When it's cold out: polar plunges

North Beach Polar Bear Swim participants run into the Chesapeake Bay.
North Beach Polar Bear Swim participants run into the Chesapeake Bay. (Susan Biddle For The Washington Post)
Friday, January 22, 2010

In January, the Chesapeake Bay is not the sun-flecked beacon it is in summer.

In January, the bay is murky, swollen with melted snow, approximately 37 degrees and entirely unappealing. Unless, of course, you are a polar plunger.

Plungers are the skydivers of the ocean, thrill-seekers who wager that the best way to feel alive with a capital "A" is go for a jaunt in frigid waters, nevermind hypothermia.

Crazy? Very.

Still interested? In the Washington area, there are no fewer than six organized polar plunges in January and February (many of them for charity), and those who participate range from tweens to octogenarians.

"It's scary," admitted Jean Rupard, 80, who plunged for her 13th time this year in North Beach, in Southern Maryland, where a New Year's Day dip into the bay is town tradition. "The rules are you're supposed to go in in a bathing suit, and you're supposed to go completely under, your whole head and everything. Then you can run right out real quick."

Except that it doesn't actually work that way. Though most people are in the water no more than a minute or two, the journey back to the shore is comically slow-motion, as plungers struggle to wade in on legs, feet and toes that have gone numb from cold. And thanks to the icy snap early this month, waters could be colder than in years past -- water temperatures in Annapolis dropped from 51 degrees to 34 degrees between December and the first week of January.

In North Beach, experienced plungers shed sweat pants, jackets and Uggs just moments before dashing into the water, and once they emerged (usually about a minute later), it was quickly into dry clothes and time for a hot drink. In all, it takes just a few minutes to warm up again. Which wasn't enough to convince Jena Rider, who refused to take the leap with her boyfriend, Adam Visteen, explaining that she was a nurse. "You're at risk for hypothermia -- your core body drops below a certain temperature, and you go into that shock," she said, which could lead to bronchitis and pneumonia.

Even if you're in the water for a minute?

"No, probably not as much," she said. "But if you're someone who has a weakened immune system, I would not do this."


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