At The Coney Island Polar Bear Club’s New Year’s Day Swim, thousands of people gather on the beach, wriggle out of their winter clothes like demented Arctic butterflies emerging from cocoons, and rush into the freezing waters of the Atlantic. I’ve wanted to join them for as long as I’ve lived in New York City.
While the Polar Bear Club likes to take an early, private New Year’s dip first thing in the morning (they’re the oldest "winter bathing organization" in the United States, and have been communing with the elements every year since 1903), they invite less-experienced frigid swimmers to join them at 1 p.m. for a “freezin’-for-a-reason” public event that raises funds for Camp Sunshine, a retreat for kids with life-threatening illnesses. (Similar Polar Plunge events happen across the country this time of year.) Here’s what I learned when I took the plunge this year.
As dewy-eyed, frosty-browed Leonardo DiCaprio demonstrated so tragically in Titanic, spending a significant length of time in icy water is a bad idea. Taking a quick dip in the ocean, on the other hand, is a far cry from freezing to death clinging to a raft your beloved could clearly have shared with you if she’d been thinking straight. The Polar Bear Club says none of their members have suffered from hypothermia or frostbite.
That said, the shock of hitting the cold water does cause a spike in heart rate and blood pressure, making a polar bear plunge risky if you have hypertension or a heart condition. The Polar Bear Club recommends that all participants consult a doctor before taking the plunge, and has newcomers sign a liability waiver. They also make sure everyone has a "buddy" to keep an eye on them in the water.
The waiting is the hardest part
I spent my late-morning train ride out to Brooklyn imagining those first electric seconds when my toes would meet the water, and the shock just afterward when I’d duck my head under the waves. That’s the moment of truth, right? Not so much.
Look, just about anyone can scamper into the ocean, turn around, and scamper right back out, even in the dead of winter; it’s essentially a variation on the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. What really sets a large-scale Polar Plunge apart from dumping a bunch of chilly water on your head is the impossibly long wait in a roped-off pen on the beach before you’re given the signal to get moving.
In no version of my plunge fantasies did I imagine losing feeling in my extremities while milling around for half an hour with a bunch of nearly-nude bros in Viking helmets. The 50-degree water was significantly warmer than the 40-degree air that morning; getting the go-ahead to hit the waves was a relief.
In one of my all-time favorite studies, researchers found that volunteers asked to stick their hands in icy water reported less pain and were able to keep going an average of 40 seconds longer when they repeated a swear word of their choice (as opposed to volunteers who chanted a neutral word instead).
Scientists aren’t yet sure why it helps to swear a blue streak—some say it activates fight-or-flight responses, others say it can express camaraderie or defiance—but I can confirm that each of the many, many F-bombs dropped on Coney Island Beach on New Year’s Day generated a little mushroom cloud of warmth for me and my fellow shiverers.
RELATED: 12 Mental Tricks That Fight Pain
Looks matter (but vanity is foolish)
I’m not ashamed to admit that I wanted to look good for my first Plunge; I wore my favorite swimsuit, I gave myself a slick pedicure, and I planned to abandon the thick, goofy socks a more-experienced friend had advised me to wear in the water (the Polar Bears suggest footwear, both for comfort and to protect yourself from nasty shoreline detritus).
When I got to the beach and saw how everyone else had decked themselves out—the fellow in the Princess Leia bikini and earmuff-buns was especially inspirational—I was extra-convinced that my personal game had to be strong. But as soon as I tried to ditch my ugly ski socks and bare my fancy toes, no obscenity I could shout was enough to keep me from freezing.
I tugged the terrible socks back on, ran into the ocean (where the socks ballooned around and comforted my feet like benevolent woolen jellyfish, bless them), and didn’t look back. Then I high-fived a bunch of nearly-nude bros in Viking helmets.
Backup is a must
One of my friends didn’t want to take the plunge herself, but she did want to come along—which was fabulous, both from a moral-support perspective and because she kept an eye on everything the swimmers in our group left on the beach.
She and the rest of the spectators turned out to be unofficial lifeguards, too; no matter how pleasant the water feels (and it truly was delightful), splashing around at the beach in January temperatures scrambles your brain. You need a dry pal to utter those life-affirming words: “Hey, here’s your towel and your pants. Let’s go get a drink to warm up.”