Story by Bonnie Washuk/Staff Writer • Photos by Sofia Aldino/Staff Photographer

SOUTH PORTLAND — Many people were outside shoveling snow on Sunday. Hundreds of others came to Willard Beach to take a dip.

The March sun was warm and the sound of the surf filled the air. The temperature on the beach was 39 degrees with a breeze. The water temperature was also 39 degrees.

An estimated 200 or more women participated during the third annual Two Maine Mermaids International Women’s Day dip, organized by cold-water dippers Caitlin Hopkins of Portland and Kelsy Hartley of Edgecomb.

At 12:20 p.m., the dippers took off their pants, coats and sweatshirts, revealing bathing suits, bare legs and arms. Organizer Hartley, wearing a two-piece bathing suit, ran across the length of the beach cheering and carrying hula hoops decorated with streamers. The women cheered as Hartley dashed across the sand.

At 12:30, the participants held hands and formed a long line stretching across the beach.

They walked slowly into Casco Bay, laughing, smiling, hooting and hollering. When they got waist deep, they stopped, many raising their arms triumphantly. A few dove in. Others did the crawl.

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Some dashed back out of the water to the refuge of coats and blankets spread out on the sand. Others lingered in the water for 10 minutes or more.

“(It) was cold!” said Justina Lowe of South Portland after she reached her blanket and dried off. The energy from all the others encouraged her to get in the water, she said. She decided to join others after her friend invited her.

“Everything hurts, but we did it!” she said. “I figured it was a great way to get together with women who are strong and unite together, and do something badass and crazy!”

Her daughter Ryan Lowe, 10, said she went inas deep as her shoulders. “It was really, really cold,” Ryan said. “I’m glad I did it. It felt bad and good at the same time.” The 10-year-old said she wanted to take part in the International Women’s Day dip because March is Women’s History Month, “and women are not treated the same as men.”

Women gathered at Willard Beach for a cold plunge to celebrate International Women’s Day on Sunday.

While women get ready for a dip to celebrate International Women’s Day, Kelsy Hartely, 39, from Two Maine Mermaids runs down Willard Beach to get people ready on Sunday.

People gathered at Willard Beach for a cold plunge to celebrate International Women’s Day on Sunday.

Organizers Hopkins and Hartley started dipping in 2020 as a way to get outside and get through the pandemic. Eventually, they started calling themselves “The Two Maine Mermaids” and created a web page inviting others into their cold-water community.

Hartley started cold-water dipping to improve her mental health during the pandemic. Since then, she said, dipping has created a community to share their love of the ocean. “We just love the connection it brings,” Hartley said.

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The first time she tried to go into the cold water, “it took me a few times to get in.” When she did emerge, “I came up laughing. I felt better than I ever felt. It’s so empowering that you can do this hard thing.”

The mermaids and their friends dip often, year-round, to celebrate full moons, birthdays, special events, the solstices.

But their biggest cold water dip of the year was this one, honoring International Women’s Day, March 8, a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. The day marks a call to action to create a more inclusive world, celebrate women’s achievements and raise awareness against bias.

“This is our little Maine version of it,” Hopkins said.

Most who dipped Sunday were women, but everyone was welcome and some men went in, including Cory Sims of Portland. “This is my first time,” he said. Sims joined to honor women. “We need to do this for the women! They give us life, so I can jump in cold water for them.”

Debi Siriana said she drove two hours from Massachusetts on Sunday after “getting roped in to join.”

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“I’m a first-time dipper. This sounded like my kind of party,” she said with a laugh, showing off her leopard bathing suit and red tutu.

Her friend, Lori Heyler, also of Massachusetts and wearing a red tutu, said she belongs to a cold-water dipper group in her community. She started what some call a practice “for winter depression and arthritis. It’s helped me fabulously with both,” Heyler said. “There’s chemical changes when you do the cold shock. When first going into the cold, the first few minutes are hard,” she said. “After that, you relax into it. I usually stay in 10 minutes.” On weekends when she cold-water dips, “I have more energy. I get more done.”

Women gathered at Willard Beach for a cold plunge to celebrate International Women’s Day on Sunday.

The Cold Water Queers gathers for a cold plunge. The group meets every other Sunday wherever they can find cold water.

Cold-dippers plunge into the water at Willard Beach in South Portland to celebrate International Women’s Day on Sunday.

While many said the dips have benefits, Hopkins said it should be done carefully. “Our body goes through some pretty extreme changes. We recommend a slow, steady walk into the water, which gives a body’s nervous system a chance to acclimate.”

People with heart conditions or other risks should check with their doctor before cold-water dips, she said.

Rachel Reinke of Portland said she grew up in Georgia. After moving to Maine, “I couldn’t even go in the ocean in the summer in Maine. It was too cold.”

She and Julianne Siegfriedt, also of Portland, started doing cold-water dips in November.

“Now it’s part of our routine,” Reinke said. “It feels like a release and incredible to have done it. It feels like a total natural high when you’re outside of the water.”

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