Steve Parsons doesn t have to make plans for New Year s Day.
As Waterville s fire chief, he knows he ll spend the first afternoon of the year along the west bank of the Maumee River, watching over the dozens of hardy folks who plunge into the frigid water as part of a longstanding tradition.
So, yesterday, the chief patrolled the shoreline in an olive-colored motorboat, accompanied by more than a dozen other firefighters. Four department members wearing red cold-water survival suits joined about 100 polar bear swimmers in the river, making sure no one got into trouble during their brief baths.
A crowd of several hundred onlookers watched from the muddy riverbank, cheering on the swimmers as they waded into the water, which the chief measured at a bone-chilling 33 degrees. With only a few stray chunks of ice, the river was flowing northeast at 9 mph a fast current for wintertime, the chief said.
The air temperature during the swim, which began about 2:15 p.m., was 37 degrees, Chief Parsons added.
Hopefully nothing happens here, but if it does, we re here, he said. I d hate to have to come through this crowd to rescue someone.
Waterville s annual New Year swim dates to the 1920s, when village resident Herb Mericle began bathing in the Maumee each Jan. 1. Though he took his last holiday dip three years ago, at age 95, Mr. Mericle showed up yesterday to watch a crowd of mostly younger people continue his tradition.
Among them was first-time swimmer So Shaheen, 43, of Bowling Green, who sat on the river s rock bottom and submerged himself up to his chin.
After his icewater bath, Mr. Shaheen casually climbed up the bank and stood in his blue swim trunks and sandals, a white towel draped over his shoulders. If the cold got to him, he wasn t admitting it.
It was fun, exciting, he said. It s a challenge. I did it just for the challenge of it, to prove to myself I could do it.
He paused and added with a grin, The weak stayed outside. The strong went in.
Should I get some hot chocolate? asked a dry and well-meaning friend, Hameed Saadeh of Lake Township.
No toughen up, Mr. Shaheen said. Refuse to lose.
Kelsie Marty, 14, of Waterville, took the same approach.
I m cold, but it s all right, she said after climbing out of the river, water dripping from her baby-blue T-shirt onto her bare legs. I don t even have goosebumps.
Kelsie and two friends then ran back into the river for another quick dip, screaming as they hit the water again.
While some of the swimmers said the cold was no big deal, Chief Parsons and his volunteer department were alert to the threat of hypothermia. He said the potentially deadly condition could begin to affect a swimmer in 33-degree water in five to eight minutes.
Hypothermia sets in much quicker in the water than in the air, the chief said.
Besides the contingent of firefighters on hand, Waterville police officers also monitored the crowd. Patrolman Gary Phillips, a 17-year department veteran, said he has been to 11 or 12 polar bear swims while on duty. The crowds of swimmers and onlookers are typically well-behaved, he added.
I ve never had a problem down here, he said. I just think they re all nuts.
Contact Steve Murphy at: email@example.com or 419-724-6078.