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New Years Spectacle: Coney Island Polar Bears Take a Dip Into the Atlantic

FAQ: How to Participate in Brooklyn's "Coolest" New Year's Day Tradition

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New Years Spectacle: Coney Island Polar Bears Take a Dip Into the Atlantic

Brooklyn's Coney Island Polar Bears take the plunge every New Years Day. Photo by Tom McGann.

Every January 1, Brooklyn's Coney Island Polar Bear Club takes its traditional dip into the icy waters of the Atlantic Ocean, in Coney Island. It's a spectacle that regularly gets mentioned on television and in other media. It's fun, it's freezing, and it's a heck of a way to kick off the New Year!

The Coney Island Polar Bears annual plunge is also a a fundraising event raising thousands of dollars annually. Most of the proceeds go to help extremely ill children at a non-profit organization called Camp Sunshine, in Maine, which is utilized by many NYC children on the recommendation of such New York treatment centers as Mount Sinai, Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. In 2012, Coney Island Polar Bear Club is seeking to raise $50,000 for Camp Sunshine.

FAQ About the Coney Island Polar Bear Club January 1 Swim in Brooklyn

Can I Participate? Yes! The New Year's day swim is open to the public. Most people register on the day of the event, according to the organizers.

When and Where Does It Take Place? Arrive by noon on New Year's Day, January 1, to register, which you will find on the Atlantic Ocean Boardwalk at Stillwell Avenue, in Coney Island. Swim time is 1 P.M. sharp.

How Cold is the Water? Generally the water is in the 36 - 40 degree range.

How Long Do People Stay in the Water? Not long.

Should I Wear a Wet Suit? You can. Most people don't, as the whole idea is to brave the cold.

What Should I Wear, Then? Bathing suits! The club also strongly recommends wearing neoprine surf boots, or at least old sneakers for foot protection.

What Should I Bring? Warm clothes for after the swim, and a towel. Don't forget your camera. Repeat: bring something to protect your feet from broken bits of glass, like old sneakers (not the ones you plan on wearing home), too. Bring a friend for fun, photos, and to vouch for the fact that you really did this!

Where Can I Change? There are changing facilities on the Boardwalk at Stillwell Avenue, thanks to the NYC Parks Department.

Is there an Entrance Fee to Participate? There is no charge, but the Polar Bear Club requests, urges, and cajoles both swimmers and onlookers to make a donation to Camp Sunshine, an organization whose mission is to help children with life-threatening illnesses and their immediate families through various stages of a child’s illness.

How Many People Participate? It's huge. In 2010, 1,200 swimmers registered for this event. About five thousand or more people come to watch. People of all sizes, shapes and ages participate. There's even been some international collaboration; in 2009 the Coney Island Polar Bear Club hosted several dozen swimmers from the China Winter Swimming Delegation, including 2 Olympic torch bearers.

What Safety Measures Are There? There are lifeguards, EMT's, and various health personnel on site.

How Long Have Brooklynites Been Doing This January 1 Plunge? According to the club, the annual swim is an over-a-century old tradition.

How Did This All Get Started? The Coney Island Polar Bear Club was founded in 1903 by Bernarr Macfadden (1868-1955). Some called him the "Father of Physical Culture." Others thought he was crazy, because in his many books and publications he passionately espoused theories of good health — including an emphasis on exercise — that today seem mainstream but in the early 20th-century were considered outlandish. A dip in the ocean in wintertime was, apparently, one of his recommendations for increasing "stamina, virility and immunity," according to his contemporary followers, today's Coney Island Polar Bears.

What is the Coney Island Polar Bear Club? The Coney Island Polar Bear Club isn't the only cold-water winter swimming club in the US, but it claims to be the oldest. They swim in the Atlantic Ocean at Coney Island every Sunday from November through April.

Where Can I Learn More? Get details.

Note: Individuals with any medical condition are advised to consult your physician before swimming in nearly freezing water in mid-winter. This is an at-your-own-risk activity. Participants must sign a waiver at registration.

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