SOUTHINGTON - Veteran polar plunge partisans recommend; skip wearing a hat into the icy water, don't linger and don't wear anything with buttons.
Those are tips for anyone leaping Saturday into frigid Sloper Pond off East Street to raise money for YMCA summer camp scholarships. The 11th annual counter-intuitive plunging starts at 1 p.m. with successive groups of people jumping off a dock into chest-deep water.
"No buttons. Trust me. Your fingers will be so numb you won't be able to manipulate buttons." Shane Lockwood, a regional health director taking his fourth plunge, said Thursday. He also said he suffers two weeks each year of increasing dread prior to the plunge, like a kid with bad teeth fearing a dental appointment.
"I think 'maybe I can just write the check and not go' 'Why did I sign up?'. I think like that until a few days before," he said. "Just today, I resigned myself to the fact that I'll go, do it, get wet for 30 seconds and it'll be over. I still think this year will be be my last. But I've always thought it. Especially that second I hit the water."
His polar opposite is Bob Hunt, a veteran town firefighter and an annual YMCA Polar Plunger who enjoys winter swimming in New England so much, he does it several times each season, sometimes just for fun in the Atlantic Ocean in Rhode Island .
Hunt told Lockwood about his winter swimming habits one day this week when both met in a hallway of the town office complex. Hunt is one of the few Sloper regulars who lingers in the cold pond because he likes it.
"Call me crazy," Lockwood said afterward "but my idea of swimming fun has warm tropical waters, a sandy beach and a boiling noonday sun." Not some death-defying leap into ice water more suitable for penguins than pelicans.
Sign-up forms for the YMCA Polar Plunge include registration, a waiver and verification that the signer is at least the minimum age of 18 and donate at least the minimum $100 to the scholarship effort. People can come to the pond Saturday and register if they wish, YMCA Executive Director John Myers said,
There is an EMT unit on standby and fire safety staff ready to help if needed at the pond. But no one has had any trouble in any plunge, Myers said. He's never even seen a plunger have second thoughts and leave before jumping in.
The first year, the event raised about $5,000. Last year, it raised $35,000. This year looks to be at least that amount. The summer camp attracts about 3,000 campers to the four two-week sessions. Each session costs $400, so the plunge money helps dozens of children attend camp ,Myers said.
"It's a wonderful event for a terrific cause even though it's so cold," Town Manager Garry Brumback said of the leap into Sloper. "You're in and out of the water in 30 seconds tops.Bring a change of dry clothes. Change immediately when you get shore. It's not the water but the ambient temperature that gets you. Especially the wind. Don't stop to get near one of the fires on the beach in the 55-gallon drums. Change first."
There are teams from the fire department, town hall, board of education and other groups, as well as inidividuals who hurl themselves into miserably cold water for a good cause, Myers said. This will be his 11th plunge into arctic Sloper.
The water temperature is usually in the lows 30s, whether the winter has been super-cold, unusually mild, snowy or rainy, whether the pond has ice to be chopped to expose open water or whether the surface is unfrozen, he said.
The trick is not to go all the way under when jumping into the chest-deep water, Myers said. He also advises wearing socks and old sneakers like he does "because for me, the main thing is my feet."
Some tips are no good. Lockwood says jumpers should ignore advice to wear a hat into the water, then take it off immediately because this will keep your hair dry.
"It doesn't work," he said.
Each year, dozens of warmly-dressed people stay onshore to cheer on the plungers. One of these regulars is Michelle Passamano, a school district executive assistant who organizes the district polar plunge teams but will not take the leap herself.
"I'm deathly afraid of the water," she said Thursday after updating lists of the 50 BOE employees who will jump in Saturday. " You see pictures of them jumping in. The look of everyone's face is 'this is not fun.' I applaud for their bravery. But it's not for me."