Legions Leap In During East Hampton Polar Bear Plunge

A rite of winter — the annual New Year’s Day Plunge for the food pantries.
The legions having leapt in and, just as quickly, having left, Santa Claus (Pat Sullivan) wished a fellow dawdler in the frigid surf a happy new year. Jack Graves

The surf was silvery, the weather, if not balmy, at least in the temperate range, and young faces — grizzled ones too — were beaming in the sun as a seeming record number of plungers and their fans gathered at East Hampton’s Main Beach on Sunday for what has become a rite of winter — the annual New Year’s Day Plunge for the food pantries.

“The need is year-round, though especially, of course, in the winter,” said Aubrey Peterson, a member of the East Hampton Food Pantry’s board of directors, and East Hampton High School social worker, who has already enlisted his 7-year-old son, Finn, who was playing in the sand nearby, in the cause. Over $20,000 was raised for the food pantry.

“We have community service at the high school level,” he continued, “but I think kids should start being aware of others and their needs long before that, as early as kindergarten.”

The East Hampton Food Pantry has a temporary home, until May, Mr. Peterson said in reply to a question, on the Country Day Camp grounds across the street from the Buckskill Tennis and Winter Club. As for a permanent home, “if anyone has any ideas . . .”

Concerning the chances of a happy outcome, “the community,” he agreed with this writer, “always rallies around . . . we saw that most recently in the case of the Sag Harbor fire. . . .”

On Monday, Vicki Littman, the East Hampton Food Pantry’s chairwoman, seconded that.

“We’re open every Tuesday throughout the year,” she said. “A lot of families and seniors rely on us . . . . We’re committed to keeping the food pantry open. We’re determined to find a new home, hopefully sooner than later.”

“It’s all him,” Kenny Dodge, a non-plunger, said, when asked if he’d put any pressure to attend on his 11-year-old son, Zach, a first baseman and pitcher on the young baseball team that recently won the Brookhaven fall league. 

“How was your Christmas?” Mr. Dodge asked.

“Fine. Nothing I got for my wife fit, but she appreciated the thought. . . . This kind of thing must have its roots in the sacrificial rites of ancient times . . .”

He laughed. “No chopping off of fingers, though.” 

“If it were really, really cold — 32 or down — I wouldn’t do it,” said another father, Ray Wojtusiak, who was about to take the plunge with his 13-year-old daughter, Eva, and 6-year-old son, Elias.  

There were many Hurricanes there, though Tom Cohill, the Y.M.C.A. East Hampton RECenter youth swim team’s coach, who was about to dish out chowder and chili to the plungers afterward, said he hadn’t actually demanded that they attend. 

Questioned further, he said a first-ever state championship for the entire team — it would be a repeat for the girls — was a possibility this year.

East Hampton High’s boys swimming team, which has a home meet at the RECenter today, was also doing well, its coaches, Craig Brierley and Brian Cunningham, said.

The team placed fourth among nine teams in the Hauppauge invitational on Dec. 28, “a big improvement,” said Brierley, “in comparison to our showing there last season where we failed to score in any of the events.”

Brierley’s son, Christian, placed third in the 100-yard backstroke and fourth in the 50 free; Aiden Forst was the 200 freestyle runner-up; the 200 medley relay team of Luke Tyrell, Brierley, Colin Harrison, and Owen McCormac placed fourth, as did Conor Flanagan in the 500 freestyle.

Jordan Uribe, an East Hampton sophomore, was named swimmer of the meet by the captains (Brierley, Dylan Feit, and Andrew Wilson).

“They’ve been working fantastically hard and they’ve had good success,” Cunningham said.

There weren’t only swimmers there — runners too. One in particular was Dennis Fabiszak, the East Hampton Library’s executive director, who had two weeks earlier won his first 100-mile ultra-marathon in Florida in 22 hours and 46 minutes having logged, without sleep, 29 loops over a 3.5-mile course near Cape Canaveral, “mostly in the dark. . . . The first 50 miles were physical, the next 30 were mental, and the final 20 were . . . well, you’re so close, you’ve just got to do it.”

The plunge, he said afterward, and a 5K he’d done with Mike Bahel, Mike Bottini, and others before it, had helped to wake his muscles up. “I’m finally feeling normal again,” he said. 

For the first time in memory, neither John Ryan Sr., the guru of lifeguarding here, nor his son, John Jr., was at the plunge, off in Arizona, as they reportedly were, for a family reunion.

In the elder Ryan’s absence, Steve Brierley, minus the plunger atop his head, handled the megaphone as the “freezin’ for a reason” hordes began to fill in what appeared to be a 60-to-70-yard swath atop a 3-foot berm at the surf’s edge. 

With the arrival of a suspendered, bespectacled Santa Claus (the 61-year-old Pat Sullivan) front and center in the first rank, the moment had come.

Santa Claus stayed in for a long time.

His son, Joe, one of the owners of the popular Montauk Brewing Company, said, when asked, that, athletically speaking, other than an occasional swim, “this has become my father’s thing.”

On emerging in the wake of the legions swarming ashore, Joe’s father said he’d been a fixture at this community fund-raiser for the past “six or seven years. . . . Now,” he added, with a smile, “I guess I can’t get out of it.”     

Logan Tarlow, with his mother Claudia behind, ran for dry land. . Durell Godfrey
Sacrificial rites, or at least semi-sacrificial ones such as Sunday’s ocean plunge, have ancient roots. Durell Godfrey
East Hampton’s Volunteer Ocean Rescue Squad made sure that Sunday’s plungers at the village’s Main Beach got in and out safely. The Hurricane swim team’s parents and the East Hampton Lions Club made sure they had something sustaining waiting for them near the pavilion afterward. Durell Godfrey
One of the plungers, Dennis Fa­biszak, the East Hampton Library’s director, recently won a 100-mile race near Cape Canaveral in 22 hours and 46 minutes. Mark Drautz
The Gilbert brothers, Colin and Rick, were among the 300 or so who plunged. At least that many, said Steve Brierley, the honcho in John Ryan Sr.’s absence, looked on. Durell Godfrey
Craig Macnaughton
Durell Godfrey
East Hampton Village Mayor Paul F. Rickenbach Jr. welcomed the plungers. Durell Godfrey
Polar Bear Plungers line up at Main Beach. Durell Godfrey