A Cool New Year’s Dip
I love a thrill as much as the next person. Jumping out of airplanes, swimming with sharks, skiing wild backcountry terrain—somehow these activities make sense to me. But taking off my clothes in the middle of a New York winter, stripping down to nothing but a bathing suit, and running into the Atlantic Ocean? That’s another story, altogether. But that’s exactly what hundreds of people do each New Year’s Day at Coney Island, Brooklyn’s famed beach and amusement park from days of yore, at the annual Polar Bear Club swim. The Cyclone roller coaster (see ), which looms large over the beach, is a fast-paced thrill ride to be sure, but jump into 35°F (2°C) waters below, and it’s literally breathtaking.
For the annual New Year’s Day swim, hundreds of people assemble on the boardwalk at Stillwell Avenue to take the plunge. Hundreds of others observe nearby. Ask swimmers why they do this, and the answers are varied. Some say they do it to raise money for charity. (Neither swimmers nor observers pay a fee, but a donation to the club’s partner, Camp
Sunshine [www.campsunshine.org], a getaway in Maine for sick children and their families, is encouraged). Others go for it on a dare. Still others believe there are health benefits to a dip in frigid waters. Aficionados claim that an icy plunge helps boost the immune system to ward off a cold, the flu, or relieve the symptoms of chronic maladies such as arthritis. Whatever their reasons may be, one thing all the participants can agree on is that it’s an experience they’ll never forget.
The Polar Bear Club recommends that in addition to your bathing suit, swimmers bring a towel, cozy after-swim footwear, dry warm clothing, and a friend (for photos and post-swim assistance, if needed). I’d add a pre-swim discussion with your doctor and a thermos of hot liquid to this list of requirements. For first-timers it is usually suggested that you turn off your brain, take a breath, and go quickly. Be prepared for a cold-water shock that can leave you breathless. Upon surfacing in the waves, some participants splash around a while in the chilly water, though more often than not, they hightail right back to the shore. If there happens to be snow on the beach, you could always take a quick roll in it for an added adrenaline rush before dressing.
In addition to the swim on New Year’s Day, the Coney Island Polar Bear Club invites potential members to join them for swims at 1:00pm any Sunday between November and April, after which they may start the official membership process. Bernard MacFadden founded the Polar Bear Club in 1903 and the Coney Island group claims to be the oldest of its type in the country. The L Street Brownies of South Boston can date their existence back to 1904, but they continue to search for earlier documentation.
Coney Island Polar Bear Club ( 917/533-3568; www.polarbearclub.org).
When to Go: Sun, Nov–Apr and every New Year’s Day.
JFK (17 miles) or LaGuardia Airport (22 miles).
$$ Excelsior Hotel, 45 W. 81st St. ( 800/368-4575 or 212/362-9200; www.excelsiorhotelny.com). $$$ Le Parker Meridien, 118 W. 57th St. ( 800/543-4300 or 212/245-5000; www.parkermeridien.com).