The annual Coney Island Polar Bear Swim seemed to fit the bill. If you got there early enough — like 9am, and donated to the charity they'd partnered with (Camp Sunshine), you could get a breakfast and a T-shirt. (Though the donation for the latter had to be $50, and I only brought $25.) Silly me, I thought: "Well, it's been raining on and off all morning, and it's cold if not freezing, and people are probably hung over, so maybe in addition to the Polar Bear Club folks there'll be about 4 of us there."
Yeah, silly me: I forgot that in New York, there are never just four of you doing anything. Anywhere. At any time.
I got out at the Coney Island stop and wondered if I'd be able to find where I needed to go — Stillwell and the Boardwalk. As if. All I had to do was follow the people, the music, and the big guy dressed up like Neptune. It was closer to 400 than 4 people, and they were all in various states of undress.
The registration table was surrounded by milling throngs; all I had to do was sign a waiver (though I don't know they could exactly prevent you from plunging without it) after which I got a wristband that read "Freezinforareason.com Coney Island, N.Y." My friend Cameron had shown up and duly became the afternoon's official photographers. Some of her photos (mainly of me) have been censored by the appropriate authorities, and you'll have to fork over a lot of cash to see me in a bikini.
Anyway, it wasn't really all that cold out. Misty-rainy, yes. Cold, not so much. The head Polar Bear announced via megaphone that the water temperatures were about 48. Not exactly long-distance swimming temps, but certainly not as bad as it could be. Cameron and I stood around taking pictures, wondering what we should do next, getting undressed (me) and ogling the various people in various forms of swimsuits. One fella had an enormous belly over his trunks; another (non-swimmer, I assume) was dressed like Tony Manero from "Saturday Night Fever," many had on New Year's Eve hats, and I even saw an older gray-haired lady with her neoprene footwear ready to get in. Some smart people brought bath robes, which I will try to remember for next year.
I thought there'd be some kind of order to things — I heard they would blow a conch shell, then the Polar Bears would get in, and then so would the Milling Throngs (TM), of which I was one. But it all kind of went pear-shaped at 1pm when everyone who had already gathered at the water's edge seemed to decide to get in, and there was much splashing and gasping and racing forward.
The beach before:
So, I jumped in. Well, I kind of trotted to the edge (I had on these mesh hiking shoes) and walked in, then did my best to splash around. Took a dive when I could, got completely wet, and immediately began coming back out again, leaving behind many splashers, bathers and other crazy people.
And truth — it wasn't that bad. The only really cold part of me was my feet, which were in the water the longest. It was very, very cold, yes — but once you'd already been used to the air around you and were psyched to get in and do it, well, it was very easy.
In fact, I was already back up and getting toweled down when the call of the conch actually came out and the Polar Bears all trotted down the sand to the water, clearing space as they came — like royalty. And I guess that's cool: They do this for about half of the year, each week. It's their beach for the day. We were just borrowing it.
It all went quite … swimmingly!