss and Alexander MacDougall storm the water with abandon, diving in for a short swim.
The two 20-year-old University of Victoria students emerge from Cadboro Bay laughing, ignoring the full-body shock as veteran swimmers in Victoria’s notoriously crisp ocean.
On a stormy day in December, Bunniss and MacDougall were part of the second Victory Ocean Swim, which saw about 30 hearty souls brave the water to raise food and money for the Mustard Seed.
The trick, Bunniss says, is not hesitating halfway into the water. “It was all or nothing. It was icy – an icy shock to the system,” she says, referring to the Dec. 9 swim.
She once did a winter swim off the coast of Cornwall in her native England, but Victoria is a different level of suffering. “I did an ocean swim in the snow, but it doesn’t compare to here. This is freezing.”
“I’m originally from Yellowknife so I’m used to the cold already. But it’s still shocking and a good experience,” MacDougall adds. “I don’t think I’d muster up the courage to do this on my own.”
The Victory event aims to support the Mustard Seed, but also to encourage more people to enjoy the ocean off Victoria. Organizer Jasmin Gerwien says for her, the cold water is the only consistent remedy for chronic neck and back pain.
“When I swim in the ocean, that’s when it goes away. I come out pain free and rejuvenated,” says Gerwien. “When it’s rainy and cold, I force myself to go swimming, then I am able to do some work.
“I’m not sure what I would do if I hadn’t discovered it. The health benefit is amazing. For me it works as an antidepressant.”
Gerwien organized her first fundraiser ocean swim on Nov. 11 in memory of her mother, which drew 11 swimmers. The December event nearly tripled the participation, thanks to a contingent of UVic students who had been doing daily polar bear dips in Cadboro Bay.
“It was mostly running in and out,” MacDougall said. “By the end we were doing some swimming.
“It think (the event) is a great idea. I’d never heard of (ocean swimming) here before. It’s awesome.”
For Sunday’s swim, Gerwien has been lobbying Saanich and Oak Bay police and firefighters, among other friends and colleagues. The response from business and emergency responders has been gratifying – nobody says no to donating or participating somehow, Gerwien says.
“I’ve converted a lot of people to the cause,” she says.
“Everyone who goes in tells me they feel amazing and invigorated. Seeing people united for a good cause is rewarding.”
Oak Bay police Const. Julie Chanin plans to bring her five-year-old son to support the cause, and to show him that people do swim in Victoria’s ocean.
“I did a polar bear swim 10 years ago, nothing recently,” Chanin says. “It difficult to say if we’re going to show up and support the event, or be a swimmer. It’s a good community event though – good, clean cold fun.”
The Victory Ocean Swim in support of the Mustard Seed is Feb. 17, at Gyro Park, with the swim starting 1 p.m. sharp. People are asked to bring non-perishable food items or cash for the Mustard Seed.
See victoryoceanswim.com for more information.