The first day of the new year is usually about hangovers and party cleanups, but in some coastal areas of the Northern Hemisphere it’s also when groups of people run into the ocean for no reason other than doing something on the high end of the stupid scale.
While walking the dog on the beach on New Year’s Eve I saw a billboard announcing “Annual Polar Bear Plunge — January 1 — Main Beach, East Hampton — Benefit: East Hampton Food Pantries.” And this is how I decided to do it: Hmm. Never done this. Sounds like fun. What the hell.
Unlike a foot race or a mountain climb, the plunge demands no special training. In fact the only real endurance involves putting up with friends’ and relatives’ reactions: “You’re an idiot,” “Why would you do that?” along with variations of each.
Another difference between the plunge and other tests of the human spirit is the minimal amount of anticipation involved. I awoke the morning of the event with no actual recollection that in less than five hours I would be running nearly naked into very cold water. It was only after my second cup of coffee that a lonely thought drifted into my consciousness, something like, “It’s January and I need to find a bathing suit.”
With plunge time fast approaching, I sat in front of a plate of scrambled eggs mixed with salmon and sweet onions at Nick and Toni’s, the training table favored by local plungers. Actually I made that up. I really have no idea where plungers eat their last meal prior to plunging, or even if any last meals are involved at all. For all I knew plunging was an activity best done on an empty stomach, with a celebratory meal consumed after its successful completion.
As we drove to the beach my main concern wasn’t how my body would react to plunging into water colder than I have ever experienced, but three thoughts did consume me.
First concern: The polar bear plunges I had seen on television took place in truly nasty winter weather — snow and sleet and wind and such — making the contrast between people in bathing suits and their environment much more dramatic. But today’s weather was cloudlessly sunny, temperature around 45 degrees, with a gentle breeze. Would this be a real plunge or some faux climate-change-diminished castrated version?
Second concern: I had received no coaching and in fact no instructions at all regarding plunging. What was I supposed to do? The TV clips showed a bunch of people running into angry surf, but then what? How long was I supposed to stay in the water? Was I supposed to dive in? What was the minimum plunging standard I was expected to meet to qualify as a plunger?
Last, and probably most important, concern: Why was my girlfriend’s 16-year-old son driving me to the plunge and signaling left when in fact he wanted to turn right?
We arrived along with hundreds of other people, plungers and their support and media teams, parking in a lot much fuller than during the hottest summer beach days. I stripped down to my bathing suit, wrapped myself in a towel, and walked beachward. The amount of actual organization was minimal, basically a rope stretched about a foot off the sand, separating — I’m not sure exactly what from whom. It seemed whoever runs this plunge believes events involving crowds require ropes providing the feeling of planning and organization. As I stepped over the rope I wasn’t exactly sure whether I was entering or leaving a designated area; nevertheless, I was now standing with a whole bunch of other plungers, observers, and pets.
At my age I’m always mindful of doing something for the first time in my life; as one gets older, first experiences are rarer and demand respect and appreciation. Standing barefoot wearing only my bathing suit surrounded by others similarly unclothed, I was aware this was a first for me. Another thought was that in a few minutes I would be very, very cold and uncomfortable, an obvious realization that had somehow eluded me until that moment.
Plunge time approached but I had no idea what actual plunging signal to expect — a gunshot? A flag? A horn? It turned out to be no signal at all; the consensus quickly spread that there wasn’t much point idling around with a bunch of skimpily clad strangers on a chilly beach so if the idea was to get into the ocean then let’s get on with it already. And so we did, running across the few yards of wet sand and splashing into the water, a kind of D-Day in reverse, with bullets of cold water hitting our skin.
I ran as fast as I could until the water reached my waist, at which point I wondered whether I had actually plunged or whether more plunging remained to be done. In that moment it occurred to me that there may be various degrees of plunging ranging from below the waist to chest high to full submersion, and I didn’t want there to be any question but that I did the whole plunge, so I executed a shallow dive to dunk my head and every other body part below waterline, if just for an instant.
There are two points on which I should have received practical information. The first is that the human body is a machine evolved to react in specific ways to various stimuli. One of those stimuli is the rapid application of very cold liquid to a significant portion of the body’s surface area, causing in response an equally rapid and completely involuntary inhalation. Darwin might explain it as a mechanism where the body fights for short-term survival by rapidly filling the lungs with air upon falling into cold water. Maybe it helped our ice age ancestors increase their chances of surviving falls into glaciers, I don’t know exactly.
In my case that mechanism worked perfectly as I plunged into the icy water and involuntarily took a quick and deep breath of . . . seawater. First my mouth tasted it, then my throat was chilled by it, and finally my lungs took in an unwelcome half-cup or so of the very cold briny. Immediately I stood up, turned stumbling toward shore, coughing hard while doing my best to appear as competent as possible. Upon making it to dry land I spotted my girlfriend, Nancy, who was carrying my towel and fleece shirt. I ran to her and made fast use of both.
The second relevant point I would have benefited from knowing is that my feet would take the brunt of the experience far more than any other body part. Because they would be immersed in very cold water longest, the blood vessels in the feet would naturally contract as the body preserves heat by keeping it in its core and away from extremities.
Putting on my fleece shirt, wrapping myself in a dry towel, and driving home didn’t take long. The entire experience had been piercingly awakening and electrically enlivening. A big smile was an easy reaction — not just for me but also for everyone else who had plunged.
Upon arriving home I took a long hot shower that unexpectedly caused my feet to sting with chilblains — reaction to the rapid switch between temperature extremes mentioned above. But that soon passed. Back in dry clothes I felt a burning in my throat and lungs as my body did its best to expel what saltwater remained in there.
Finally, just to make sure I’m an actual plunger, I looked up the definition of plunge: “Jump or dive quickly and energetically.” Check the box: I am a Polar Bear Plunger.
Michael Kubin is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and elsewhere. He lives part time in East Hampton.