Howard Beach ‘Polar Bears’ take the plunge

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Photos by Arthur de Gaeta


Brave souls dove into 2012 with style.

Members of the Howard Beach Polar Bear Club were among hundreds weathering the water at the annual Coney Island Polar Bear Club swim on New Year’s Day.

Although the weather was a mild 51 degrees, the water was a chilly 45 degrees – but that did not stop Jimmy Hennessy of Howard Beach from taking the plunge, as he has for the past seven years.

“This year it wasn’t cold at all,” he said. “It’s a good feeling. It’s exhilarating. It’s a good way to start the year.”

Hennessy took his first swim in 2006 after being persuaded by friend Greg McCaig. In 2007, more friends from the neighborhood joined. Now in its seventh year, the group has grown to 80.

Tradition is as follows: Each New Year’s Day, they meet at The Rail — a local bar — at 10 a.m.

“We all have Irish coffee and my homemade eggnog,” Hennessy said, adding that the group raises money for the local VFW post. “Then we head to Coney Island and go swimming. Afterwards, we go back to The Rail.”

This year was extra special for Hennessy — his group made up shirts saying “Howard Beach Polar Bear Club. Established 1995.”

“Jimmy Leslie, owner of Howard Beach Florist, told me that he went into the water on January 1, 1995 – so he was our first Polar Bear,” Hennessy explained.

The Howard Beach group holds an American flag as they venture into the freezing waters. “We think of it as a dedication to the USS Indianapolis – the ship that was, so to say, left out in the cold – and a lot of men on board died,” he said. “We do it in their honor, too.”

The Polar Bears also have a claim to fame: a short documentary named “A Cornucopia of Characters: The Queens Polar Bears.” It was the 2011 winner of the Long Beach-based George Ennis Film Festival.

All Polar Bear participants froze for a good cause – over $38,000 was raised to benefit Camp Sunshine, which helps children with life-threatening illnesses.


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