Sledgehammers help in breaking path to water

Finding joy, good health in icy morning swims at Rockport Harbor

Thu, 03/09/2023 - 9:15pm

ROCKPORT — On many winter mornings, just after 7:30, a flurry of cars and small SUVs have descended the steep hill to Marine Park, at Rockport Harbor. The drivers – predominately women  – emerge, some in robes and mud boots, others in puff coats and towels and hats. It won’t be but a moment before they shed their cocoons of warmth, save their bathing suits, and stand like a congenial battalion, assessing the sea they are about to enter.

When conditions warrant, one of these daughters of Poseidon may carry a giant sledgehammer, ready to break up the ice that clogs the harbor, as it did in late February. They are going into the ocean and the ice must part for them. 

“Because the ocean listens to you,” they laugh together, “oh, woman with sledgehammer.”

“We do it every day,” they said, explaining their morning routine.  “We swim in cold water every day.”


“It’s good for your mental health,” said Rachel Coleman. “It’s good for your physical health. It feels amazing. It’s a connection to nature.”

They don’t really want to wax philosophical about why they do it. They’d rather just get going into the ocean, even though the the air temperature might be 5, or 0, or 23 or 40 degrees Farenheit.

The women who went swimming Feb. 27 at Goodie’s Beach are part of a larger group, the Wicked Nippy Dippahs, who sometimes swim at Ducktrap, in Lincolnville, or other spots along the Midcoast.

Just the day prior, Rockport Photographer Peter Ralston had taken a picture of the entire group, 18 women and one man.

“You can find us on Instagram,” they laugh, again. In fact, they don’t stop laughing, because the morning is beautiful, albeit cold, and they are in high spirits. The day stretches out before them – some work in the schools, others in office jobs – and this is the likely one time they can cut loose with exhilaration. 

And they do sound like 9-year-old girls as them stride into the sea. On Feb. 27, the ocean is calm and brilliantly blue. Coleman and her friends, Jesse Odgren and Caroline Moore, move deeper into the cold winter ocean.

“Were you scratched up yesterday,” they ask each other. “Is your belly scratched?”

“I did think that, when you fell off that piece.”

“Yes, that probably wasn’t smart.”

The ice building over Rockport Harbor was thicker Feb. 26, and they had to climb over and around giant ice slabs.  Plus, the ocean was a little rougher. That’s why the came the next day with the sledgehammer.

What’s the best part of it? Coming out, or going in?

Going in, they all agree.

Do their hearts ever stop?

“No, I don’t think so.”

“We have a pulse.”

Then, they start hammering at the ice. It’s morning. They don’t have forever because they have jobs to go to, and this is part of the daily routine. But they do take time to chat while their in the water, gathering in a circle, women at the sea. There are famous paintings of women gathering in small groups the beach or wading in the ocean, across many centuries — it is something that women naturally do at the ocean’s edge — but it’s a rarity they take a sledgehammer with them so that they can find room amongst small icebergs.

Still, it is the Coast of Maine, where people are attuned to the outdoors in all its weather, and they do like a challenge.

Reach Editorial Director Lynda Clancy at; 207-706-6657