16 reasons to start 2016 with Dunleavy’s Polar Plunge

Bill Dunleavy and five friends decided to take the first plunge in 1994 and organized the Dunleavy’s Pub Polar Bear Plunge the next year.

Of the past 20 Dunleavy’s Pub Polar Bear Plunges, I have missed no more than four (including the rather exclusive first one and the year my last grandma died).

I’ve jumped in. I’ve not jumped in. I’ve had to cover them for The Post and Courier and forgo the joy of “warming up” with a Guinness or Bloody Mary.

The 21st annual event will be Friday on Sullivan’s Island. And while the plunge is at 2 p.m. sharp, the event truly is about the hours leading up to that frenzied dash into the frigid Atlantic and the hours after. Usually the latter determines whether it was a good day or a so-so day.

So as a participant and observer, I compiled a list of ingredients that makes this event a tradition that never really gets old.

I am a cold-water wimp. Even though the plunge can just take less than a minute to run out to deep enough water, dive under and run back, water temps below 55 just really kill my resolve, especially if the air temps are similar.

This year, with more than a month of balmy weather in late November and throughout December, the water temperature may be in the warmest range possible for the time of year, low 60s. Throw in a day in the 60s or 70s, with sunshine, and you’ll be missing out on an epic year. (The forecast, of this writing, did not look promising, but you never know in the Lowcountry.)

Newbies may make the mistake of just showing up in time for the plunge. Big mistake. Whether you are going in or just watching the insanity, grabbing a drink or two at Dunleavy’s or one of the other watering holes on the island at least an hour before the plunge is a must.

I gravitate toward Guinness, outside of Dunleavy’s.

Part of the lure of the plunge party is being outside. For a few years, the town of Sullivan’s Island closed Middle Street to car traffic and opened it for people. But alas, a few drunks who did crude things at the St. Patrick’s Day celebration in 2014 ruined that opportunity for us a few years ago. The town still allows Dunleavy’s to shut down Station 221/2 from Middle Street to I’On, but unfortunately it’s not the same.

I say arrest the drunks. Shut down the road.

Halloween has nothing on New Year’s on Sullivan’s Island.

The costumes not only are creative, but because it’s daylight you can see them. Expect to see some regulars, too, like the gold glitter-covered “Shineey Happy People” gang as well as themes and trends from the past year.

Starting about 30 minutes before the plunge, the first of the crowds will start marching out to the beach along the Station 22 and 22½ beach paths. It’s the first sign of how massive this event is and is filled some level of nervous jittering and shivering.

The first Dunleavy’s polar plunge came in 1995. At the pub, Bill Dunleavy and five friends simply decided to take a plunge on New Year’s Day and one of them declared it to be the first “Dunleavy’s Pub Polar Bear Plunge.”

Ever since, many people, especially East Cooperites, forgo the rip-off New Year’s Eve parties with the formula of formal wear, the countdown, confetti and champagne, then driving the gauntlet of drunks and cops on the roadway, for a daytime cheer of the New Year on Sullivan’s Island.

The first few years of the Polar Bear plunge had no connection with a charity. Then, when approached in 2002 about helping a local gymnast pay for a trip to the Special Olympic games in Dublin, Ireland, the Dunleavys got on board and haven’t gotten off since. Over the years, the event has raised more than $200,000, often in small bills, at the plunge.

It doesn’t matter that Jamie Maher, Dunleavy’s manager and son of Patti Dunleavy Maher, has never heard of a “celebrity” taking the plunge. The true celebrity, the unofficial princess of the plunge, is that girl who went to Ireland in 2003. Trista Kutcher, who is now in her mid-20s, continues to return to the plunge and be an ambassador for Special Olympics.

Another great tradition for the plunge is that the Dunleavy family, including in-laws and honorary members, wear white tuxedos with green ties and vests. (Some add a Santa hat.) Maher said the tradition started when the event started raising money for Special Olympics. The white honors polar bears and the green the Irish nation.

As people shed warm clothes and shiver on the beach, the Dunleavys, usually led by older brother Bill Dunleavy, will start a 10-second countdown. Inevitable some teenagers — or dudes who think they are — will false start.

OK, for those willing to take the plunge, please don’t run in the Atlantic, get your knees wet and run back. You must take the dive. If one hair is dry, you cheated yourself and are risking having a horrible year. Go for the dunk!

So a word to both plungers and watchers, the chaos of thousands of people running, screaming and standing on a flat beach can make it very easy to get lost. Plungers are wet, cold and deserve a dry towel and clothes. Plunge veterans know that some easily recognizable sign — a flag — helps them find comfort as quickly as possible.

I’ve known people who will go to the plunge event but not plunge nor watch it because Clemson or Carolina are playing a bowl game on TV. The beauty of the plunge is that there are dozens of flat screens tuned into the New Year’s games within a five-minute walk of the plunge. It’s not one or the other.

Perhaps the best part of the event, however, is the randomness of running into friends, old, new or future, of this community event and just watching the array of people rediscover the power of being a silly kid for a few hours on the first day of the New Year.

Some of my most memorable plunges to date have been after the crowds thin and the barricades on Station 221/2 come down. It’s going somewhere else, a friend’s house or a restaurant, and savoring the day’s events.