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Coney Island Polar Bear Club

Coney Island Polar Bear Club, November 6, 2011. Photo © Bruce Handy via Coney Island Photo Diary

Best known for their New Year’s Day Polar Bear Plunge, the Coney Island Polar Bear Club actually goes for a dip in the Atlantic every Sunday at 1pm from November through April. Today, November 3rd, is the first swim of the 2013-2014 season for the country’s oldest winter bathing club, founded in 1903 by Bernarr Macfadden.

In this video by Polar Bear Capri Djatiasmoro, taken on April 28, 2013, the final cold water swim of last season, the Bears “circle up” at the ten minute mark. The water temp was 50F / 10C. Want to join them? For the 2013-2014 season, the Coney Island Polar Bears are accepting 10 applicants for membership chosen by lottery.

To register for the lottery, you must sign up here and will be notified of the results by November 9th. Selected applicants are required to pay a $25 application fee (non-refundable), participate in 12 swims within a single season between November and April and be voted in by a majority of the membership. The club has approximately 150 full-time members with about 100 coming out for weekly swims. Here’s another vid, also by Polar Bear Capri Djatiasmoro, of the group walking to the water on a cold day in January. Can you say camaraderie?

You can also join the Coney Polar Bear Club for one guest swim. Just show up at the Bears “Clubhouse” at the Aquarium’s Education Hall on the Coney Island Boardwalk at West 8th Street by 12:30 pm with your bathing suit, a towel, surf boots or an extra pair of sneakers, and some warm clothing.

Membership is not required for the January 1st Polar Bear Plunge, a fundraiser for Camp Sunshine and local charities. Besides being a great way to start off the new year, the event raises more than $20,000 annually for Camp Sunshine, a retreat for children with life threatening diseases.

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ATZ is pleased to present this Coney Island Polar Bear’s eye view of the 2013 New Year’s Day Plunge with videos by Polar Bear Club members Jim McDonnell and Princess Mermaid Capri. The Polar Bear Club, which has 150 members who swim every Sunday in the winter, celebrated their 110th year with the 2013 New Year’s Day Plunge. About 2,000 people participated in today’s event, which is free and open to the public. They earned an “I Did It” certificate from the Club and “bragging rights forever,” as one participant says in Jim’s video. The water temperature was 41F/5C, air temp 37F and wind chill 27F, according to Capri.

For the first time in the Polar Bear Club’s history, instead of everyone running into the water at once, waves of people went in approximately every seven minutes, a couple hundred at a time. Also for the first time, registration was mandatory for the New Year’s Day Plunge since participants were issued color-coded wristbands. Those with blue wristbands were in the first wave of swimmers at 1pm, followed by red, green, orange and purple. Here’s the first wave…

“It went very well,” Polar Bear President Dennis Thomas told ATZ. “The Parks Department wanted a little more control and less chaos. And we did a better job of getting everyone registered.” Last year on New Year’s Day, temps in the 50s drew a record number of participants– more than 3,000– making the changes advisable from a safety standpoint.

Besides being a great way to start off the new year, the annual event is a fundraiser for Camp Sunshine, a retreat for children with life threatening diseases. According to Thomas, almost $22,000 was raised for Camp Sunshine and they expect to meet their goal of $25,000. This year, funds are also being raised for Coney Recovers, a coalition of local nonprofits helping with relief efforts after SuperStorm Sandy. If you missed the event, it’s not too late to donate online or mail in a check.

This video by Princess Mermaid Capri shows the fourth wave of swimmers…

Some of the wacky costumed characters are familiar from previous years’ swims or reminiscent of the Mermaid Parade. In photos and videos, we spotted the bagpiper, the Metrocard Man, Santa Claus, Hawaiians, various superheroes and the guys with the inflatable octopus toy as well as penguins and polar bears! Some carried hand-made signs that read “Free Polar Hugs” and “Polar Bears from the Bronx.” Two Japanese guys in bikinis from Tokyo Circus shared a timeless message: “Your Smile Is Beautiful.” Happy New Year from Coney Island!

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The Coney Island Polar Bear Club is going for their first swim of the season on Sunday, December 2nd, a month later than usual due to Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath. “We extend our condolences to everyone who was affected by the hurricane,” Dennis Thomas, president of the winter swimming club told ATZ. “We are happy to help out the Parks Department and the Aquarium with cleanup and look forward to a shortened but a good strong season.” Last year’s first swim, shown in the above vid by a club member, was on November 6th and the water temp was 51F.

The Bears swim at 1pm every Sunday from November through April. There are currently 150 full-time members of the club with about 100 coming out for weekly swims, says Thomas. Membership is closed for the 2012-2013 season, but you can join them for a guest swim. Just show up at the Bears “Clubhouse” at the Aquarium’s Education Hall on the Boardwalk at West 8th Street by 12:30 pm with your bathing suit, a towel, surf boots or an extra pair of sneakers, and some warm clothing.

Just 31 days away, the Coney Island Polar Bear Club’s annual January 1st Swim is one of the more unusual ways to welcome the New Year. It’s become increasingly popular and a winter counterpart to the Mermaid Parade. On New Year’s Day 2012 in Coney Island, a record 3,000 “Did “It” at the Polar Bear Plunge, nearly three times as many as the previous year, Thomas told ATZ. The event is free and open to the public, but Freezin’ for a Reason is also a major fundraiser for Camp Sunshine, a retreat for children with life threatening illnesses and their families.

Coney Island Polar Bear

Aquarium Director Jon Dohlin Greets Coney Island Polar Bear at Post Hurricane Sandy Cleanup on the Boardwalk. November 17, 2012. Photo © Princess Polar Bear Capri

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This short film produced by Coney Island Polar Bear Club member Jim Muscarella celebrates the joyous spirit of the club’s annual New Year’s Day swim. This year, sunny skies and temps in the 50s drew the largest number of participants in the club’s history. But the coldest thing on Coney Island, according to Muscarella’s film, is going for a winter swim when air temps are 10 degrees and under and water temps are under 35 degrees. Brrr! Well, maybe next year–it’s February and temps are still in the 40s and 50s.

Founded in 1903, the Polar Bear Club is also the oldest thing on Coney Island says Chief Polar Bear Dennis Thomas in the film: “We’re happy to be a Coney Island landmark. The Coney Island Polar Bear Club is the oldest winter swimming club in the country. We’re older than the Parachute Drop and the Cyclone and anything else you see here.”

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Polar Bear Plunge

Coney Island Polar Bear Plunge. January 1, 2012. Photo © Bruce Handy/Pablo 57 via flickr

On New Year’s Day 2012 in Coney Island, a record number of people, nearly three times as many as last year, did the Polar Bear Plunge. Dennis Thomas, president of the Coney Island Polar Bear Club told ATZ that the number of “I Did It” certificates given out to registered swimmers soared. “We went through almost 3,000,” said Thomas, who noted that the unofficial number of plungers is always higher because “some register, others don’t.” On New Year’s Day 2011, the official tally of registered swimmers was about 1,200 and the Bears gave out 1,000 certificates before they ran out.

Sunny skies and temps in the 50s also drew the largest crowd of spectators in the club’s history. “I think the weather made it better and more enjoyable,” Thomas said of the event, which is an annual fundraiser for Camp Sunshine, a retreat for children with life threatening diseases. According to the chart at Freezin for a Reason, more than $37,000 has been received in donations. Thomas said pledges are still coming in and the Coney Island Polar Bears expect to meet their goal of raising $50,000. (If you missed the event, it’s not too late to mail a check.)

Coney Island Polar Bear Plunge. January 1, 2012. Photo © Bruce Handy/Coney Island Photo Diary via flickr

“We had a DJ on Stillwell to provide entertainment and there were hundreds of people dancing,” Thomas said. Some of the costumed plungers were familiar from previous years’ swims or reminiscent of the Mermaid Parade. There was the Metrocard Man, Big Babies in Diapers, a group of jailbirds, a pirate couple in their pirate ship, and a gaggle of superheroes, as well as penguins, ducks, and of course polar bears! Some carried hand-made signs that read Occupy Peace, Occupy the Ocean, Free Polar Hugs and Polar Bears from Bronx.

Coney Island Polar Bear Plunge. January 1, 2012. Photo © Bruce Handy/Pablo 57 via flickr

The only stores open on the Boardwalk were Ruby’s, which was jam-packed with New Year’s Day revelers celebrating the beloved bar’s new eight-year lease, and the Lola Star Boutique next door. Shop owner and designer Dianna Carlin said it was the “Best New Year’s Day party ever!” It was the first time her shop was open on New Year’s and when she arrived bright and early at 10:30am, much to her surprise the Boardwalk was already packed. Lola Star Boutique offered the first Coney Collectible of 2012– a limited edition magnet–for free to Polar Bear Plungers as well as to customers who spent $20 at the shop. Nearly all 150 of the magnets were given out. “You can’t buy it. You can only earn it. I’m going to make it an annual souvenir, only available on New Year’s Day.”

On the Boardwalk in front of Ruby's Bar and Lola Star Boutique, January 1, 2012. Photo © Bruce Handy/Pablo 57 via flickr

Coney Island resident and photographer Bruce Handy, whose photos are featured in this post, echoes others when he said, “I have never seen a huge, gigantic crowd as on Sunday.” He estimated there were about 5,000 people on the beach and boardwalk, 2,000 polar bears plunging. “The plunge frontage was from Stillwell Avenue almost to Steeplechase Pier, way longer than usual. The warm weather brought many people out, who in past years had thought about plunging into the frigid sea.”

Polar Bear Plunge

Coney Island Polar Bear Plunge. January 1, 2012. Photo © Bruce Handy/Pablo 57 via flickr

What are the reasons for the event’s growing popularity? Thomas told us in “By the Numbers: Coney Island New Year’s Day Polar Bear Swim 2010″ (ATZ, Jan. 8, 2010)…

Part of it is just word of mouth. People went last year, told their friends who said, yeah I want to do that next year. Part of it is that Coney Island has been in the press so much lately that it is going through its own revival regardless of the development plans. Crowds out there are getting bigger for all events the past 2 years.

Part of it is our club seems to have a larger media presence than in the past and things like our website make us much easier to find than say, 10 years ago. And somehow we are less portrayed as those idiots on the beach that cause network newscasters to chuckle and shake their heads after a 10 second clip before the weather report. The New Year’s Swim is basically free and open to the public, that might be a draw in the current economy as well. I think it’s all these things that explains the larger crowds.

After this year’s record attendance, Thomas says “It’s getting so big, we’re pushed to the limits.” He and his team begin working on the event in November, when their winter swimming season starts. “We really need to enlist more help. The logistics are getting to be enormous and it imposes a lot more costs on us.” In past years, sponsorships from Planet Green and Vaseline Skin Care helped out.

Coney Island Polar Bear Plunge. January 1, 2012. Photo © Bruce Handy/Coney Island Photo Diary via flickr

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It’s Polar Bear Season in Coney Island! After the rides close in October, the beach is home to the exuberant members of the country’s oldest cold-water bathing club. At 1 pm every Sunday from November through April, the Bears and Cubs plunge into the chilly Atlantic. It’s fun to spectate and take photos from the shore.

Photographer Jim McDonnell, who has taken the New Year’s Day Plunge, made this short video of the Coney Island Polar Bear Club’s season opener on November 6th.

The Club’s increasingly popular New Year’s Day fundraiser for Camp Sunshine draws about 1000 who take the plunge and is open to the public. Aspiring members must participate in 12 swims during the season and be approved by the membership. “We have about 140 full-time members in the club,” Polar Bear President Dennis Thomas told ATZ in a previously posted interview. “At our weekly swims we have been averaging 80-90 swimmers.”

Visit the Coney Island Polar Bear Club website for info on joining a swim as a guest or becoming a member.

To attend, show up any Sunday between November and April at the New York Aquarium Education Hall, on the Boardwalk at West 8th Street by 12:30 pm. Bring your bathing suit (duh), a towel and surf boots or an extra pair of sneakers (you really need something to protect and insulate your feet.) and some warm clothes. We also recommend you bring a friend should you need assistance or want your picture taken on the beach. You will be assigned a “buddy” to swim with and must obey all safety precautions prescribed by the Club.

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Dano Sunbathing

Dano Sunbathing on Ruby's Snow Mountain. coney Island Boardwalk. January 1, 2011. Photo © Tricia Vita/me-myself-i via flickr

The New Year’s Day Polar Bear Swim in Coney Island is always a joyous occasion. We felt a bit subdued this year due to the ongoing demolitions and evictions, but seeing so many of our Coney Island friends at Ruby’s Bar on January 1st put the “happy” in “Happy New Year” for ATZ. Here’s our flickr slide show from the day.

In the above photo, our friend Dano, best known as the photographer behind the lens of East Coast Images, is seen sunbathing on Ruby’s snow mountain before taking the Plunge. With today’s predicted accumulation of 2 to 4 inches on top of the snow already on the Boardwalk, you may want to head out to the People’s Playground this weekend to frolic in the snow.

If you missed the New Year’s Plunge, keep in mind that members of the Coney Island Polar Bear Club swim in the Atlantic at 1 pm every Sunday from November through April. Visit the Bears’ website for info on joining them for a guest swim or simply spectating. It’s a great way to enjoy Coney Island’s ambiance during the winter season.

After the swim, drop by the Freak Bar at Coney Island USA for Sunday Brunch–“Bagels, coffee and characters”– at 2 pm with the Polar Bear Club. Bratva Bar and Restaurant on Surf at 12th also open for coffee, drinks and food at 2 pm. Live music starts at 3 pm.

Greetings from Ruby's

Polar Bear Greetings from Ruby's Bar on New Year's Day 2011. Photo © Tricia Vita/me-myself-i vi flickr

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