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Jan 3, 2012 3:09 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press

Polar Bear Plunge Draws A Thousand To Main Beach

Jan 3, 2012 3:33 PM

The Polar Bear Plunge at East Hampton’s Main Beach on New Year’s Day was outstanding from a fashion standpoint alone. The mixture of flip-flops and Uggs, bikinis and parkas, bathrobes and one suit-tie-and-briefcase affair all reflected a cheery disconnect between Sunday’s sunny, 50-plus weather and typically dreary associations with “January,” “polar,” even “plunge.”

An open red convertible bore one contingent of bathers in colorful ski hats; smiling East Hampton Village police in reflector vests ushered that and other cars into an overflow parking lot that helped accommodate what their department later estimated to be 1,000 spectators and plungers.

“Who’s getting cold and scared?” said one member of one mixed-age family party to another as they walked toward the beach.

“This is going to be mind over matter,” said another, mustering courage.

Vicki Littman, a board member of the East Hampton Food Pantry, which benefited from the event, said on Monday that there were 417 registered participants, about twice that of the previous year’s plunge. She had just counted up the loot: The total so far—donations were still coming in—was $15,000, she said.

Plungers could plunge for free, but those who paid $25 to register got winter caps, John Ryan Jr. explained on Tuesday. The plunge, which at first took place at Indian Wells Beach in Amagansett, was started, essentially, on a dare by the East Hampton Hurricanes swim team, of which Mr. Ryan’s daughters are members. Over the years, it was moved to Main Beach, where the pavilion provides a windbreak. It has evolved into a fundraiser for the pantry but is still run by the Hurricanes with assistance from the Ocean Rescue Squad, according to Mr. Ryan, who is a member both of the squad and of the event’s food pantry committee.

But back to fashion: 2012 novelty glasses, a zinc-oxided nose, Santa hats, Davey Crockett caps, Sponge Bob party hats, flannel PJs, terry robes, wetsuits, striped beach towels, a tutu, a penguin. John Ryan Sr. wore a plunger on his head. Among those participating in a costume contest were Mark Tomkins and his sons, Carson and Milo, who wore faux grass skirts, Wonder Woman with a red cape flaring at her back, a two-family “toga team,” a Harry Potter devotee, and a man dressed as Phantom of the Lobster.

Bonfires in trash cans bubbled ash and smoke. East Hampton Town Councilman Dominick Stanzione made announcements over a microphone. There were lines for hot dogs, spectators gripping coffee or hot chocolate, canvas tote bags containing extra clothing, cameras, cellphones and lots of dogs. Fathers carried kids on their shoulders. Just about everyone was wishing someone else a happy New Year.

“They want the polar bear over by the American flag,” directed one organizer.

Someone said the water temperature was 48 degrees.

“Put your shoes back on until it’s time,” a mother told her child.

“I don’t know where you want to put our stuff,” someone else said.

Bob Howard, the man in the office costume, unloaded what appeared be clothes for his kids from his briefcase as he prepared for the plunge. He made sure to credit Southampton Village Trustee Richard Yastrzemski with the suit idea, which Mr. Yastrzemski had put into play “a couple of years ago in Southampton,” according to Mr. Howard.

East Hampton Village Mayor Paul F. Rickenbach Jr. was among the plungers, removing his leather jacket for the occasion.

“I happen to know that the mayor in Southampton does the plunge every year in Southampton,” East Hampton Village Trustee Barbara Borsack had ribbed Mayor Rickenbach back in October when approval for this year’s plunge was requested, perhaps inspiring his performance. She’d even offered to hold his towel for him.

The plungers lined up on the shore, the national anthem was played and then someone—perhaps Mr. Stanzione—announced “1-2-3 Go!”

Was it cold? “No, the adrenaline is so high that at that point you don’t feel a thing,” said one berobed man who had just emerged from the flat surf.

“Dad, we’re going back in over there,” said a bikini-clad girl as a pack of them moved slightly west of the action at the shoreline. There was, in fact, quite a bit of double-dipping.

“Where are you?” said one man into his cellphone. “Well, if you get me a suit we can still do it.”

“The things I do for the food pantry,” Ms. Littman said in her white terry robe up closer to the parking lot. She had been, like many others, a first-time plunger. On Monday she said it hadn’t been bad at all: “You’re just so in the moment and just so anxious. It was so exciting.”

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