Calvin Zaiko's Fitness Gambit Is Hypothermic

By CHRIS BURRELL

Innkeeper, guitar player and come mid-January, Calvin Zaiko would also have to be considered something of a daredevil.

His feat? Swimming seven days a week in the ocean waters just across the street from his home on Seaview avenue, Oak Bluffs.

"It's like jumping into a glass of shaved ice," he says yesterday morning after two laps in Nantucket Sound. Time in the water totals just about 12 minutes.

But make no mistake, this week posed quite the challenge for Mr. Zaiko, not only to his determination but also for the $400 worth of gear he bought last fall in a bold attempt to prolong his swimming habits.

As temperatures dropped into the teens and rose no higher than the mid-twenties, the question dogging this winter swimmer was whether three to five millimeters of neoprene - wetsuit, hood, mitts and booties - could truly withstand plunging into water more fit for a penguin than a person.

Water temperature right now stands at 36 degrees, according to the National Weather Service. But as Mr. Zaiko, 53, emerges from the ocean yesterday, he reports proudly that his mission is accomplished. "I think I got it beat," he says. "Seeing as how we're in mid-January, I think I'll make it 'til I can just jump in with my swimsuit on."

Mr. Zaiko is one of those Tisbury Inn refugees, displaced by the 2001 fire that destroyed not just the inn but also the bustling health club that housed the Island's one and only public indoor swimming pool.

"I used to swim at the Tisbury Inn until it burned down. It's a bummer," he says.

He has spent the better part of the last 30 years living in this house that looks out over the water. As a kid, he came to this house in the summers and learned to swim on the very beach that now lies hard and crusty under the polar wind.

Maybe it was all those winters staring out at the ocean that finally won him over, beckoning him into the water.

"It's a shame to have this natural resource, usable for 150 days of the year, and not be able to use it for the other 200 days," he says. "You look at the ocean and say, ‘Hey, why not go in?' "

Well, at least that's how Mr. Zaiko sees it. His family members have their doubts. "My wife thinks I'm nuts," he admits. His 23-year-old son, who lives in Boston but has been visiting for the week, just looks at his Dad in disbelief: "You're going swimming?"

Still, Mr. Zaiko says, plenty of friends proclaim they would love to join him on one of these Siberian excursions. "I say, ‘Okay, see you at 9:30 in the morning,' but there's nobody there."

Elaine Barse, owner of The Green Room, the surf and skateboard shop in Vineyard Haven that outfitted Mr. Zaiko, says her customer is truly in the minority.

"There's been been a lot of interest in trying to swim in the winter," she says, "but when the reality kicks in, you have to be really dedicated. The water is cold, and then there's the air and the wind chill."

Most winters, there's a cadre of diehard surfers, undeterred by 35-degree water temperatures, says Ms. Barse, but they're also pulling on beefier wetsuits, typically six millimeters thick.

Mr. Zaiko opted for the thinner layer of neoprene to gain more upper body flexibility. But after the investment of money and bravura, the payoff is obvious.

"It puts a new light on the day," he says, while he polishes off an apres-swim breakfast of poached eggs, fried potatoes and hash at Linda Jean's Restaurant.

You can tell that Mr. Zaiko is proud of his singular achievement. How many people can turn their faces to a bitter wind and say, "I went swimming today in this."

The beach lies just across the street from The Beach House, the inn that Mr. Zaiko has owned and run for the better part of the last 30 years. He inherited the house from his grandfather.

Clearly, this stretch of beach couldn't feel more familiar. "I learned how to swim here when I was just two and a half," he says.

A lap for Mr. Zaiko consists of swimming between two jetties. In summer, he'll do three turns for a total of six laps. But in winter, the routine calls for just two laps.

He wears a mask and snorkel, limiting skin exposure to just a few stripes and patches around his mouth and forehead. He won't swim when the wind blows in hard from the east because the current pushes on his hood and mask, increasing the likelihood of leaks.

Mr. Zaiko wastes no time waffling over whether to dive in. He hustles across the road, looking like some misguided frogman who escaped from the asylum. Once on the beach, he strides quickly into the ocean and dives in.

"There's that little trickle of ice down your back at first," he says. "But it warms up fast and you're fine."

Weighing in now at 170 pounds, Mr. Zaiko actually put on 25 pounds since making the commitment last summer to a daily swim. He clutches a bicep just to feel the tangible proof of his added muscle mass.

"This is maintenance," he adds. "And it's kind of an adventure."

Mr. Zaiko likes the fact that it's daring. He comes out of the water huffing and grimacing a little as he pulls off his mask and the ice-cold air hits his wet face.

"Even if Ann Mechur ever gets her aquatic center, I don't know," he says. "I'm kind of hooked on this."