Prepare to plunge

New Year's Day: Anything seems to go on Tybee

MUCH LIKE A cranky old cat, my most unfavorite thing in the entire world is be cold and wet at the same time.

Which is why every New Year’s Day for the past five years, I forcibly override this aversion and jump in the ocean. My out–of–town relatives tsk–tsk this tradition as meshuggeh (loosely translated as “batshit nuts”), but I prefer to think of it is as cheap therapy: If you start out the year by pushing completely against one’s nature, life can only get better from there.

At least that’s what I tell myself every Jan. 1 as my family and I drag ourselves down the beach for the Tybee Island Polar Plunge. The walk to the pier is usually fraught with conflict, because if I’m reluctant to surrender to the frigid water, my son is downright oppositional.

“You know, I bet it’s against the law to make me go under,” he always grumbles, glowering from inside the hood of his puffy parka that makes him look a whole lot like Kenny from South Park. 

In our family, the rule is full submersion for ten seconds and is not up for negotiation. “Maybe Child Protective Services would like to hear about this.”

I usually tell him it will be difficult to call DFACS if the new cell phone he got for Chanukah happens to find its way into the water with him. He then tries to set me on fire with his scowl but predictably succumbs to giggles as my husband scoops him up and runs towards the pier.

Even tweenagers can’t stay mad when they’re being carried by a grown man sporting Elton John sunglasses and his grandmother’s ankle–length mink coat.

Oh, yes, the costumes. Very much encouraged at the Plunge. If you’re going to do something as mental as this, you might as well look the part: Shivering in the sand are lots of painted bodies carrying jellyfish umbrellas and dudes in tutus. Always the old guy dressed in a diaper as Baby New Year, and of course, local legend Gordon Varnedoe in full Batman regalia.

Definitely hoping my favorite Tybeenians Mark and Ellen Fulkerson will wear their matching unicorn shirts given to them by their daughters, Emma and Zoe. And I’m counting on my yearly plastic tiara from Tybee Island Weddings’ Steve and Jennifer Palmer. Somehow, wearing a crown lessens the shock.

What began as a drunken NYE dare between Don Ernst and Joel Moss in the last few moments of 1999 has evolved into a hardcore island tradition, one that washes away last year’s hangover while raising funds for charity.

Last year, over a thousand goose–bumped bodies braved the misty waters, and 400 of those paid a $25 registration fee to raise money for local nursing students. This year’s Plunge fund beneficiary is the Tybee Post Theater, a befitting recipient considering the theatrics of it all.

Of course the ocean is still free and no one has to pay to plunge. However, paid registrants not only receive the satisfaction of supporting local arts and a long–sleeved Polar Plunge T–shirt but something far more fantastic: An official Polar Plunge bathing cap.

And not just any old grandma bathing chapeau festooned with plastic flowers, either. These sleek little numbers are the ticket into Tybee’s attempt to find its way into the Guinness Book of World Records by hosting the largest gathering of people wearing swim caps. The current record of 546 is held by the people of Hirakata Park in Osaka, Japan.

Maybe that doesn’t sound like an insurmountable challenge, but have you ever tried to squeeze your head into a stretchy beanie after an evening of too much bubbly?

Yet who else will be able to say they began 2012 by breaking a Guinness World Record? We can do this, people.
You have to be registered to be counted, and the World Record attempt is at 11:45 a.m., right before the noon Plunge, and must last 10 minutes.

It all sounds like fun from the warm, dry safety of my desk. On New Year’s Day, when I’m standing on the edge of the Atlantic with a thousand other slightly delirious souls, anticipating the knives of icy cold that always feel sharpest right around my bellybutton, I’ll probably want to chicken out.

But the second the air horn blows, any urge to hiss and hide in the bathroom will be washed away by the wild splashes and gleeful shrieks as we all charge forward into a new year.

To be honest, other than in 2009 when everyone came out miserable and blue, the water’s not really that cold. In fact, as of now the projected air temperature will be in the mid–60s and the water in the 40s.

This will not cause instant hypothermia, no matter what my son tells you.

But those people who plunge in Maine where the water is actually freezing? Those people are meshuggeh.

Pre–registration for Plunge and World Record attempt on Saturday, Dec. 31 from 1–4p.m. at the Tybrisa Roundabout and Sunday from 9 a.m. Horn blows at noon; traffic from the mainland will be heavy. Info:


About The Author

Jessica Leigh Lebos

Community Editor Jessica Leigh Lebos has been writing about interesting people, vexing issues and anything involving free food for more than 20 years. She introduces herself at cocktail parties as southern by marriage.
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