Polar dippers today brave the frigid waves lapping Portland's East End Beach.
On East End Beach in Portland, the sky is blue and the bright sun glistens off calm ocean water. It's a picture perfect beach day - save for the fact that it's around 30 degrees. While spectators don winter jackets and hats, participants are showing a lot of bare legs and shoulders, even well before the dip begins.
Francesca Desanctis, a three-year polar dip veteran, has opted for a summery strapless lime green bridesmaid dress. "You have to dress for success," she says.
The bridesmaids dress is actually part of a wedding party theme with friends. Success, Desanctis says, is more about what she'll put on once she's emerged from the water. First, a warm pair of boots.
"Well, I have a bathrobe that someone is going to hold for me so when I run out I can strip my dress off, put my bathrobe on - because I have a bathing suit on underneath - and then dash to the changing room and throw some dry clothes on," she says.
Another member of the wedding party, Kim Cowperthwaite, is roaming the beach in a plaid bathrobe before the dip, sporting bare legs and a furry bomber hat. Cowperthwaite assures the adrenaline keeps him warm, though he eyes the water with trepidation.
"Ah - I think I know how cold it's going to be," he says, "and it's going to be colder than that."
A wedding party getting ready for a dip. Francesca Desanctis is second from left and Kim Cowperthwaite, in the plaid robe, is first on right.
The NRCM's Executive Director Lisa Pohlmann says this polar dip is one of the non-profit's few major event fundraisers, and it's growing every year - both in participation and money raised. As of last week, they had already beaten last year's total of $18,000.
This year's tally won't come in for a few days, but Pohlmann says the benefit extends beyond money, because of the way polar dips engage people with their organization. "All in all, it ends up being one of our best fundraisers of the year in terms of public participation."
Polar dips aren't anything new - The Maine Special Olympics claims to have organized the original polar dip in the state, starting 25 years ago.
President and CEO Phil Geelhoed says their annual "Lobster Dip" on New Year's Day gives them an essential boost,and lots of media attention, at the beginning of the year, "not only for the financial support we get from the event, but also the coverage, such as what you're doing right now and being able to create awareness for the program," he says.
Perhaps that's why polar dips are becoming more and more popular. Camp Sunshine in Casco - a camp for families of children with life-threatening illnesses - started sponsoring polar dips a few years ago after one of their volunteers, an 11-year-old boy at the time - raised $6000 doing a dip in Boston.
Special events director Mike Smith says polar dips maximize donations because there's so little overhead. Camp Sunshine now holds dips from Virginia to Bangor, raising about $350,000 a year. Their success, says Smith, also has to do with the quirkiness of the event.
"Yeah, because ironically, people are willing to pay just about anything to see their friends jump into freezing cold water in the middle of winter."
Back on East End Beach in Portland, NRCM polar dippers get the signal to take the plunge at high noon. The dip itself lasts about 60 seconds, with some taking the full plunge, while others choose to go just up to their waists or chests.
Afterwards on the beach, first-time dipper Alex Toole is hunched over, clutching his toes. Apparently he didn't hear the tip about have a pair of warm boots waiting on shore.
"Patty Wight: "Do you think you're going to do it again?
Alex Toole: "Uh - if I survive this one. It has yet to be seen. But maybe in 2013 going into 2014. We'll see. I might be wheeling in a wheelchair there because right now my feet aren't looking to make it.
Patty Wight: "How are they doing?"
Alex Toole: "Ah - they've been better."
Despite the pain in his toes, Toole says it was worth it. He did the dip with friends, and says he'll always remember ringing in the new year in 2012.
Photos by Patty Wight.