Yesterday was a red-letter day at the Dolphin Swimming and Boating Club. At midnight the window closed for completing this season’s Polar Bear Challenge, aka the “Polar Bear.” (sometimes shortened to “PB.”) Since the PB captures major mind share of many Club members including the writer’s, and also might be interesting to others, I thought it worthy of a couple of blog entries.
Polar Bear FAQs:
What is the Polar Bear Challenge?
It is an annual Dolphin Club tradition (since 1974) during which a member may strive to swim, over the 91 or 92 day period from December 21 through March 21 of the following year, 40 miles in San Francisco Bay.
Around the Dolphin Club, what is a “Polar Bear?”
Reaching 40 miles during the season. i.e. “I got my Polar Bear.” Or “I’ve done 24 straight Polar Bears.” (as the author has, as of Feb. 22nd). A Polar Bear may also refer to a person.
Who keeps track of miles and how?
The 40 mile goal is tracked by each member marking squares, 4 to a mile, on a chart posted near the Club’s front door. The honor system is in effect with each member responsible for posting his or her mileage.
Why is called a “Challenge?”
In a normal winter most humans find the San Francisco Bay water temperature to be cold*. In the Polar Bear Challenge, for miles to count toward the 40 mile goal, they need to be done without a wetsuit or swim aids. The cold water makes the mileage requirement a challenge, hence the name.
(For a more nuanced explanation, see “The Polar Bear Challenge” by my friend, Larry Scroggins.)
*Typically, the water temperature is in the low 50’s F in late December, drops into the high 40’s for January and returns to the low 50s in February and then rises to the low to mid 50’s at March 21.
How many members do the PB?
In a typical year, hundreds of the Club’s 1400 members put their name on the mileage chart, some just for fun. Usually 100-150 members complete the Polar Bear.
What apparatus is allowed?
Swim cap, neoprene cap, goggles, and ear plugs are all allowed. Pretty much everyone finds the cold water more tolerable and enjoyable wearing the aforementioned. Wearing a wetsuit or fins during a swim precludes any of it from counting as PB mileage.
To pursue a Polar Bear, at any one time how long can one swim in the cold water?
Wearing the above apparatus, most participants can, using some willpower, swim for 30 minutes plus or minus. Some may swim 45 minutes or more. At 60 or so minutes almost everyone will become at least mildly hypothermic.
What about hypothermia?
Mild hypothermia is fairly common and each winter (except this past one) at least several members push themselves to severe hypothermia, which can result in a call for emergency medical help, an evacuation by ambulance, and a big bill ($2000 or so) for the emergency medical services.
Are there other risks?
While hypothermia is the most common risk, other known risks include heart and panic attacks, collisions with fixed objects or other swimmers, and being bit by a seal or sea lion. In the winter of 2008-2009 there was an unusually large number of brown pelicans in the area – when the herring were running in the bay, dive bombs by pelicans were an
additional risk; there were no reported stabbings but many close calls, as this Dolphin Log cover attests. (the entire Log archive may be accessed through the Dolphin Club website , http://dolphinclub.org, or by clicking here.
What about this year?
As of the date of this post, results are being tabulated and will be made public in a week or two. One thing everyone knows is how warm the water was this winter, never below 53F. This is easily the warmest winter water in anyone’s memory. Reasons postulated for this very abnormal year include: a) lack of precipitation, especially snow in the Sierra Nevada, which melts to make for cold water flowing into SF Bay; b) unusual ocean winds and/or currents preventing normal upwelling. Given such a warm winter, an expected result would be greater participation with more members reaching the exalted status of “Polar Bear.”
Is the Polar Bear enjoyable?
Generally speaking, yes – otherwise it wouldn’t be as popular as it is. Even so, for some participants, especially late in the winter, the PB takes on a more tortuous persona, especially if the 40 mile threshold is within reach and the March 21 end date is approaching. As March 21 approaches, many members have been known to double or triple dip (swim 2-3 times/day, sauna in between) or even sleep at the club to ensure the time to reach 40 miles by midnight, March 21.* However, even if there are real hardships in completing a PB, there are major rewards: the satisfaction, the health benefits, the joy of immersing oneself in a natural environment shared with others and the camaraderie when recounting it with others.
*some double or triple dip routinely. Joe Illick, PB champion at least 5 times (as a senior!) double dips during PB season almost daily. Another recent PB champion, John Nogue, resided over an hour away and had to fully utilize his 2-3 visits/week by swimming (or warming up) much of each day he visited the Club. See http://dolphinclubchronicles.blogspot.com/2012/03/2012-polar-bear-results.html
What can you say about those who choose to participate?
First, some people just can’t resist a challenge. (At least for certain things like the Polar Bear, that includes me.) Second, swimming and striving for a PB seems to provide a “rush” of sorts, which seems to become addictive over the season. The rush may be physiological and/or it may be related to the pleasure one gets from marking one’s miles on the chart. (editor’s note, based on a sauna conversation of Jan 31, 2016: marking those miles up, according to one serious PB, “proves we’re still here.”)
There is a very fine discussion of the PB and some of its mental effects by my fellow Dolphin and good friend, Larry Scroggins, at http://dolphinclubchronicles.blogspot.com/2012/03/jonesing-for-squares.html
Do participants cheat or mark up imaginary miles to get to 40?
In my opinion, not much if at all. From discussions in the sauna, which in season almost always touch on water temperatures and the Polar Bear, my strong impression is that aspirants make all kinds of sacrifices to reach 40 honestly. They may swim before first light in order to be at work in time. They may drive an hour or more each way each day to get their mile.
What I find interesting about Polar Bear is the interrelation of the honor system used to track miles and the hardship some willingly endure in March to get to 40 miles. It would be easy to “cheat” and just mark up miles but I don’t think that happens very much. Instead, people push themselves to do 40 honorably, and push they do.
Is there competition within a given Polar Bear?
My view is that, except for a few, most participants are competing with themselves. Their goal is to get to 40 miles or their personal goal of x miles. However, as one might expect competitions involving others do take hold. One goal pursued by at least a few swimmers each season is to be PB champion by swimming the most PB miles. Another public competition was established a few years ago, “first to 40.”
Beyond the psychic rewards, are there any other?
Yes! Each successful PB participant receives a small, rectangular slab of marble with his/her mileage noted on an attached plate. The first such piece has a small polar bear token attached.
For each PB season the marble trinkets are distributed in conjunction with an awards dinner, which occurs just a couple of weeks before the next PB, thereby providing a psychological prod to put one’s name on the chart that will be going up December 21 @ 5AM.
Coming soon: Selected PB records and my Polar Bear Hall of Fame.