Minutes before noon on Friday, more than 100 people stripped down to their bathing suits and lined up along the edge of Ocean Beach, doing jumping jacks to keep warm. A few left on clothes, while one man opted to go nude. Several wore party hats or swim caps.
“Are you ready for 2016?” Jean Fontana, who has been responsible for the official countdown to noon at the annual Polar Plunge event since 2011, shouted into a bullhorn.
“Yes!” the crowd screamed back amid loud cheers.
Fontana began the countdown to zero from 10, and soon those who had traveled to Ocean Beach on Friday morning found themselves plunging into the frigid waters for San Francisco’s sixth annual New Year’s Day Polar Plunge.
Mike Sheffield, a Redwood City resident participating in the event Friday for the first time with his two brothers and father, led the pack of plungers as the first to immerse himself in the waves.
“It was not warm,” Sheffield exclaimed with a laugh when he came back ashore with his family. “It was refreshing, though.”
For many, this year’s event was also bittersweet. Participants in the Polar Plunge in past years have often flocked to the Riptide either before or after the event, but the nearby Sunset district watering hole – located on Taraval Street between 46th and 47th avenues – was severely damaged in a blaze Aug. 18, 2015, and won’t reopen until the spring.
“This year is extra special since the Riptide is not there,” said Fontana, who also is a manager and bartender at the Riptide. “It’s just fun to see a bunch of faces that you haven’t seen since August.”
Eddie Clark, another longtime and self-described “eager and exuberant” Polar Plunger, said the grassroots event began in San Francisco in 2010 when two friends dared each other to jump into the ocean on New Year’s Day.
“Then word of mouth spread at the Riptide bar, and a group started from there, and then people just started showing up,” Clark said.
Other San Francisco residents, like Helen Wo, decided to take the plunge Friday after participating in a similar activity in the Atlantic Ocean on the East Coast in 2013.
“I knew about it from being in New York, I was wondering if they had it here,” Wo said. “I typed in ‘Polar Bear Plunge San Francisco,’ and found this one.”
Friday’s crowd was smaller than last year’s, which drew an estimated several hundred plungers. Fontana said it was likely the lack of the Riptide bar, where friends would dare each other to take the plunge, that led to a smaller gathering.
The water temperature measured approximately 54 degrees, according to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, around the same as last year’s estimated 56 degrees in the ocean at noon on New Year’s Day.