By Andrew Rudansky
Diving into the icy cold waters surrounding the East End during the frosty winter months is not the most comfortable way to spend an afternoon. But take it from me, just because plunging isn’t the most relaxing experience, doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyable and rewarding in its own right.
As the self-proclaimed, resident expert in winter swimming at The Sag Harbor Express, I have personally taken chilly jaunts into the bays and oceans off of Long Island many times this winter. A recent convert to winter swimming, my first plunge was the result of a bar bet this past November. But losing that bet might have been the best thing for me.
The number two in the country Alabama Crimson Tide was hosting the number one LSU Tigers on November 5 in a college gridiron classic that was to become a preview of this year’s BCS title game.
In an effort to make the game more interesting, a bet was wagered with the loser made to strip down and take a dip into the chilly November waters.
I said “Roll Tide,” but after a brutal 9-6 Alabama loss the tide rolled me as I splashed about in the dark waters of Noyac Bay.
Without a doubt I am an awful gambler, and since that chilly night in November I have bet my way into the chilly waters on close to 20 different occasions. What I did not expect was the benefits that my poor gambling skills, and the subsequent plunges, would have on my health.
Winter swimming has been practiced for years across the globe. Many in Finland enjoy the occasional therapeutic ice swim, members of the Coney Island Polar Bear Club have been taking winter dips for over a century, and the devotees of the Orthodox Church in Russia celebrate the feast of Epiphany with a quick dunk beneath the ice.
“I think overall, if you don’t have any serious medical conditions, this swimming [in the winter] is generally pretty safe,” said Dr. Anthony Knott M.D.
Dr. Knott said he is a great proponent of cold water plunging, adding that he jumps into the waters near his office on Main Street, Montauk on a weekly basis. He is such a fan of the practice that he has recommended the practice to some of his patients for the associated health effects.
“It reduces stress hormones, it increases your white blood cell count, bolsters the immune system, and it increases your blood circulation by increasing the blood thinning enzymes,” said Dr. Knott. “Also, from a mental health point-of-view, it clears the mind.”
He said that those with heart conditions and serious asthma should use precaution when plunging, as the freezing temperatures could cause complications with either condition.
This Saturday, February 11, the entire town will get the opportunity to experience the exhilaration of winter swimming at this year’s HarborFrost celebration. The Sag Harbor Volunteer Ambulance Corps will be hosting their second annual “Frosty Plunge,” a charity event intended to raise money for the EMT ambulance fund.
The plunge is set to occur at 3:30 p.m. next to the windmill, near Long Wharf; the corps is asking for a $25 donation to participate.
For those people taking part in the upcoming “Frosty Plunge” let me first say that you never get used to the shocking experience, however, there are some tips to help ease into the experience.
Surviving the icy water requires a mix of informed preparation and healthy amount of willpower. With plenty of both, any dip into the bay can be an invigorating and not-to-painful experience.
For those looking to take the plunge, there is much to do before even stepping foot on the sands.
Coming prepared is of the utmost importance, so bring a bag with a warm hat, gloves, a comfy sweater and plenty of dry towels, the more the better. Most importantly make sure to bring a pair of sandals or water shoes, as the cold sand can be the worst part of any plunging experience.
This year, Phao will be offering hot soup at the beach, and the Sag Harbor Gym will open its doors for the use of its showers for the plungers. Take advantage of both after getting out of the water, and drink as much hot cocoa as you can get your hands on. Getting as warm as possible after the plunge is important to avoid mild hypothermia, a risk that Dr. Knott said was possible if someone is exposed to prolonged, cold temperatures.
As for willpower, a plunger’s state of mind is extremely important before getting into the water. It is a challenge to ignore every iota of human instinct about self-preservation, and hurl your entire body into the freezing cold water.
“When you are standing there on the beach you ask yourself ‘why am I doing this,’” said Andrew Ward, co-founder of the Shelter Island Polar Bear Club and winter swimming enthusiast.
Ward and the other members of the club jump into the waters off of Hay Beach, Shelter Island every Sunday at 12 noon, starting each winter on January 1.
“Obviously this is not for everybody,” he said, “a lot of people don’t like feeling uncomfortable.”
The actual plunging should be approached like tearing off a Band-Aid. It is best done quickly, and with little hesitation.
“You just have to start running,” said Ward about plunging, “and then you have to just pull the trigger.”
HarborFrost, now in its second year after a highly successful inaugural showing, is a winter festival meant to bring the residents of Sag Harbor and the surrounding hamlets together.
Hosted by The Sag Harbor Chamber of Commerce, HarborFrost is a time for residents to express their love of Sag Harbor, as well as their acceptance of the winter season they are forced to endure.
Of all the many events at this year’s festival, and there are many, the one that I won’t be missing is the “Frosty Plunge.” Hope to see all of you there.