Coney Island

Coney Island’s Polar Bear Club greets 2017 in typical chilly style

Around 2,500 Hardy Souls Raise $80,000 for Camp Sunshine

January 3, 2017 By Andy Katz Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Second-wave runs for the water. Eagle photo by Andy Katz
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“We’re freezin’ for a reason!” exhorts the web page Camp Sunshine dedicates to one of its principal benefactors — The Coney Island Polar Bear Club — which stages its annual Coney Island Polar Bear New Year’s Day Swim to raise funds for families to attend the summer camp for seriously ill children in the 2017 season.

While the “reason” is undoubtedly on point, the “freezin’” part was not quite as much. As noon approached and the Coney Island Boardwalk filled with registrants in costumes ranging from the gaudy to minimalist, temperatures also began to rise. It was nearly 50 degrees by time the first row of swimmers filled the starting line. Spectators, well-wishers, EMS personnel and rubber boot-clad members of the press formed solid lines on either side.  

For anyone who signed on for the Jan. 1 plunge, the only way remaining was straight ahead — into the water.

Some participants reported the water temperature at 48 degrees Fahrenheit, just 1 degree colder than the air in Coney Island on the first day of 2017. Being so close to the ambient temperature of the day, however, it failed to provide the kind of relief a plunge on a sub-freezing day would, because then the water would perforce be warmer than the air.

“It brings in more first-timers,” Queens resident and Plunge veteran Phil Romano pointed out prior to his immersion. This year, Phil’s sister-in-law from Hoboken was on hand to take part in her first Plunge.

“I don’t know,” said Long Islander Raul Calderon with barely a shiver as chill Atlantic water dripped from his hair. “I like it when it’s colder.” Calderon, a six-time veteran of the event, brought first-timer Maria Felix along. Felix was just fine with the day’s weather.

The Coney Island Polar Bear Club is the nation’s oldest cold-weather bathing organization. Founded in 1903 by health advocate Benarr McFadden, the club has used its trademark New Year’s Day Swim to raise funds for Camp Sunshine since 2007. Set on the shore of Maine’s Sebago Lake, Camp Sunshine was founded in 1984 by Larry and Anna Gould to provide a summer sleep-away camp experience for children suffering severe, life-threatening illnesses.

“They approached us,” recounted Polar Bear Club President Dennis Thomas of how the club came to support Camp Sunshine. “We thought they were a great organization, so we were happy to respond.”

According to Thomas, some 2,500 brave souls made the plunge this year, while nearly 20,000 sensible souls observed. The Polar Bear Club achieved its goal of raising $80,000, which will enable 30 New York-area families to attend the New England summer camp in 2017.


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