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Polar Bear swimmers continue long, colourful tradition

Annual Vancouver swim has grown significantly since its first plunge 96 years ago

Lisa Pantages wore her grandfather’s swim suit for the Polar Bear Swim in English Bay last Friday, the first day of the year. She had the century old suit on for two reasons — because her grandfather, Peter, started the swim in Vancouver 96 years ago and because she claims it keeps her warm.

The suit is in the shape of a deep-cut tank top that resembles a short dress on Pantages. It is black, has red racing stripes that loop the waist, and stitching across the abdomen to form the words “Eng Bay.” It is also made with the material of choice in 1920 when fashion trumped function — wool.

“You know what, I would recommend wool bathing suits to everybody in the world!” said Pantages after her first dip into the frigid waters under the cold sun at 2:30 p.m. The water was 8 C, and to put that into perspective, most people have showers at a temperature of 40 C.

“I could actually stand here for a while without getting cold, it keeps me warm,” she added between receiving hugs from friends and family, chatting to out-of-towners, and giving out awards.

Pantages is the president of the Vancouver Polar Bear Swim Club, the oldest swim club of its kind in North America. Her grandfather, Peter Pantages, was said to have swam in English Bay every single day and founded the club in 1920 when five people attended that year.

During the 1950s and 1960s, about 200 people did the swim every year, a reasonable amount to supply all with certificates of participation written in calligraphy and to fit into Peter’s restaurant, the Peter Pan Café at 1196 Granville St. where the Howard Johnson Hotel is now.

Peter would give out prizes to swimmers during the post-swim party such as a tonne of coal, pre-plucked chickens, cases of eggs and free ice delivery.

“He would give out amazing prizes,” said Pantages. “That’s what people would get and they would appreciate it more than anything.”

Peter’s love of swimming made him a local celebrity even though his surname was already familiar to most as his uncle Alexander Pantages opened the Pantages Theatres on Hastings Street. Peter’s mission to swim every day meant he would only agree to take a family holiday on a cruise ship that would let him dive from the ship’s deck into the ocean. Captains agreeable to the idea found their ship would tilt to whatever side Peter dove off as all passengers would clamour to watch. He would then climb up the back anchor rope to get back on the ship.

Peter died in 1971 and the Vancouver Polar Bear Swim Club successor was his son, Basil, who established the 100-yard swim in 1972 to honour his father. Gareth Jones, a 17-year-old water polo player from Burnaby, won the race this year and in 2015. With chattering teeth, Jones explained his secret to winning: “Ignore everything, focus on swimming and not drowning.” Rather than wearing a wool bathing suit from the 1920s.

The Vancouver Park Board has been a part of the swim since 1952 with a team of lifeguards surveying the waters from rowboats where some of Santa’s reindeer were seen doing the front crawl towards the race buoy and watching the shoreline from elevated chairs where more than 3,000 people, many in costumes, including Darth Vader, a moose, Elvis and a shark, splashed, screamed and danced to, appropriately enough, Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby” blaring from swim participant and local entertainer Spandy Andy’s boombox.

“I love the water, I love the ocean and I love the connection to the community,” said Pantages, who was contemplating going into the water for the sixth time that afternoon. “For me it’s a family tradition but, regardless of whether or not my family was associated with it, I would do this anyway because it’s just such a great thing to participate in.

“It’s a unique thing to where we live, or it was! Until everybody caught on,” she said, with a laugh.