The Coney Island Polar Bear Club is the oldest winter bathing club in the world. Established in 1903, its members meet every year on the first Sunday of November to begin their weekly swims off the jetty of the New York Aquarium, which continue until April. The group has gained fame for its New Year’s Day Polar Bear Plunge, attended by thousands of New Yorkers. However, as President Dennis Thomas explains to Beth Pearson, the magic is in the weekly rituals and diverse membership.
We have a lot of business to take care of as the season begins. First, we have an amazing partnership with the NY Aquarium who allows us to use their facility to meet and change every Sunday from November through the end of April. And the Aquarium provides support staff during our swims, so we have to make sure that is in place as November approaches. We have to ensure that our insurance coverage is up to date, required by the NYC Parks Department because we swim on a public beach. We always have merchandise for our members: t-shirts, sweatshirts etc., so it’s checking inventory etc. There’s outreach to members, so everyone is clear on dates and times. And well before our swimming season begins, we are organizing efforts for our annual New Year’s Day Plunge. Park Dept. permits, fundraising website, life guards, emergency personnel, media outreach, sponsorship, more merchandise which we sell, coordination with police precinct. The list is endless.
I have been president for probably 15 years, and I see my role as doing three things. First, provide the best winter swimming experience to our members, full stop. Second, manage the details of our New Year’s Day Plunge – it is part of New York City tradition. Third, contribute to the history of weirdness that makes Coney Island what it is.
Right now we have about 130 members, and have about 80-100 show up on any given Sunday. Each season we assess the membership situation. We have limited space in our changing facility dictated by fire department regulations. We lose a few members every year. Each season we figure out how many new members we should add and do it through a lottery system. Also, we allow spaces for references from current members. A few years ago we simply had open membership to all comers, and found two drawbacks. First, our space got over-crowded. But more importantly, there were so many newcomers that we lost a sense of community and cohesion as a Club. It felt like we were overrun by strangers and nobody new anyone else. So we restrict membership to numbers we can reasonably handle that ensures a strong bond among members.
We have an extremely diverse group of participants. Old, young, gay straight, male, female (probably 40% female at least), vegans, hipsters, hardcore enthusiasts, motorcyclists, teachers, lawyers, professional people, former policemen, blue collar workers, chefs, film-makers, photographers, subway workers, Republicans, Democrats, anarchists – you name it. And the most amazing thing is that these people who wouldn’t cross paths in day-to-day life in NYC, people who might not speak to each other because of their diverse backgrounds, come together for this activity and joyously respect one another and bask in the opportunities of our weekly swims. I’ve never seen anything like it. I think the activity is so extreme and intense that nothing else matters. And this perspective wasn’t cultivated by our leadership, it seems to have arisen spontaneously.
“…the most amazing thing is that these people who wouldn’t cross paths in day-to-day life in NYC, people who might not speak to each other because of their diverse backgrounds, come together for this activity and joyously respect one another”
We used to be considered quite an oddity. And in the past, when we were infrequently covered in the new media, it was a chance for a few giggles at these weirdos between the weather report and the sports. But lately, since we have become better known and our New Year’s Day Plunge attracts thousands of participants and tens of thousands of spectators, we have been seen as more of an interesting phenomenon. We have even been given a modicum of respect and not made a laughing stock.
Further, with the fundraising we have done for local community organisations on New Year’s we have gained some wider respect. Lastly, with a heritage that runs back to 1903, people have come to respect us as the oldest living landmark at Coney Island.
Yes, the New Year’s Day Plunge is the highlight of the season, thousands of New Yorkers show up to participate in this annual tradition. It is our gift to New York City, and we receive lots of support from the community to make it possible. But once it is over, the Club enjoys having the beach to ourselves every Sunday, out of the reach of the media. We own that beach in the winter.
We generally always swim in the same location, the jetty in front of the NY Aquarium. Our swims average around 10 minutes, sometimes shorter if it is deep February and that wind is howling, or longer on a calm day when the sun is out. We have our rituals, which have been in place for the 35 years in which I have been associated with the Club. They may sound silly, but over the years I have learned how important they are to our cohesion as a Club. They structure our time together and set our activities apart from the rest of our normal activities. We walk down to the beach promptly at 1pm every Sunday. We form a circle and do some jumping-jacks accompanied by a chant that differs every week to establish a cadence. Then it’s into the water. Once everyone is in, we form a huge circle (again, up to 100 participants each week) holding hands. I guess this is when all these diverse weirdos bond. Then it is an open swim. We do not make this a competitive exercise; this isn’t about who is more macho or who can stay in longer and suffer the most. Everyone is free to get out when they choose, there is no shame. We do this for fun, and I tell first timers to stay in as long as they enjoy it. If it isn’t fun, get the hell out and find something that is fun. This isn’t about suffering.
After, people go back to our clubhouse and dry off and change. There is no prescribed ritual after this, although it is common for various people to congregate somewhere for hot soup, coffee, pizza or a beer after we’re done swimming.
“We walk down to the beach promptly at 1pm every Sunday. We form a circle and do some jumping-jacks accompanied by a chant that differs every week to establish a cadence. Then it’s into the water. Once everyone is in, we form a huge circle, holding hands. I guess this is when all these diverse weirdos bond.”
That’s a good question. I think there is something about the activity, it is extremely intense, it is sheer immediacy and an experience like no other. That’s what keeps me coming back. I think that everyone in the Club also loves the weirdness that is Coney Island, it’s not for everyone.
I get asked this a lot. To be honest, there is little to distinguish one swim from another over the years. It’s you and the ocean. Sometimes there is more wind, less sun, much colder, a little warmer, bigger waves, smaller waves, sometimes fog, sometimes brutal rain, sometimes snow. I overheard one of our members once saying “it never disappoints.” I think that sums it all up. That said, more than once, as we circled up on the beach to do our jumping-jacks, we have had proposals for marriage occur. I think that is a testimony to the role the club has in the emotional lives of our members.