It’s 20 degrees out, snow is falling and the winds are howling. While you’re curled up in bed, around 100 people from Brooklyn to Manhattan and beyond are outside in bathing suits and sprinting straight for the ocean. You’re probably thinking these people are crazy (and they’d probably agree).
Who are they and why they hell would they jump into the ocean in the middle of winter? The who is easy. They’re the Coney Island Polar Bear Club! The Why? That’s where President and long-time member, Dennis Thomas, comes in.
Ok, so first things first. How long have you personally been in the club and how did you get involved?
I think it’s been about 35 years at this point. Back in the 70s when I was an art student in NY, I used to like hanging out there on dismal days. It had to have been a Sunday after November, and I saw these guys hanging out on the beach in bathing suits and I saw them run into the water and I thought “Wow, that’s really crazy. I wanna do that.”
And you liked it enough to want to do it again?
It’s something I thought I would only do one time, like most people who jump out of a plane one time and that’s it. I didn’t expect to like it, I just did it for the sake of trying it. And then afterwards it was like “Huh, that wasn’t so bad. I think I’d like to try that again.”
So what does it take to become an official member of the Coney Island Polar Bear Club?
To become a full time member in the club, we ask that people do 12 swims within a single season (from November through April).
Do you have to spend a certain amount of time in the water for it to “count”?
We don’t dictate time but [club members] average about 10 minutes in the water every Sunday. Sometimes more. Like in November, it’s still going to be relatively warm and people stay in for 20 minutes, sometimes a half hour. Deep February? People shorten that, not only because of the water temperature but the wind.
When we have newcomers come, I just say you do what you feel comfortable with, no pressure. We’re not here to suffer or challenge anyone else to suffer. We’re here to have fun and if it’s not fun, get the hell out and find something that is!
What keeps you and others coming back week after week?
It clears my mind. You go into that water and whatever problems, whatever stress, whatever’s on your mind is just cleared out for a little while because you can’t think of any of those things that are bugging you when you’re in this kind of intense environment.
One more reason, and I think this is something we all share in the club, is this love for this place called Coney Island. We have an incredible group of highly spirited people who come from all different walks of life who seem to have only this one thing in common that we do together every Sunday.
What’s special to you about the New Year’s Day swim and why is it so popular?
A lot of people do this globally, I’m not sure why. I just think it’s an alternative way to celebrate the new year by a very abrupt break from the past. Maybe it’s a ritual cleansing for some. I know for others it’s a way to beat a hangover.
How big is the New Year’s swim?
On New Year’s day we average over 2000, close to 2500 swimmers in the water. I think it’s the largest off season event on Coney Island. And we’ll probably get another 10k spectators out there. So it’s a huge day! We use the event to raise funds for our charity partner, Camp Sunshine. Camp Sunshine is located in Maine and they give children with serious illnesses and their families a camp experience. We’ve been working with them for almost 10 years.
Ok, one last question for those who literally want to know what they’re getting themselves into should they sign up for the New Years Day swim. What’s the average water temperature?
The water can be in the very low 60s or 50s in November. Mid February, if its an average winter, you’ll probably be around 31-33 degrees. It depends on how harsh the winter is. If we have a mild winter, we’ll be in the upper 30s or low 40s. and if it gets colder, it gets colder.
Think you have what it takes to #TaketheRide for a great cause?
Sign up and take the plunge with our crew!
Can’t handle the water?
Hit the beach to cheer on the swimmers and join us at the brewery for the Official After Party.
Can’t make it to Coney Island?
Celebrate from afar with a 6-pack of our Blegian-Style Ale, The Plunge!
And don’t forget to join us the night before the big swim at our 2nd Annual Brew Year’s Eve!