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A chilly farewell to 2020 along the Gulf coast

APR's Guy Busby
The Flora-Bama Polar Bear Dip on New Year's Day 2021

An APR news feature

People marked the end of the year 2020 in a variety of ways. On the Gulf Coast, about 2,000 people celebrated the passing of a grim year of COVID-19, hurricanes, and the economic downturns caused by both by dressing in costumes and jumping into the ocean.

Credit APR's Guy Busby

New Year’s Day 2021 was gray, with rough Gulf pounding the beach at the Alabama-Florida state line. A cold rain fell on the white sand. A crowd gathered on the beach. At the end of a dismal, serious year, their costumes were anything but grim. The group included people dressed as Santa Clauses, Baby New Years, mermaids, sea serpents, and Dr. Seuss characters. There were also nuns, hippies and harlequins as well as pirates, penguins, and polar bears.

Credit APR's Guy Busby

At noon the day’s festivities were led off by a dog. A real one—not a person in a dog costume. Although this dog was dressed up as a reindeer. He led the way as the crowd of about 2,000 plunged into the rough chilly water. The Flora-Bama Polar Bear Dip has been going on since the 1980s. It’s a Gulf Coast tradition, but for many this year, the plunge is a good way to wash away a bad year.

“If you come out of the water on New Year’s Day 2021, then 2020 was a piece of cake,” Pat McClellan said.

He’s co-owner of the Flora-Bama, a bar that straddles the border between Alabama and Florida. That’s where the name comes from.

“Because you made it out, so it was a great year. So, if you survive, that’s it. That’s what it’s all about. People have been coming for generations down here. To start the New Year,” he said.

McClellan started the tradition. Perhaps not surprisingly, it began with a New Year’s Eve bar bet in Pensacola.

Credit APR's Guy Busby

“I bet everybody I’ll go jump in the water the next day,” he said. “I was the only guy that showed up. It was 29 degrees and sleet.”

McClellan brought the idea with him to the Flora-Bama bar about 37 years ago. It got off to a small start, but grew.

“We maybe had eight people the first time, maybe 12. Then we got some other people involved, word of mouth and then suddenly, everybody was here. It’s a pretty near way to start the year, I think. Kind of washing everything away and starting new,” McClellan said.

Credit APR's Guy Busby

The event is now draws people in the thousands. Not all of whom are gutsy enough into plunge the cold winter-time Gulf of Mexico.

“We had, one year, I swear we must have had 2,000 people jumping in the water and there were 2,000 people watching them jump in the water,” McClellan saad.

Ann Smith and Shelly Callas of Silverhill were among those taking the plunge. Ann was dressed in a sort of German barmaid outfit complete with a horned Viking helmet. She said she was ready to face the chilly water.

“Hopefully, it’s not too cold,” Smith said. “I’ve done it before, so, I’ll try it again. Get this old year over with and get a new year started right. It’s cold. It’s fun. You get all reared up to go and then you just bust in there. It’s all good. So much fun.”

Callas was here for the first time.

“All of our friends, they’ve been doing this for years,” she said. “I’m just out here to enjoy it. I’m loving it. I’m having a good time. It’s a little rough out there, but I think we’ll be good. We dressed for the occasion. We’re going to do it.”

Callas was dressed as a pirate. That was Smith's idea.

“She said, I have an outfit for you,'” Callas said. “'You’re coming and that’s it.' Here I am and I’m loving it.”

After the plunge, both women said they enjoyed the dip, but Smith suffered a scraped nose. The surf knocked down her Viking helmet.

Credit APR's Guy Busby

“It was awesome,” Smith said. “Hat malfunction. We think I went down with my hat and then it all jacked up. It was rough. Even if you didn’t want to go down, You went down anyway with the waves. It was rough, totally rough.”

Callas had the same word for the experience.

“It was not bad,” Callas said. “It was awesome. My first year. Here it was awesome. It was cold, but it was OK. It was worth it.”

Renee Walton and Lance Galloway came over from Pensacola for the dip. Renee came down from New York about three months ago, so the weather wasn’t too cold by her standards.

“It was warm, but the surf was really rough,” Walton said.

She’s from New York City, specifically Long Island. And, before you ask—she says it’s a lot colder than down here on the Gulf Coast.

“I’ve done it before and this is definitely the way to do it at the Flora-Bama. It was amazing,” Walton said.

“She talked me into it,” Galloway said.

"I did,” Walton said. “I think there’s something really good about getting in the sea and starting off the year in a new way and then just cleansing all the old stuff out and bringing the new stuff in, kind of like a baptism. That’s the only way to do it, total immersion.”

“Sand in her hair, look at that. Sand from the surf,” Galloway said. “That’s the only way to do that. I’m new, very first time. New York had to talk me into it. It wasn’t bad at all. Big wave came in and I dove right into it. You’ve got to totally commit. No being timid. Must commit.”

Pat McClellan said that committing to the plunge into the New Year is a good way to say goodbye to 2020 and get ready for whatever the future has to bring.

“Like I said, if you make it out of the Polar Bear Dip, it’s been a damn good year because you made it,” McClellan said. “You survived. You’re through. You’re ready for the next one. That’s the way you’ve got to look at it. Optimistically, a new adventure.”

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