BELFAST, Maine — Every New Year’s Day, Mike Goulart of Belfast digs out his water shoes, dons a silly costume and heads to the boat launch, where he strives to be the first person to get into the frigid ocean during the city’s annual polar dip.
The coldest it’s been outside during his plunge was 3 degrees below zero. That year, sea smoke rose off the water, which registered at a bone-chilling 34 degrees Fahrenheit, but Goulart was undaunted. He stripped down to his bathing suit and waited for the countdown, then dashed into the bay in the company of other brave — or crazy — souls.
“It’s a good way to start the new year,” Goulart said. “I think it’s a fresh way to start it, personally. If you wake up that morning and you’re alive, you might as well go do it.”
He and other polar dip diehards from around the state have some words of advice for those who may be considering taking the plunge for the first time. Perhaps most importantly, according to Pete Didisheim of Brunswick, the senior director of advocacy for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, is to not let your cold-water anxiety get the best of you. For the last nine years, he has taken part in the NRCM’s annual Polar Bear Dip & Dash that takes place on New Year’s Eve at Portland’s East End Beach. He and 11 others were the only ones to take the plunge the first year, but the event has grown to more than 200 people.
Nerves are normal, he said.
“There’s always a period of panic, that sometimes starts days before, for a plunge that lasts only seconds,” he said. “Some of those 11 who have dropped away vowed they would never do it again, because they lost so much sleep.”
If you make it to the day of the event, it’s critical to wear the right clothes, according to Dan Greeley of Belfast, whose late father, Warren Greeley, founded the city’s polar dip nearly 20 years ago.
“Outfit is key,” he said. “You don’t want a bunch of layers, but you do want appropriate layers.”
That means gear that is easy to get on and get off again. When it’s time for the Belfast dip, Greeley sports sweatpants, a big fleece top, a big jacket and easy-on boots. For his part, Goulart said proper footwear is imperative.
“Your feet are the first thing to get cold. If you don’t have something on your feet, you won’t be very happy,” he said. “I’ve done it barefoot, and it was terrible.”
As soon as the disrobed polar plungers are in the crowd, waiting for the countdown, something generally happens that supersedes an instinct for self-preservation, Greeley, Didisheim and others said.
“There is an energy with the people who are doing it and the people who are in the crowd,” Greeley said. “It makes the plunge easier. Everyone is screaming, and the crowd is going crazy.”
Didisheim confirmed this.
“In an official polar plunge you have to go under the water. I dive in. You have to dive in,” he said. “Then you scream. I think there’s something about ending the year, maybe this year more than ever, in which a full body scream feels really appropriate.”
Then they run out, perhaps even faster than they run in.
“By the time you’re in the water, you basically feel the life sucking out of your body,” Greeley said. “Your body knows that if you stayed in the water, you would die.”
But after getting out, drying off with a towel and getting those layers back on, something amazing happens.
“You go from the edge of death to feeling euphoric, and that’s the truth,” Greeley said.
“After you’ve gotten your feet in some boots, the body actually feels really great. The blood is rushing to try and save you from death. It feels really good. I think that’s probably why the Scandinavians and others do this cold plunge. It really gets your blood surging. And maybe with the passage of time you forget how cold it was. You remember the warm glow that started half an hour later. Your body feels alive. If there was any part of your body that was sleeping, it’s woken up.”