A Winter Dip, Wearing the Bear Essentials

The Miramar Club may still be closed, but the Montecito Polar Bear Club lives on. While everywhere in the country members of the winter bathing club are dipping their feet in near-freezing surfs and soaking their bodies in frosty creeks, Montecito swimmers always get a small reprieve – 60-degree ocean water.

A smattering of the local club’s remaining members got in, as they have done for 31 years, at noon on New Year’s Day. And while in New York, participants of the Coney Island Polar Bear Club were staging silent protests over 72-degree temperatures, Montecito swimmers were lapping up the fun.

The annual swim started in the days of the Miramar Beach Club as an informal gathering of members. As more members joined in the annual swim, it became a “club function,” according to group historian, Richard Paine, who was manager of the Miramar Beach and Tennis Club from 1987 until its closure in 2000. The “club function” included hot chocolate, mimosas and tee shirts for the swimmers, with one year's shirt jokingly boasting: “Polar Bear ONE MILE Ocean Swim on New Year's Day.”

The core concept of Polar Bear is that a great year begins with an ocean swim. The Coney Island Polar Bear Club, this nation’s oldest known winter bathing organization, was founded in 1903 by Bernarr Macfadden, a physical fitness and healthy eating advocate who believed bathing in cold water boosted body vitality and stamina.

In Montecito, club members gather at the hotel boardwalk around 11:30 am, and at high noon (rain or shine), the brave pose for some quick photos, them jump in the ocean.

“You were considered a Polar Bear ‘swimmer’ if you got in and got your feet off the sand,” Paine says. “On the nice days, they then warmed up and socialized back on the boardwalk maybe until the start of the Rose Bowl game. We generally had between fifteen to twenty-five swimmers and as many onlookers.”

Paine recounts that he gave up swimming the event about five years ago, “after I got chided by members one time for attempting the event donning a wetsuit,” he says.

The swim is always quick and the whole thing is usually over in about five minutes. A Polar Bear story from not long ago: One year, club member Roger Bingham drove all the way from Ojai to join the swim. At 11:55 am, he got caught behind a freight train at the Miramar railroad crossing and missed the whole event.

On New Year’s Day, the conditions were as idyllic as usual – clear sky, an abundance of sun and temperatures holding comfortably in the 60s. Paine says it’s rained only twice in the 15 years that he has been hosting the event.

Members have come and gone, but a core group of “youngsters” maintain the annual club meeting and ocean swim, which have gone on since 1976. Regular swimmers have included: Byron Ishkanian, Jerry Springer (not of television fame), Stephen Zoldos, Christel Snyder, Bruce and Judy Alexander, Marion Freitag, Joan Wells, Sally Kinsell, Jane Rocco and several non-members. Ishkanian and Springer are daily body surfers.

Past swimmers have been Maxine Filippin, Marv Bauer, Skona Brittain, Michael Lynch, Cristel Snyder and Bob and Emily Birnie.

Anyone interested in learning more about the Montecito Polar Bear Club can call 966-0853x10.