John Robbecke Describes the Polar Bear Plunge

Warning: This post contains a word that, while anatomically correct, may be offensive to some.

When I was talking to John Robbecke today about his putting Al’s Grocery on the market after its 50 years in business (story to run tomorrow), we got to talking about the annual Polar Bear Plunge off the bridge above Olalla Lagoon, across from the store.

John and 10 other charter members of the plunge decided in 1984 to ring in the New Year in a totally new and crazy way. A lot of what he said about the experience of jumping into 52 degree water in the middle of winter, I couldn’t put in the paper or on the web version of the story (only partly because of space constraints). With my assistant editor’s permission, and John’s, I bring you the uncensored version.

“New Year’s Day is kind of amateur drunk day on the couch. If you’re not drinking, what do you do? And if you don’t like sports, you’re pretty out of it. So we said, ‘OK guys, if you have enough testicles, come on down and join us, and we’ll do something different. We thought, at high noon, we’d jump off the bridge.”

John described how “invigorating” it is to feel to icy stab of the water on your various appendages as you jump or cannonball in. “You go, ‘Woah!’ You’re swimming under water before you reach the top. Once you pop out of the surface, you’re like a windmill. Once you get out of the water, you dance around and stand by the bonfire warming your buns and shake out your hair. It’s a fun time.”

Like a class reunion, the event brings together people who only see each other once a year. Some people dress in costumes. John remembers one woman whose marriage had gone sour and who jumped into the salty brine in her wedding gown. Another guy in a business suit set down his briefcase, jumped off the bridge in a businesslike way, calmly swam to shore, picked up his briefcase and drove away without so much as a shiver.

I asked John if anyone ever jumped in the nude. Yes, indeed, he said. However, “They don’t do it again, because if you’re male, and you’re climbing out of that ice cold water, and some woman says, ‘Is that it?’ you ain’t coming back.”

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