Thousands take plunge across South Jersey on New Years Day


Eric Wagman must be the bravest chicken on the planet.

There he was, resplendent in a furry, full-body chicken outfit, splashing around in the frigid ocean water Wednesday along with other diehards clad in bathing suits and wacky attire.

“It wasn’t as cold as I thought it would be,” Wagman, a 47-year-old pharmacist from Chalfont, Pa., exclaimed after emerging from the surf, his bright-yellow costume soaking wet. “It wasn’t that bad.”

Wagman was among thousands of bathers along the Jersey Shore who took part in the annual Polar Bear Plunge, a zany New Year’s Day tradition that turns the normally quiet winter beaches into a gigantic party scene — if just for one day.

Moments before this chicken crossed the beach to get to the ocean on the other side, Wagman faced questions from amused onlookers about whether he had the nerve to take a dip in the 42-degree water.

“Are you really going in the water in that thing?” one woman asked Wagman of his outrageous get-up.

“Yeah, but I don’t know if I’ll be coming back out,” Wagman replied.

Wagman joked that he chose to dress as a chicken because he couldn’t find a cow costume. Well, another Ocean City bather showed up in cattle-like garb replete with black and white spots.

“Happy Moo Year,” Tim Louden quipped while wearing his cow costume. “It has been an udder-ly titillating event.”

Louden, 49, of Wilmington, Del., ventured only part way into the surf, preferring not to get his battery-operated outfit completely wet and risk a short circuit. The battery powered a fan that keeps the cow suit inflated, Louden explained.

Ocean City publicist Mark Soifer estimated the event attracted a couple thousand people to the Moorlyn Terrace beachfront. The plunge was a comical complement to the city’s annual First Night celebration.

But all the polar bear silliness wasn’t confined to Ocean City. Atlantic City, Brigantine and other communities also held similar events to capitalize on the New Year’s Day revelry.

An estimated 15,000 people charged into the surf off the beach at 14th Street South in Brigantine, which traditionally stages one of the largest polar bear plunges at the shore. Participants braved water and air temperatures in the low 40s.

Liz Griffith, a 74-year-old retiree from Brigantine, was part of a group of plungers that included three generations of her family. She was dressed in a bright-red bathrobe and floppy hat trimmed in Christmas lights before stripping down to a one-piece bathing suit for her dip in the ocean.

“It’s wonderful,” Griffith said of the 44-degree water.

For Griffith, the plunge is an annual ritual. She has done it five or six times.

“I love it,” Griffith said. “I run in, and it feels good. You have to get your head wet to be considered a full plunger.”

Tim Mower, a newcomer to the Polar Bear Plunge madness, debated whether he would actually jump in. Mower was wearing a swimsuit underneath a screwball outfit consisting of a full-length mink coat, designer sunglasses and a wig.

“I’m going to wait until the last minute before deciding whether to go in. I’m a chicken,” said Mower, who lives in Exton, Pa., and has a summer home in Brigantine. “But it’s a good way to start out the new year, if I don’t end up in the hospital.”

Mike Kuharik, of the Smithville section of Galloway Township, turns up in a different costume each year for the Brigantine plunge. This year, he took inspiration from the 2000 movie “Cast Away.” In the film, Tom Hanks played a FedEx executive stranded on a deserted island after a plane crash.

Kuharik, wearing a fake, scraggly beard, had a miniature raft strapped around his waist as the centerpiece of his costume. A bearded Hanks used a raft to escape from the island in the movie.

“This is the perfect way to kick off the new year,” Kuharik said as he prepared to raft into the water.

Despite all the frivolity, the Brigantine event included some serious undertones. Brigantine donations annually support the Fisher House, a charity that provides housing and transportation to wounded military personnel and their families. Organizers said they expected to raise more than $50,000 this year for the Fisher House.