Islesford’s Calendar Girls Loyal to ‘Dip of the Month Club’

Women commit to a jump in the ocean—each month of the year

story and photos By Jack Sullivan

Istood on the shore of Islesford in early March—five women trying to coax me into the wintry Atlantic water—when a famous quote entered my mind:

“I realize more and more what it takes to be a really good photographer. You go in over your head, not just up to your neck.”

These words belong to Dorothea Lange, legendary photo-journalist and a personal hero of mine. I believe she meant this in a metaphoric sense, but when I found myself documenting the escapades of Islesford’s famous Dip of the Month Club, this quote adopted a literal interpretation.

The Dip of the Month Club has been in action for nearly 20 years, and its mission is simple: take a dip in the ocean once a month, every month. Yes, even in the winter. The club has a rotating cast of dippers—though four women, now in their 60s, make up the original ensemble: Stefanie Alley, the only lobsterwoman at the Cranberry Isles Fishermen’s Co-op; Joy Sprague, the island’s energetic postmistress; Barb Fernald, a talented jeweler and writer; and Cindy Thomas, Islesford’s affable librarian. The newest member, Mary Schuch, 30, was also in attendance for March’s chilly immersion with a commendable showing of endurance as she clocked in more time in the water than anyone else.

five women posed on a beach after taking a swim
Left to right: Stefanie Alley, Joy Sprague, Barb Fernald, Cindy Thomas, Mary Schuch

The club’s origin story is one of impulse. A heatwave in October 2002 inspired the group of women to cool off at the aptly named Sand Beach after a hard day’s work. Everyone who swam on that fateful October afternoon felt so invigorated that one of them even tossed out the suggestion, “Imagine if we did this again next month…”

And here they were, 209 months later, getting ready to complete the ritual again. The dip was on for 1 p.m., and the conditions were ideal. Several variables can interrupt a dip—especially the winter ones. Of course, there’s everyone’s personal schedule to take into account, but they must also consider the tides, the wind, the height of the waves, and even the density of seaweed.

This particular Monday in early March was slated to be calm and unseasonably warm, a perfect opportunity to get the dip done early in the month.

While the air temperature on the day of my visit was in the 50s, the ocean temperature was lagging behind, coming in just shy of 37 degrees. In fact, NOAA reports that the ocean is at its coldest in March (and warmest in September).

On the ferry ride over, I chatted with a few residents of neighboring Great Cranberry Island. When I mentioned the Dip of the Month Club, one of the islanders voiced concern about immune systems being compromised by the cold temperatures. While such concerns are well intended, the Dip of the Month Club is more preoccupied with the feelings of refreshment, vitality, and comradery that its members associate with their monthly ritual.

At about the appointed hour, we disembarked from Barb’s car—deemed “The Dip Mobile” on days like this—and scrambled down onto Sand Beach. The dippers splayed out their towels and hot water bottles and stripped down to their one-piece suits. It was game time.

They didn’t waste any time either. It’s clear that the easiest way to go about this is to get it all over with as quickly as possible. Following a collective, “One… two… three…” came a series of splashes as the dippers sprinted headlong into the cold water. There was one resounding “WHOOO” followed by a cacophony of hoots and hollers as each of the dippers assumed the required position (a dipper must be up to one’s neck and floating horizontally in order to have officially participated in a “dip of the month”). Once everyone was back on the shore, it took all of 30 seconds for the suggestion to arise, “Are we going back in?”

women walking into the ocean

It wasn’t just a double-dip, either. The warm air temperature inspired a triple-dip—an unprecedented occasion for the month of March. It was right before this third dip that the club decided I had taken enough photos. The women thought it was time for me to immerse myself (pun definitely intended) and learn what it meant to be a member of the Dip of The Month Club.

My list of excuses was thin. I already had my trunks on, having waded in up to my knees on the previous two dips to photograph from an optimal position. They had brought an extra towel. And, in all honesty, I’ll do anything just to say I did it.

Those hoots and hollers that could be heard anywhere on the island were not melodramatic at all. In fact, many of them belonged to me. With Dorothea Lange’s words on my mind,
I committed fully. Though it’s not a requisite for becoming an honorary member of the club, I went in over my head.

As I had every square inch of my body submerged in the 36.9 degree salt water, I thought to myself, “Man, these women are crazy.” I lurched out of the water like a humpback whale eager to beach itself, and another thought occurred to me: “It takes one to know one.”


Jack Sullivan is a multimedia storyteller with the Island Institute.