By Cheryl Lecesse
---- — SALEM — Ryan Phelan, 18, of Lynn, described what it was like to plunge into the ocean on a cold, January morning.
“It feels like poison darts coming at you,” he said.
But that didn’t stop him or dozens of others from running, screaming, into the frosty water at the Winter Island boat ramp yesterday, continuing what has become a New Year’s tradition that also benefits area residents in need.
To the sounds of a cowbell and cheers, locals tossed off their towels and bathrobes and stormed into the icy water for the fourth annual “Freeze Your Tush Off” for charity ocean dip. The event is a fundraiser for the Salem Pantry, which provides free groceries to those in need each month at the First Universalist Church. Since its inception, the polar plunge has raised more than $10,000 for the food bank.
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Among the first to go in was event organizer Becky Christie, who has taken a New Year’s Day dip every year since 2000 in honor of her friend Elizabeth Bookholz, who died in 1999.
“For me, it’s in her memory,” said Christie.
The event is informal — there’s no registration — but attracts people of all ages from Salem and the surrounding area. Some strip down to their bathing suits to take the plunge and come running back, usually to a waiting friend or family member with a warm, dry towel. Lots just come to watch. Many came straight from the finish line of the Wicked Frosty Four Road Race.
This was the first year the event was held on Winter Island, which also allowed participants to warm up with cups of hot chocolate afterward in the nearby function hall. The previous charity dips took place at Juniper Cove at Salem Willows, where Christie took her first “polar plunge” while enjoying an outdoor lunch on a balmy 70-degree New Year’s Day there with Bookholz.
Phelan, along with brothers Dominic, 19, and Patrick Barceleau, 18, also of Lynn, have taken the icy plunge since its start.
“After the third year it’s a tradition,” said Dominic. “It’s just a fun way to ring in the New Year.”
According to Dominic, it’s not so much the cold water that shocks the body, but rather the wind while getting out of the water. Not to mention that this year was much colder than last January, he said. But once they’re in and out, the cold air isn’t as noticeable.
The event’s true challenge, Patrick admitted, comes long before the starting bell.
“I think waking up in the morning is the hardest part,” he said.
Cheryl Lecesse can be reached at 978-338-2664 or firstname.lastname@example.org.