Come on in, the Freezing’s Fine

Polar Bear Plunges here benefit constitutions and a variety of causes
Joan Tulp wears a fur coat and a tiara to the East Hampton Main Beach Polar Bear Plunges. Durell Godfrey Photos

If you happen to be at the annual Polar Bear Plunge at noon on New Year’s Day at East Hampton’s Main Beach, you will know Joan Tulp if you see her. She’s the octogenarian who has worn a tiara and tossed her mink coat to the ground in past years before running into the frigid water with East Hampton Village Mayor Paul F. Rickenbach Jr. and John Ryan Sr. (Mr. Ryan would be the white-haired gentleman with the plunger on his head, holding Ms. Tulp’s hand to steady themselves as they go.)

“We go in together because we’re the oldest,” Ms. Tulp said. “How old? Oh dear. How can I put it without really telling my age? Let’s just say I’m not 90 yet, but getting close. I’ve done the plunge three or four times now. When I told my doctor I went in, he said, ‘Are you crazy?’ But it’s just such a great and festive day. A real party atmosphere.”

The 300 or 400 people who participate annually at the Main Beach event, like the smaller throng who join the Wainscott Polar Bear Plunge at the end of Beach Lane at 2:30 on New Year’s Day, say they show up for a variety of reasons: Because it’s fun. Because it’s there.

But hardly anyone fails to mention it’s for a good cause.

The Main Beach plunge has a $35 registration fee and all proceeds benefit the East Hampton, Wainscott, and Amagansett food pantries. You can donate or sign up in person, or online at easthamptonfoodpantry.org or springsfoodpantry.org. 

Another New Year’s Day plunge, at 9:30 a.m. at Gurney’s Resort in Montauk, suggests donations for the Retreat, an East Hampton agency that serves victims of domestic abuse.

Colin Mather, founder of the Wainscott plunge and owner of the Seafood Shop on Montauk Highway, said the plunge has benefited a variety of causes over the years. This year, the donations will help one of his employees who has been diagnosed with cancer. Donations are also being accepted at the store.

Mr. Ryan, like his friend Mr. Mather, has participated since the East Hampton events started in 1999.

“Tips?” Mr. Ryan said. “Sure. Make sure you wear slippers, because the lone big problem is the cold sand that can hurt your feet, so I have my Crocs I can slide on and off — zip, bam, boom. After that? Bring a bathrobe. And a towel. And then I recommend you just run out to at least knee-high water before you turn around. And fall down.”

“Then, of course, the ocean rescue lifeguards are there to help you get up. Because at my age, I need help getting up.”

Most plungers cannot tell a lie about what it feels like once you’re in the water: It’s numbing, trending toward painful, they say, laughing. Last year was arguably the most daunting plunge on record, with an air temperature of 18 degrees and a water temp of 37 degrees as well as biting winds. It also happened to be the first year the Rev. Ryan Creamer of Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church in East Hampton had chosen for his maiden dip. 

“I did jump all the way in — I even swam around and did the backstroke a little bit,” Mr. Creamer recalled. “Then I thought, ‘Okay. That’s enough.’ I think it was the Holy Spirit telling me, ‘Get out.’ ”

Even Mr. Mather, who believes in the restorative power of very cold showers so much he says he takes one 365 days a year, said, “Last year was so cold it felt like a bed of nails. But that’s rare. What I like to tell new people just before they’re about to go in is, ‘You’ll go in the water a man. And come out a woman.’ ” “And you know what I’m talking about.”

The Wainscott plunge typically draws 75 to 100 people. Participants can join Mr. Mather outside his shop at 2 p.m. for a 1.6-mile jog to the Beach Lane site. At 2:30, everyone hits the surf. Food, hot drinks, and soup are also there, as is a registration table.

Last year Mr. Mather said he was stunned as he left the frigid water when a man in “this big Eskimo coat and hood” ran up and clamped him in a bear hug, then held on, bobbing up and down in place and “yelling — excuse my language — ‘Oh my God! Oh my God! That is f—-ing amazing! That is the craziest thing I’ve ever seen! I’m going to  buy all my fish from you! Forever!’ ”

“When he pulled off the hood,” Mr. Mather said, “I saw it was Alec Baldwin. Only the funniest guy in the world. A guy who has taken the plunge with us a couple times before.”

How did those other years go? “He brought his wife one time, and I think she was pregnant,” Mr. Mather said. “As Alec was taking everything off and preparing to run in, she was looking at him like, ‘You better not leave our child fatherless.’ ”

Mr. Mather laughed again. He again insisted the anticipation is the biggest hurdle. And Ms. Tulp seconded that, adding, just don’t forget to have your car on, heater running.

“It’s really not that bad,” she said, “and when you’re done, you feel like you’ve accomplished something big the rest of the day. And you’ve helped a good cause.”

Have plunger will plunge, says John Ryan Sr.