Plungers Bold in Bitter Cold

The air temperature was given at Main Beach as 18 degrees
Plungers, whose numbers were predictably way down this year, said afterward that it was colder after getting out than it was once in. Durell Godfrey

Pretty much everyone — everyone who dared to plunge in, which wasn’t many — agreed prior to the New Year’s Day plunges at East Hampton’s Main Beach and, later, at Beach Lane in Wainscott that, temperature-wise, it was the most daunting of these events since they began, in 1999, with Colin Mather’s 1.6-mile run to the ocean from his Seafood Shop in Wainscott.

Gurney’s Resort in Montauk canceled its plunge. The Channel 12 weatherman said during the morning news that everyone should stay inside and under the covers.

The air temperature was given at Main Beach as 18 degrees, though with a stiff north wind, it felt even colder. The water temperature was said to be 37 degrees, though Mather, a firm believer in the restorative nature of cold showers and of cold water in general, said he’d heard that steam had been coming off the ocean earlier that day.

Needless to say, the “fair-weather” plungers (those, say, who turn out if the temperature is above freezing, which it has been the past two years, almost “balmy,” in fact, by winter’s standards) did not join the intrepid few (128 in Main Beach’s case) who did. Last year’s plunging crowd estimate was 400. 

And while the net proceeds weren’t known as this was written, the off-putting cold must have had a chilling effect when it came to the plunges’ beneficiaries — the East Hampton Food Pantry in Main Beach’s case, and L’Arche Long Island, a worldwide organization founded in France that cares for the mentally disabled, in the Seafood Shop’s.

The announcer at Main Beach said plungers were being asked to donate $35, and that onlookers (about twice as many as those who went in) should donate $70. In any event, Vicki Littman, the East Hampton Food Pantry’s chairwoman, said donations would gladly be accepted either online at or by mail at East Hampton Food Pantry, P.O. Box 505, East Hampton 11937.

“We served 40,000 people last year, 7,000 of them children, just in East Hampton,” said Littman, whose organization oversees food pantries in Wainscott, Springs, and Amagansett as well. 

East Hampton’s, which at the moment is in the Animal Control building behind Town Hall, is open Tuesdays from 1 to 6 p.m. The Amagansett Food Pantry, at St. Michael’s Lutheran Church, is open Tuesdays from 4 to 6, and the Springs one, at the Springs Presbyterian Church, is open Wednesdays from 4 to 6.

Art McCann, 75, and Rich Burns, the East Hampton School District’s superintendent, have been plunging together since McCann and his wife, Ann, moved out here full time in the summer of 2004. “One year, maybe the third one we did, we had to run through icy rain in the parking lot to get to the beach at Indian Wells,” said McCann. “That was probably the overall worst — though today is the worst as far as the air temperature goes.”

“One of the Kalbachers, I forget which one, used to bring a hot tub in the back of his pickup truck to the ones in Amagansett,” Ann McCann remembered, “but the kids were the first to get to it with their sandy feet.”

When this writer asked if this were the first year a village ambulance was parked at the edge of the beach, Burns said there’d always been one, just as there had always been East Hampton Village Ocean Rescue Squad lifeguards to assure safety.

The town lifeguards’ captain, John Ryan Jr., warming his hands by a metal drum fire in front of the pavilion, agreed that there had been worse days over all. “Once, about eight years ago, when I saw ice on the beach, I did cancel it. But people still went in.”

All the Ryans’ children, Haley, Shannon, and Marikate, were among the plungers — with boyfriends tagging along.

“Shannon and her boyfriend go to the University of Alabama, and Marikate goes to Clemson,” said their father. “Shannon and Marikate are going to box afterward.”

John Ryan Sr., at 83 — easily standing out in a crowd because of the plunger worn atop his head, which is already head and shoulders above most other heads — was presumably the eldest plunger. 

People were wondering where Santa Claus (Pat Sullivan) was when, just before starting time, he showed, resplendent with his trimmed white beard and red-suspendered shorts. Photographers leaped from the hemmed-in sidelines to take photos.

And then, with about two dozen in the front rank, they were off.

And back almost before you could turn around.

And the water? “It was good,” said Ted Stafford.

“Cold as shit . . . cold as ice,” said Ryan Sr., adding, “Who took my towel?”

“It was colder when you got out,” said Dennis Fabiszak, “the air being 20 degrees colder than the water.”

“Happy New Year,” Joe Sullivan, Pat’s son, said to this writer, who was about to make for his car. “Stay warm.”

The East Hampton Polar Bear Plunge on New Year's Day at Main Beach was one of the coldest in recent memory, but icy waters did not deter the heartiest, including, above, John Ryan Sr., with plunger in hand, who at 83 may have been the oldest to go in. Below, the East Hampton Volunteer Ocean Rescue Squad was suited up and on hand to keep an eye on participants as they conquered the frigid cold and made the plunge. Durell Godfrey Photos