Saturday, February 19, 2011

Polar Plunge: A New Fascination with the Ocean Coast

Southerners have always by fascinated by the ocean coast — the rolling waves, foamy surf, abundant wildlife, sandy beaches, warm water (usually), and occasional hurricanes.

For many Native Americans such as the Algonquians, the coastal areas offered everything needed to sustain and enjoy life. Explorer John White, famous for his expeditions before the 1600s to the American South for Queen Elizabeth but failed colony on Roanoke Island, recorded much about coastal life in his watercolors preserved today in the British Museum of London (and displayed a few years ago at the N.C. Museum of History).

Imagine the reaction of the Algonquians if they could learn that Southerners have a new activity today to enhance their appreciation of the ocean coast — the polar plunge. Although the plunge is not an event for everyone, those who do participate — and raise money for their noteworthy charity — have gained more attention recently. A good example is the polar plunge conducted annually in New Hanover County of North Carolina for the Special Olympics, the largest program of sports training and competition for children and adults with intellectual disabilities.

Held in February, when the water temperature is often below 50 degrees F., at the Boardwalk in Carolina Beach (south of Wilmington), this plunge attracts hundreds of participants willing to throw their bodies into the cold winter ocean to benefit a charity, prove their stamina (even if for only a few seconds), and earn publicity in the process. In addition to news reports, the moments of fame are preserved on YouTube and social media sites (the plunge itself even has a Facebook page). In addition, the festivity of the plunge is enhanced by other events: face painting, classic car show, ice carving, and costume contests.

To “plunge,” a participant has to raise at least $50 ($30 for students). Companies, churches, and schools form “polar bear clubs” to raise money for the honor of plunging together as a group or dragging someone into the frigid waters. (Teams must have at least five plungers.) In addition, corporate sponsors are indispensable in promoting the plunge and achieving its success. (The plunge in Florida even boasts SeaWorld as a sponsor.)

For the Special Olympics team of New Hanover County, this event is its only fundraiser. (The plunge in February 2011 raised more than $40,000.) The proceeds support more than 600 Special Olympians who train throughout the year in eleven different sports (such as soccer, bowling, tennis, swimming, and softball) and compete in local, regional, and state events.

Although some polar plunges are not held on the coast (such as the one in mountainous Watauga County of North Carolina where the plunge is into Duck Pond and Florida’s plunge into the wave pool of SeaWorld’s Aquatica in Orlando that is “iced down”), what could be better (and more authentic) than plunging into the frosty rolling surf of the Atlantic Ocean? If only an extra reward was offered for a plunger who also captured something to eat from the ocean like the Algonquians.

Explorers in the 1600s after White also seemed fascinated by the ocean that borders the American South. For example, John Smith, who established the first permanent English settlement in North America at Jamestown, Virginia, recorded that his party “escaped the vnmercifull raging of that Ocean-like water” [spelling is original British]. Perhaps they should have been as less intimidated as the plungers.

If the Algonquians of the 1580s, noted by White for their water-oriented lifestyle, could observe today’s Southerners, what would they say? Perhaps they would admire the region’s creativity for using the ocean coast to sustain and enjoy life.

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