Kevin Neeld, wearing only a bathing suit Tuesday, vigorously rubbed his hands together for warmth while preparing to do something that his friends and family thought was crazy.
“I’m 53. I hope to make it to 54,” Neeld joked.
Moments later, the Mays Landing resident rushed into the chilly Brigantine surf, along with hundreds of other diehards, to take part in what has become one of the Jersey Shore’s zaniest New Year’s Day traditions: the so-called Polar Bear Plunge.
“My heart didn’t stop. It’s going to be a good year,” a shivering Neeld said after emerging from the 51-degree ocean.
More than 2,000 spectators gathered at water’s edge on 14th Street South for Brigantine’s 13th annual Polar Bear Plunge, a wacky event that combines a summerlike beach scene with New Year’s Day revelry. Atlantic City, Margate and Ventnor were among the shore towns that also held the events.
Despite the frivolity, Brigantine officials noted that this year’s event took on serious undertones in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the Oct. 29 superstorm that pummeled New Jersey’s coastal towns.
“The people of Brigantine have been through a lot,” Mayor Phil Guenther said, alluding to the hurricane. “But today’s crowd that is here proves that Brigantine is Jersey strong.”
Donations at the Brigantine event supported Fisher House, a charity that provides housing and transportation to wounded military personnel and their families. Organizers said they raised $47,000 for the Fisher House program last year and hoped to hit $60,000 in 2013.
John Hand, founder and co-chairman of Brigantine’s event, explained the importance of supporting Fisher House. Although shore homeowners suffered a lot in the hurricane, wounded members of the military have lost more than just property, he said.
“We lost our homes and businesses, but we didn’t lose our limbs,” Hand said. “We can recover from the hurricane. We’re going to rebuild.”
Hand, comically dressed in flip-flops and an Uncle Sam costume, led the procession up to the ocean. He exhorted the crowd, amping up the excitement level until the horn sounded at noon, prompting the swimmers to make their mad dash into the water.
Neeld, an Atlantic City casino host, said his New Year’s Day dip was a “positive way” to kick off 2013. At the same time, he admitted that his friends and family questioned his sanity.
“They think I’m crazy. I tell them they’re right,” he said, laughing.
Dale Fichetola, 52, of the Cardiff section of Egg Harbor Township, characterized the Polar Bear Plunge as the No. 1 priority on her bucket list.
“Life is too short,” she said. “I really wanted to do this.”
Fichetola showed up for the event wearing purple pajama pants, Christmas decorations draped around her neck and a Santa hat inscribed with the words “I’ve been naughty.”
The PJs, decorations and Santa hat were ditched in favor of a bathing suit when Fichetola readied herself for a dip. She said she planned to wade in up to her chest, preferring not to get her hair wet.
Pat Gannon, 50, of Jenkintown, Pa., said he was determined to take a full plunge into the ocean, no matter how cold the water.
“It’s not official unless you go in all the way,” he said. “I want to cleanse my sins for the new year.”
Before he stripped down to a bathing suit, Gannon was attired in a red robe, black fleece cap, black dress shoes and black socks pulled up to his knees.
Outrageous outfits were the norm amid Brigantine’s raucous beach-party vibe. Swimmers and spectators alike strutted around in goofy Santa get-ups, PJs and bathrobes.
Mike Kuharik, of the Smithville section of Galloway Township, was dressed like Johnny Depp’s Capt. Jack Sparrow character from the “Pirates of the Caribbean” film franchise. His costume included a miniature pirate ship strapped around his waist.
An hour after the polar bears took their noontime plunge in Brigantine, a similar scene was repeated at the Newport Avenue beach in Ventnor. The Ventnor crowd was smaller than Brigantine’s, but seemed equally robust.
“Nah, I’m not cold,” assured Ventnor resident Steve Biebel, while dressed only in a bathing suit. “It’s kind of like prepping my body.”
About 15 minutes later, the 20-year-old Biebel joined other swimmers to test the water. Biebel jumped right in, but quickly ran out of the frigid surf, along with everyone else.
“Want to feel how cold it is? Feel my hand. That’s how cold,” Biebel said, offering a handshake.
The event was sponsored by the Ventnor Merchants Association. Proceeds from the sale of T-shirts and sweatshirts commemorating the event will benefit the local community, organizers said.
Diane Birkbeck, a Ventnor resident and member of the event’s organizing committee, said it was particularly important to hold the Polar Bear Plunge following Hurricane Sandy. Ventnor is one of the towns that continue to recover from the storm.
“Some of the organizers of this event have also been involved in the hurricane-relief efforts,” Birkbeck said. “All of them said that we were going to make this event happen. People have been saying that we’re stronger than the hurricane.”
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