Newcomer, veteran polar bear swimmers brave waters on New Year’s Day 

click to enlarge polar bear plunge
  • Mike Koozmin/The S.F. Examiner
  • Hundreds of people made a dash into the chilly waters of the Pacific Ocean on Wednesday.
All that separated the crowd of scantily clad revelers — several donning Santa Claus hats — from Ocean Beach’s shore Wednesday morning was a line in the sand.

Behind that line stood Jean Fontana, 36, bullhorn in hand and a grip of keys attached to her belt. The bullhorn was for the countdown and the keys, well, she was holding them for a handful of people who planned to brave the cold water, said Fontana, who works at the Riptide, a nearby bar where the event was loosely organized.

“No one died” last year, she joked. “There was only one naked person.”

Just one of many annual New Year’s Day plunges, or polar bear dips, the Taraval Street plunge was one part hangover cure, one part celebration of the new year and, finally, one part stunt.

As they awaited the noon kickoff, the roughly 50 participants — not including hangers-on — fidgeted and hopped on the beach, facing the unforgiving waves of the 55-degree Pacific Ocean.

One of those revelers, Ben Kantor, 29, said it would be his first and last time running into the ocean on New Year’s Day. “I don’t think I’ll do it again,” he said.

It was also Noel Dellofano’s first dip. The 35-year-old, who wore a panda bear hat, said she learned about the event at the Riptide. But her companion, Eric Chapweske, 29, was a veteran.

“I’ve done it in Finland,” he said. “My body went numb … there was some ice.”

For Rakeo Kimura, 38, of San Jose, Wednesday’s plunge would be his second. No taller than his knees, his son Keiju was coming along this year too. As for his wife and younger son, they’d be waiting on the beach.

“Some people take off all their stuff,” Kimura said. “That’ll make it interesting.”

Jenna Milligan, 31, and Brooks Jenkins, 30, stood on the beach in tutus. Jenkins said Milligan persuaded him to wear the tutu while drinking on New Year’s Eve.

“I’ve felt better,” Milligan said. “I feel like I got hit by a mule.”

Just before noon Fontana’s crackly, bullhorn-powered voice boomed across the crowd: “Friends and neighbors, you guys ready?”

A resounding cheer came back as a reply: “Yeah!”

Then the countdown: 10, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one ...

And they surged down the beach, screaming and cavorting as their bodies hit the cold water and they lurched into the waves.

Axel Kaschner strode across the beach in his blue-and-white checkered Speedo, one of the last to emerge from the water.

“We are used to the cold,” said the German. But he admitted the water was particularly cold. “If you put your head underwater, you get a headache.”

About The Author

Jonah Owen Lamb

Jonah Owen Lamb

Born and raised on a houseboat in Sausalito, Lamb has written for newspapers in New York City, Utah and the San Joaquin Valley. He was most recently an editor at the San Luis Obispo Tribune for nearly three years. He has written for The S.F. Examiner since 2013 and covers criminal justice and planning.
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