Arts and Entertainment

Brrringing in the New Year | 2010 Polar Bear Plunge

More than 100 swimmers braved the cold waters off Bainbridge
More than 100 swimmers braved the cold waters off Bainbridge's Pleasant Beach to ring in the New Year.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

The whitecaps breaking on Bainbridge Island’s Pleasant Beach were none too inviting. The rocky shoreline along the island’s southern coast does not live up to its name in the winter months. And yet there I was, ready to celebrate the new year by running half-naked into those icy waves.

It’s a tradition some islanders have celebrated for 10 years. I was there for the first time. The conditions were perfect for a newbie: A light rain was falling and temperatures were in the mid 40s with a strong, steady wind that made it feel closer to freezing.

“I don’t think we’ve ever had whitecaps before,” said Arnie Sturham, a veteran of the polar bear swim.

I arrived at the end of little Lytle Road, halfway between Lynwood Center and Fort Ward State Park, at about 11:30 a.m. Under my sweats I wore a pair of board shorts. I climbed out of the car and wondered if I was in the right place. One other car sat nearby, and a middle-aged couple strolled along the path leading to the beach. The beach itself was tiny. I couldn’t understand how 100 people were supposed to fit on it without bumping into each other.

I called Brad Camp, the photographer who would be shooting the swim, to make sure I was in the right spot. He showed up a few minutes later and assured me the crowds would soon follow.

“They’re all in their houses, sipping mimosas,” he said. “But they’ll be here.”

Within 10 minutes, people were arriving in droves. I had invited several of my friends and put an announcement on my Facebook page asking anyone reading it to join me. Some friends complained that they hated being cold. Others said they would cheer me on while they sat under blankets at home sipping cocoa. Many just thought the whole idea was ludicrous.

The only one who dared to come along was Tom, a guy who had shot machine guns and flown in an open-air 1963 Huey helicopter with me last October. I had begun to count on him as someone like me: Someone who was willing to do outlandish things just for the experience.

Tom and I sat in our respective cars, keeping warm until five minutes before noon. Then we hopped out in nothing but shorts and sandals to gather with the crowd on the beach.

That five-minute period before the swim was the most grueling part of the whole experience. I shivered uncontrollably as the wind hurled raindrops against my bare skin. I stood close to a small fire Arnie had built, but my upper body continued to freeze while my leg hairs burned.

People began shouting that there was less than a minute until noon. A group of about 60 of us lined up a few feet from the water and counted down the seconds.

“Three, two, one ... Happy New Year!” we shouted 12 hours too late as we charged into the waves.

The shock of hitting the water was hardly any worse than the jolt of diving into a cool lake on a warm summer’s day. The water was no colder than the air outside. But in this case, the water didn’t start to warm up as I waded in.

I hopped forward until the waves were crashing against my waist. Then I dove forward into the next wave to soak myself from head to foot. As soon as I found both my sandals, I trotted back to the beach. The weather now seemed much easier to tolerate, but my toes were starting to lose color, so I grabbed my towel and huddled by the fire.

A gray-bearded man wearing a white hat that looked like a lampshade stood on the beach watching the last few swimmers play in the waves. I was told he was Henry Sharpe, the reigning Polar King. He had stayed in the water longer than anyone else last year, and was waiting to see who he would pass his crown to in 2010.

A little girl, Julia Fradkin, 10, ended up winning the title of Polar Queen, which was somewhat humbling. But, as I told Henry between shivers, “I think that’s a prize I can do without.”

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