Polar Bear Plunge: baby, it's cold outside


53 degrees - that's the water temperature of San Francisco Bay on New Year's Day.

51 degrees - that's the air temperature at San Francisco's Aquatic Park at 10 am New Year's Day.

Another challenge from The List of 65 is a polar bear plunge – the deliberate act of jumping into a cold body of water on New Year's Day. In this case, the cold body is San Francisco Bay.

I stride along the sidewalk at Aquatic Park trying to warm up and work up the nerve to jump in on the only day of the year I can complete a polar bear plunge. I grew up in San Diego and enjoyed 72˚ water in the surf at OB. If it dropped to 68˚, we built sandcastles instead of braving the water. At 53˚, this will be a challenge.

Survival in frigid water is just a matter of time; the colder the temp, the shorter the time before you succumb. At 53˚F, you lose manual dexterity within 10-15 minutes. You go numb and lose consciousness within 60 minutes. If you are unfortunate enough to drop into 40˚ water, those times are halved.

On New Year’s Eve I signed up online for a group plunge counting on safety in numbers. With a scheduled feet-in at 10am, either I have the wrong time, or everyone else is hung over in a warm bed. I walk to Fisherman's Wharf and back. The beach is still empty.

I see a group on the bleacher seats toweling off and dressing, but no wannabe polar bears. These people look like pros - no screaming, no shivering, and barely any clothes on as they talk calmly with one another. I read later they were a group of 128 people who swim from Alcatraz Island to San Francisco as a New Year's Day ritual. For the winner, it was like a 1.2 hour walk in the park. For me it will be a first time experience counted in seconds.

Cheryl is teaching a morning yoga class so I'm alone with no one to boost my courage or to contradict if I said I did, but didn't. But The List won't let me do that and I'm not going to wait for the polar bear wannabes. I step to the edge of the concrete and off go the sweatshirt, pants and shoes. All I have on is a pair of worn out gym shorts.

I cross the sand into the water without hesitation until I can dive under the surface. I swim out 30-40 yards, dive again, and turn around. I swim in, go back out and dive again. Other than the initial shock of cold water, it wasn't bad. According to the survival chart, I have 5-10 minutes before problems with dexterity and shrinkage start.

I swim back to the beach. I only lasted 2 minutes but it’s 90 seconds longer than I thought I could endure. Oddly, it actually feels good once out of the water. I'm not shivering, I'm not screaming, and I have enough dexterity to take a selfie documenting it for The List.

Walking back to the car, the belated polar bear wannabes pose for a group selfie before plunging in. For most it is a quick 30-second in and out. I feel good about my 2 minutes.

#scholarship #ceres

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