I hate swimming. The only way I like my water is frozen, drowning in scotch. So you can imagine my apprehension when I agreed to participate in the 13th Seogwipo Penguin Swim, on Dec. 31, part of the three-day Winter Story Festival in Jungmun, Seogwipo City.
For the uninitiated, The Penguin Swim is the Jeju version of The Polar Bear Swim, a North American New Year’s tradition when people submerge themselves in freezing lakes during below zero temperatures.
Why people do this has always been a mystery to me.
The morning of New Year’s Eve was comparatively warm at Jungmun Saekdal Beach, which could have been one of the reasons the excitement level was high. At 10 a.m., an estimated 500 participants meandered in the sand, warming up on pork broth soup and traditional Korean alcoholic beverages. They waited for the ceremonial baptism in the South Sea to wash away the dregs of the passing year.
Around 11 a.m. festivities kicked off and approximately 200 bathing-suit-clad participants (including yours truly) gathered before a stage and were led by two energetic women in aerobic wear to Korean pop music. Those about me cheered, stretched, and danced. I only half heatedly went through the motions, preferring to save myself for the big dip. Sixty Korean military personal in red and grey trunks stood at the head of the pack and attracted much attention from the shutter-happy media.
After about 20 minutes of preparing the body to endure the shock of crashing into the cold waves, it was time to enter. We all lined up at the foot of the beach under an inflated arch and awaited the signal. I looked about me at those with wide smiles, and shivered in as manly a fashion as possible.
Then there was a mad dash into the sea. Cameramen ran out of the way as bodies dove and mouths screeched. With a determined gait, and teeth gritted, I walked into the ocean. My skin tightened and the waves felt like sharp glass cutting into my shins. “Why? Why are we doing this?” I yelled to those nearby who responded with “Yay!”
Beach balls appeared all of a sudden, splashing and horseplay ensued. The joviality of it all was infectious. My body adjusted to the freezing water which became endurable, but still unpleasant. The sunlight that last morning of 2011 was beautiful and bright. Just the look of it was warming, despite being neck deep in December’s waters.
As soon as it began, it was over. We left the water after about 20 minutes and dripped our way to towels and warming sustenance. We ate more pork soup and drank more makgeolli (a cloudy rice wine) to recover our senses. Once dry and clothed in only a T-shirt I was warm, in fact warmer than I had felt all month. Moreover, instead of being sad at the close of another year, the swim had fortified me to embrace the one ahead. <Jeju Weekly>