'Freezing their behinds off': Destin's New Year Polar Bear Plunge

Savannah Vasquez
A young girl laughs after plunging into the Gulf of Mexico in Destin on New Year's Day.

For 10 years folks have gathered on the first day of the year at James Lee Park with one goal in mind — to brave the chilly waters of the Gulf of Mexico for the Destin Polar Bear Plunge.

“It’s become almost like a reunion, everybody looks forward to the first event of the year,” said City Councilwoman Prebble Ramswell, who has taken part in the event for the past seven years. “You know how the saying goes, ‘misery loves company,’ and with everybody screaming with the cold and everybody coming out high-fiving; it’s a great sense of community.”

The Destin Polar Bear Plunge is organized and run by the Destin Fire and Rescue Foundation and benefits the Destin Junior Lifeguard Program that operates during the summer.

Destin Beach Safety Chief Joe D’Agostino said that the foundation requests a $20 donation for the plunge but it is not enforced so those who just want to participate in the dunk can do so freely.

“We hand out free T-shirts to the first 100 people that show up,” he said.

This year, however, the crowd did not quite reach 100 participants.

“We didn’t have that big of a turnout this year due to the weather,” said D’Agostino, referring to the rainy New Year's Day morning. “We had about 65 people show up and we usually have about 100.”

But there were a few loyal participants that have shown up faithfully every year.

“I’ve done it from the very beginning, every single one of them,” said Destin local Steven Menchel. “First of all it’s a function in Destin and it’s a fundraiser that is a worthy cause that I like taking part in."

Looking back over the years, Menchel said it is generally cold on the first of the year, but he has never encountered rain like he did this year.

“It’s been cold before but it’s never rained, I definitely think it held a lot of people back,” he said.

As with every year the tradition began with a posed group photo and a countdown. At the end of the countdown the sprint to the water commenced.

“The water felt good to everybody after standing in the rain,” laughed Menchel. “The water was actually warmer than the rain. But there were still the remnants of the red tide so I personally didn’t stay in long.”

As for Ramswell, she said the event was successful as always.

“I think the water wasn’t that bad, but it felt colder than it was with the outside temperature in the 40s and the water temp at 68,” she said. “But that was part of the fun. I think it could be in the 20s with ice everywhere and it would still be a lot of fun. It’s just a lot of fun with everybody freezing their behinds off.”