Commencing in 2012, Point Defiance Marina has hosted a Polar Bear Plunge each New Year’s Day and ever since then Tacomans have enjoyed this crazy and chilly way of celebrating the beginning of a new year. The City of Destiny has thus joined the ranks of localities in which citizens are able to make a splash or take a flying leap into a cold body of water. In some places, this annual tradition is decades old. New York’s Coney Island Polar Bear Club, for example, has hosted cold water plunges since 1903. Seattle has held an annual New Years day plunge since 1993. The Polar Bear Plunge is a way to symbolically wash away the grime of the old year so that one may emerge alert, energized and ready for another circuit around the sun.
Point Defiance Marina’s boat launch is a great location for the event since it allows participants to either go down the ramp and into the water bit by bit or take a leap off the dock where the water is deep.
I have participated in Tacoma’s Polar Bear Plunge every year since its inception. In the inaugural year I was a “gradualist,” walking down the ramp. I thought that it would be best to ease myself into the cold water bit by bit. Ever since then, however, I’ve gone along the dock to where the water is deep so that I can make a flying leap. (I’m told to do that often enough.) My philosophy is simple: Once you’re in the air over the water, you’re committed. There is no going back. You are going to make a splash and you’re going all the way under.
This year was the coldest yet with air temperature at a brisk 33 degrees. The water was reported to be 44 degrees. I confess that I experienced a bit of trepidation. Even when I swam in the Sound during the summer I had to catch my breath before I got used to the temperature. While reassuring in a way, the presence of the frogman in full scuba gear was a reminder that the authorities were ready to help anyone that found themselves in trouble. There were also tons of lifeguards from the Metro Parks system on hand.
Yet, despite the chilly air, the sun felt good on the back of my bare legs as I waited for the countdown for the first wave to jump in at noon. There had already been a “Cub Plunge” for the kids at 11:30 a.m. Participants 10 and under can go down the boat ramp and into the water. Some go with more gusto than others. Some just get their feet wet but others take the full plunge. (The marina provided floatation vests to any who desired to wear one.) The Point Defiance Pirates led by Captain Graybeard also made one of their members “walk the plank.”
One of the pirates used his musket as the signal for participants to make the plunge. There were a total of 450 participants and almost that many more on hand to watch. Plungers were sent in waves so that everyone had the chance to jump. Some went more than once.
I was able to take the leap in the first wave. There was the count down and then the gun went off. Amid the general cheers I shouted “Happy New Year!” and jumped out over the cold, greenish water as high as I could go. Then I was down in the weird and wonderful world under the sea. When I came back up, the water was churning with flailing bodies. The calm, surface was now the gray-white color of the rivers flowing with silt right off the glaciers of Mount Rainier. I side-stroked toward dry land, giving off an enthusiastic yelp before stepping out. The water was cold, but it never seems as much of a shock as I expect.
The marina provided changing tents, heated tents, hot refreshments and snack bars. The heated tent with its strong heaters was especially welcome. Participants could purchase commemorative T-shirts announcing to the world that they had “survived the Polar Bear Plunge.” Metro Parks also handed out free gift bags that contained discount coupons to the zoo, pens and clip-on lights. What a deal.
Once in warm, dry clothing again, I enjoyed watching subsequent waves of plungers and overhearing people’s excited recitations of their personal experiences. There is also a sense of satisfaction at having plunged into the cold depths and coming out feeling invigorated. If 2015 is kind, I will be back to welcome 2016 the same way again. This is a New Year’s tradition that I very much enjoy.