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A chilly start to the new year

There’s a palpable nervous energy vibrating through the air as hundreds of half-naked people stand at the shoreline of Centennial Beach ready to make a mad dash into the ocean.

Then the 10-count begins in unison, the crowd of spectators bracing themselves and fumbling with their cameras, and all at once bedlam breaks out.

People of all ages surge forward, some gritting their teeth, others screaming in Braveheart-like valour, as the frigid waters splash around them.

This year, as it was last, 28-year-old Morgan Bezembinder of Tsawwassen is the first to reach the lifeguards and the marker about 50 metres into the shallow water.

“You usually scratch your feet up pretty good around the barnacles and what have you but you don’t notice that until after,” says Bezembinder, who has won seven trophies in his eight years of participation in the Boundary Bay Polar Bear Swim.

Like many others who come for the curiosity of watching people jump into an ocean at a time when the season and common sense indicate one shouldn’t, Bezembinder first came with his parents almost 10 years ago. He had no plans to swim and didn’t have a swim suit but decided he just had to try it.

All he had was a white pair of boxer shorts which were relatively transparent when wet.

“So, that didn’t really turn out well,” says Bezembinder, laughing.

It wasn’t all bad though. He finished fifth place and it motivated him to come back again each year.

“You just get an adrenaline rush. And it’s a fun event, you just run in, get wet, get cold, and everyone’s down there having a good time.”

This year’s winner for oldest participant is another back-to-back winner who knows all about swimming in frigid waters.

Lui Porc, 73, says the swim is an emotional and happy way to begin the first day of the New Year.

“They have the fireworks at midnight but you do nothing with that,” he says. “You just admire watching them. But swimming is an action and a real feat that is the beginning to entering a very, very great new, happy year.”

Porc has been doing annual polar bear swims since he lived in Vancouver in the early 1970s. He saw a great big crowd in English Bay and decided to join in the fun.

He used to ask his wife to come and take photographs of him during the years when six inches of snow covered the beach.

“She used to say, Lui, I am not going to go with you because I don’t want be seen with crazy people like you,” he says laughing.

But after buying her a warm fur coat she came to watch her husband play in the waters of Jericho Beach. He was often the last to leave the water.

“She was always thinking that I’ll die. But I am getting older and older and so happy,” he says, his face lighting up with a warmth that makes one ignore the fact he’s standing dripping wet without a towel in seven degree weather.

In fact, Porc says getting older has helped him “endure” the cold and he enjoys the process much more than he did even in the beginning.

And he says he can still compete with the younger people as he runs into the water by their side.

“To me, I cannot imagine living without the water,” he says, and rushes back for a swim long after everybody else has left.

The day before, on New Year’s Eve, British tourists Marcus White and his 14-year-old daughter Lucy went down to Centennial Beach to dip their toes in the water.

Visiting family in Ladner and Tsawwassen, the two planned to do the Polar Bear Swim in English Bay in Vancouver. Although both recoil in horror as their extremities feel the leeching grasp of icy water, these two hardy Brits are no fairweather swimmers.

Marcus and Lucy were recently part of a relay team of seven to swim the English Channel from England to France.

To participate, both had to qualify by managing to swim two hours in water colder than 16 degrees. It helps that both swim at a local quarry that is flooded with water and remains cold year round.

“The training was harder than the swim because we started off in 10 degrees,” recalls Marcus.

Lucy is a competitive swimmer who enjoys cold water and vows never to don a wetsuit to make it more bearable. In fact, when they first arrived in Canada she was happy to see snow on the ground and is a little disappointed it melted before the swim.

Laurie Collicutt of the parks, recreation and culture department with the Corporation of Delta, has been helping organize the Polar Bear Swim for 25 of its 33 years.

Although the water is just above freezing this year, there have been years when Boundary Bay was actually completely frozen, as it was during the cold snap in early December.

“There was one year in particular in which the bay was actually frozen and so our parks staff actually had to put on hip waders and they went out just breaking up the ice so the people could go in the water.”

Collicutt says she can never predict whether the weather will cooperate.

“We’ve had brilliant blue skies and temperatures below zero and we’ve had rainy days and windy days.”

But since the water in Boundary Bay is so shallow, people can probably guess how cold it will be because it’s usually just above the ambient air temperature.

Life guards are on the beach to watch out for any people who are in trouble, while Delta firefighters and the Coast Guard are on hand for rescue.

Over the years there have been a couple of mild cuts or cases of hypothermia but nothing serious.

“People are dressed warmly until they drop their blankets and then just sort of race in and race out. Some people don’t get past their knees. They hit that water, then come right out again.”

The timing couldn’t have been better this year. About 30 minutes after the event finished, the overcast sky opened up and rain fell on the beach. But by that time everybody was already snug in their clothes, sipping on hot beverages, and sharing a good new story.

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