Bill’s best: Polar bear swim

Originally published Jan. 2, 2006, in the Cape Cod Times.

Out with the old, in with the really cold

BARNSTABLE – At Millway Beach yesterday, Jimmy Buffett tunes blared over a loudspeaker, young men ogled pretty girls in bikinis, and a pair of kayakers drifted a short way from the shore. All that was needed to make it a perfect summer’s day was an extra 45 degrees tacked on to the 37 that registered on my backyard thermometer.

I’ve always been fascinated by polar-bear swimmers. Last year, I went to Craigville Beach to watch the first-day dippers and spotted my buddies Jay, Swainer and Teddy as they sprinted out of the water. If I’d seen them earlier, I probably would have stripped down to my flannel skivvies and joined them. So this time around I decided to give it a try.

First, I did a little carbo loading (beer, pizza and cookies) at Swainer’s New Year’s Eve barn bash.

Then I started New Year’s Day with my breakfast of champions: coffee, a bagel, a grapefruit and scrambled eggs with diced jalapeno peppers – just to prove to myself that I could handle the day.

I considered wearing just my swimsuit for the annual Barnstable Harbor New Year’s Day Splash, but wondered if I should wear a shirt to cover my pale beer belly. Of course, that would be all the more wet clothing clinging to me in the cold air. Vanity won out, but I chose an old mesh track singlet that wouldn’t absorb much water.

As folks gathered at the beach for the 1 p.m. plunge, a polar-bear veteran told me, ”If you can do this, there’s nothing you can’t do during the following year.”

And then someone on a loudspeaker asked, ”Is everybody ready?”

I pulled off my parka, shoes, socks and sweatsuit and stood ready on the beach. Five minutes later, I asked my dad – who’d skipped the Patriots kickoff to photograph his ”crazy son” – what time it was.

12.55 p.m.

It was a bad moment to be early for one of the few times in my life. My bare toes had already passed from uncomfortably cold to icicle brittle.

And did I mention the water was about 39 degrees?

I’ve always been one for the dive-in-and-get-it-over-with technique, and I had plenty of company yesterday. I started to yell ”Geronimo!” when my feet hit the water, but it came out more like ”Ger-ai-yeeeeee!”

And I thought I’d have hyper-awareness at this kind of once-in-a-lifetime moment. Wrong. The only sensation I felt as my body hit the water was a screaming message from my brain: ”What the … !”

Once I’d plunged in, I figured I should swim a few strokes. But the common sense portion of my brain took over. I suddenly found myself standing up, turning around and dashing back to shore.

And then my brain slowed down enough to start interpreting incoming signals. My head was a giant ice cube, my fingers were burning, my back was tingling in an oddly pleasant way, and little pinpricks of pain were dancing around nerve endings I’d never known – the ones between the second and third toes, for instance.

When we were all out of the water, everyone seemed to be smiling. Then again, sometimes a grimace looks a lot like a smile. But after this, the rest of the year’s going to be easy, right?