Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
Behind the scenes of the Coney Island Polar Bear Club’s annual dip.
It’s a windy New Year’s Day in Coney Island. On the boardwalk, clusters of people yank wool scarves over their noses and mouths.
On the beach, though, about 2,000 people are stripping down and splashing into the ocean, wearing penguin costumes, fuzzy polar bear hats, Viking helmets, or foam Statue of Liberty crowns. The boardwalk has the vibe of a boozy beach party—a very, very cold one.
Dennis Thomas is the director of branding for a German software firm. He’s also the president of the Coney Island Polar Bear Club, which he describes as “the oldest winter swimming club in the country.” It’s been around since 1903. Thomas has been at the helm for the past decade.
The Polar Bear Club’s annual January 1st plunge is one of many throughout the winter—the club swims every Sunday from November to April, attracting an average of 80 or 90 attendees. The New Year’s dip—a fundraiser for the kids’ charity Camp Sunshine—is a much bigger undertaking. In addition to the swimmers, it attracts many thousands of slack-jawed gawkers.
Five lifeguards stand sentry; emergency response teams are on hand; police boats bob in the water. The event takes four months to plan and lasts just a few minutes. Thomas is the emcee, hyping up a crowd that might be cold, groggy, and possibly a little bit nauseated.
Before they stampede towards the water, participants do furious jumping-jacks on the sand. Caliesthenics get the blood flowing. Everyone rushes into the surf, then there’s a free swim.
Given that water is so strongly associated with renewal, it’s perhaps unsurprising that so many people are eager to participate in this way of ushering in a new year. “If we did this on a random Tuesday in February, it wouldn’t get the draw,” Thomas says.
Joseph Wilczynski agrees. The 30-year-old from Jersey City has participated for six years. He views the plunge as a painfully literal metaphor for bracing for the year ahead. “It’s a good way to start off the year, to do something that’s uncomfortable but you kind of feel gratified at the end.”
“And there’s a sense of ‘let’s get rid of this hangover,’ maybe,” Thomas tells me. Yeah, there’s also that. The frigid water does the work of a plate of greasy hash browns and sausage.
Thomas rushes into the water because “it clears my head.” The pins-and-needles sensation is exhilarating. The swim is “so different from what our day-to-day life in NYC is like,” he adds. “We deal with high rents, and traffic, and subways, and going into that cold water every week takes you to a different place. You can’t worry about those things when you’re in the water. It just goes away. Everything does.”
Anthony Wolf, 35, struts along the boardwalk in a blue fleece robe embroidered with the fire department insignia and a list of all the years he and his buddies have run into the waves. The Staten Islander says he isn’t sure why he keeps coming back. “You’ve got me,” he shrugs. “Stupidity?” his friend offered.
One might imagine blue fingertips and frostbitten lips, but Thomas says that the 30 years he’s been with the club have been pretty uneventful. “We’ve been out there in blizzards and whiteout conditions,” he says. “We’ve been out there when the streets are closed.” But he says that people aren’t injured after the swim—just cold and tired. “When I get home, I crash for an hour to two,” Thomas admits.
On January 1, the water splashing against the Coney Island beach was about 50 degrees Fahrenheit, according to measurements collected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That doesn’t mean it felt warm. Gothamist reported: “The guy shivering so violently that he couldn't talk or even sip his beer was the only one telling the truth.”
The beach clears out, and the swimmers and spectators head to Nathan’s for hotdogs, or to the Wonder Wheel for a ride. One woman wearing earmuffs dangled a blue bikini top from her finger as she walked towards the subway.
“We done did it!” bellowed a guy in a knit Mets cap, towel around his waist, puffing on a cigar. “We did it! We did it! We did it!”