Carlin Soule couldn’t believe how quiet Cayucos was on New Year’s Day.
“He just couldn’t stand it,” said Sandi Ford, one of Soule’s former employees at the Way Station restaurant. “He’d sit on the porch and look out, and there was absolutely nobody in town.”
Eventually, Soule declared, “We’ve got to do something.” More than three decades later, his creation — now called the Carlin Soule Memorial Polar Bear Dip — is one of the town’s most endearing events, one that has grown from a modest crowd of seven to over a thousand.
“We’ve had people come from all over,” said Andy Lilley, director of the Cayucos Chamber of Commerce, which now puts on the annual event.
The concept of the polar bear plunge — as notably illustrated in a 1992 episode of “Seinfeld” — is pretty simple: A bunch of people run into a freezing cold body of water, then turn around and run back to the beach.
No wetsuits allowed.
Of course, the water in Cayucos isn’t as cold in the winter as it is in other polar dip cities, like New York, Boston and Toronto. But water temps in the low- to mid-50s can still be an eye-opening, if not outright sobering, experience.
“You see people turn blue,” said Scott Nairne, a Cayucos resident who has participated in several dips. “They’re totally surprised.”
When Soule came up with the idea in 1981, the San Pedro native owned the Way Station with his wife, Margaret. The first polar dip, Ford said, consisted mostly of Way Station employees, the Soules and friends.
“We just thought it was a good way to wash away the old year and start off the new year,” Ford said.
By the next year, the crowd had grown significantly. According to a Tribune photo caption, 55 people entered the water on New Year’s Day in 1982.
“We made shirts the second year,” Ford said. “I think we only made up about 20 and sold them within an hour.”
The popularity of the shirts foreshadowed what would become of the event itself. But in 1987, as his creation was in full swing, Soule became sick from melanoma cancer. And a couple of months before his eighth annual polar bear dip, Soule was gone.
“He was such a good, wonderful, kind man,” Ford said.
The dip continued, though, with new meaning. And while many plungers don’t know who Soule is — especially since Soule’s wife moved to Hawaii — the event still carries his name.
For many, the polar dip has become a family tradition. Rocki Dellamas, of Cayucos, has been going down to the dip since the late ’90s. While her husband, Zeke, is a regular dipper, Dellamas has only done it a couple of times.
“It was pretty exhilarating,” she said of her plunges. “You kind of get a rush off the crowd, which is a lot of fun.”
The Dellamas’ two children, aged 8 and 10, also participate. But they’re not always enthusiastic.
“They look at each other like, ‘Do we have to do this?’ ” Dellamas said. “But usually once you get them pumped up, they charge in there, screaming and yelling.”
As the noon-time dip nears, large crowds gather on the pier and beach. Meanwhile, a few amused surfers might watch from the water. Most of those on the sand can be seen mentally preparing themselves for a chilly ocean reception.
Once the dip begins, squeals can be heard throughout the town.
For the event’s first 12 years, Ford was an active participant. But ever since, she’s been content to stay warm as a spectator.
“I went in every single year,” she said. “And the year I quit drinking, I stood out there and went, ‘Whoa — it’s COLD!’ ”
She’s not the only one to realize that. Lilley, for instance, chooses to stay on the beach with his wife, Nadine, who helps sell T-shirts.
“At my age, my heart would probably stop if I got into that water,” Lilley said.
Pia Laurie’s family had tried to coax her into the water several times. When she finally gave in, she realized why she had been hesitant before.
“It was absolutely miserable,” she said, noting that it was cold and rainy during her first and only plunge.
Still, her husband Eric, and their two children — Matilda, 10, and Colt, 9 — continue to participate while Laurie takes photos from dry land.
The kids have each been given the youngest participant award — Matilda when she was 3 and Colt when he was 2.
“This year Colt wants to jump off the pier,” Laurie said. “But I don’t know if they’re going to be able to pull that off.”
While participants emerge from the water shivering — full-immersion is required to get a certificate — Nairne and his 7-year-old son have an edge.
“We jump in, get out and go home and jump in the hot tub,” he said. “It just feels great. And you get out and feel good the rest of the day.”
Hearing the crowd shriek from the cold isn’t the only fun, though. As the event progressed, many plungers began wearing outrageous costumes.
In past years, the dip has been graced by the likes of Batman, Spiderman, an executioner, clowns, Uncle Sam, Peter Pan, the Village People and scores of pirates.
Prizes are given for the best costumes.
“It’s just taken on its own life, which has been kind of fun, watching all the different costumes,” Ford said. “Watching all the Lions (club members) dress in drag last year was quite amazing.” As the spectacle continues to grow and become more outrageous every year, Ford wonders how Soule would react. The last polar bear plunge he witnessed in Cayucos featured 75 people. Today there are hundreds, not dozens, of participants.
“He’s probably in heaven, looking down, and having a fit,” Ford said. “He’d never believe how many people are doing it now.”