Eskimos prepare to take the plunge

Bethany Beach-area residents and visitors will take to the beach on Monday for what has become a true New Year’s tradition, along the lines of the midnight countdown, short-lived resolutions and a glass of champagne.

The annual New Year’s Day event, which is centered around Bethany Beach’s boardwalk at Garfield Parkway, involves something nearly as chilly as that glass of bubbly, and they won’t be drinking it.

Instead, several hundred people are again expected to brave the chilly waters of the Atlantic Ocean, for the 11th Leo Brady Exercise Like the Eskimos — an annual “polar bear” plunge that benefits the Quiet Resorts Charitable Foundation, which in turn funds scholarships for local students.

The event, organized each year by the Bethany-Fenwick Area Chamber of Commerce (of which the QRCF is an offshoot) is again expected in 2007 to bring hundreds of area residents, visitors and businesspeople to ignore the normally chilly temperatures of winter, strip down to their swimming togs and dip — however briefly — into the ocean.

A full 100 percent of the proceeds from the event go to benefit the QRCF and its own eventual beneficiaries. The funds are raised through registration fees, as well as sponsorships of the hundreds of New Year’s plungers.

Registration for the event cost $25 for those who pre-registered prior to this week, while $30 is the going rate for those who register between now and the time they take the plunge, at high noon on New Year’s Day. Those 18 or younger pay just $15 but, like their elders, can raise as much in sponsorship funding as they are able.

All those who pre-registered are guaranteed a commemorative towel with which to dry off and warm up after the plunge. Everyone else takes their chances on the supply of towels. All swimmers are allowed to bring both a towel and a buddy to hold it onto the beach on Monday, but they’re advised to check in prior to the 11:45 a.m. assembly time or — pre-registered or not — they won’t be allowed into the staging area for the event. (Check-in starts at 10 a.m.)

Something else not allowed: the wearing of wetsuits, sweatsuits, business suits or any other elevated level of clothing. Those who go into the water for the official swim go in with swimsuits only — though many who have braved the chilly waters in the past say that’s an advantage, making getting warm and dry a little quicker after they leave the water.

However, many will be making the most of the party atmosphere on the beach on New Year’s Day, coming out in costume and with frivolity high on their list of resolutions for the day — making the event one not only for the swimmers but spectators as well.

Awards competition heats up for 2007

And, in addition to the feeling of charitable giving and fun that will kick off the new year for those participating in the event, there is also the potential to garner bragging rights for some of the big accolades associated with Exercise Like the Eskimos.

Topmost on that list is the famed Iceberg Trophy, which goes each year to the team with the most members who actually get into the water on Jan. 1. Chamber Events Coordinator Amy Tingle said the trophy is only part of the payoff for the winning team, which also gets “all the glory, honor and prestige that accompany it.”

Indeed, 2007 could turn out to be one of the most competitive years the Iceberg Trophy has ever seen, with competition keen between at least two of the planned teams.

“Team Neptune took home bragging rights last year, but Team Cottage Cafe is vowing to take home this year’s Iceberg Trophy,” Tingle noted, ratcheting up the competition between the teams and those who would challenge them.

Team Cottage Café, which got started early on their planning for the event, is luring in team members with not only the promise of the one benefit all teams’ members get — the right to wear a team T-shirt over their swimming gear, for some small relief from the cold — but also with a pre-plunge brunch buffet for all of their number who make it into the water.

“We’re trying,” Cottage Café co-owner Tom Neville said of the effort to raise the biggest team in the 2007 event. “For the Cottage Café team, at 10 a.m. we’re having a continmental breakfast and Bloody Mary/mimosa thing. Then we’re having a bus pick us up here and bring us to the ocean and back.”

Despite the lure of the Iceberg Trophy, Neville said the focus of the big push for Team Cottage Café in 2007 was the charity aspect of the event.

“All the proceeds go to the Quiet Resorts Charitable Foundation — that was the reason for the big push behind it,” he said. “We figured it was a good thing to start the new year off right and, hopefully, raise $1,000. That would be a good thing for the community.”

Post-plunge event to kick off 2007

Neville said he and fellow Cottage Café co-owner Brent Poffenberger also viewed the event and New Year’s Day as an opportunity to kick off their business’ year in good style.

“Afterwards, we’re having a pig roast, with a band, and that’s open to everybody,” Neville said. The pig roast is free to all comers, with no cover charge and happy-hour drink prices. “It’s an open house kind of thing to start off the year.”

As for taking the coveted Iceberg Trophy from 2006 winners Team Neptune, “We’re gonna try,” Neville said. “We’ve got a little friendly rivalry going.”

Team Cottage Café could also find itself in the hunt for some of the additional accolades that will go to those who out-do themselves in raising sponsorship funding in the 2007 Exercise Like the Eskimos.

Tanger Outlets is providing gift certificates for those who raise $75 or more in sponsorships, ranging from $25 gift certificates for those sponsored at $75 to $100 for those raising at least $200. In addition, the team that raises the most sponsorship money above $200 will win a pizza party, so the competition is rife all around this year.

Eskimo joins the Eskimos

Even Team Coastal Point, which traditionally lingers abed after New Year’s Eve and misses out on all the frigid fun, will be taking the plunge for the first time in 2007, with seven team members committed and a few others still on the fence.

Team leader Shaun Lambert has vowed, idly, to make it into the water in the past, but 2007 appears to be the year he’ll finally make good on that promise. The native Alaskan, who has lived in Delaware for five years, is used to chilly water temperatures year-round, having grown up in northern Alaska.

“I have read about things like this back home in the Anchorage Daily News, and always thought it would be fun to participate,” said Lambert. “I imagine this is much more mild than the ones back home.

“I used to live above the Arctic Circle, and even in the heat of summer, the water temperatures wouldn’t be that high, and we would go swimming every day. I think that this will be a lot like swimming back home in the summer,” he noted, issuing a defacto challenge to all comers to savor those summer-like water temperatures, Alaska-style, on Monday.

“I think it’s great to have events like this raise money for charities,” Lambert noted. “I am happy that many other employees have teamed up with me to create Team Coastal Point. I think it’s for a great cause and should be a blast. I look forward to it.”

Lambert is apparently the first genuine Inuit to participate in the event named in honor of his fellow Eskimos, who taught event founder (and more recently co-namesake) Leo Brady cold-weather survival skills during his time in the military.

Also familiar to Lambert is the sight of the kayaks that traditionally serve as an honor guard and safety patrol for the swimmers, and help let them know when it’s time to race from shore to waves.

Tradition for participants and spectators

These may be new sights for those who are taking in the event for this first time in 2007, but for many additional hundreds of folks, the Jan. 1 Exercise Like the Eskimos is a true tradition and one not to be missed, no matter the weather.

Fans of the event can even take home commemorative T-shirts and hooded sweatshirts — even if they didn’t themselves make it into the water. And they will also come away with the memories — and photographs, in many cases — of friends, neighbors and family members taking the plunge into January’s chilly waters.

Hot chocolate will also be on sale, courtesy of local Boy Scouts.

Just for those still sitting on the fence about participating in the 11th Exercise Like the Eskimos, air temperatures are forecast to hit 55 degrees for a high, 37 for the low on Monday. Water temperatures this week, in the ocean off Lewes, were officially recorded at nearly the same degree of warmth — 54 degrees.

That may be good news for Eskimo hopefuls, as well as event organizers. Balmy air temperatures — sometimes nearing or exceeding 60 degrees — have spelled an easier time for New Year’s Day swimmers in years past, even garnering some last-minute convertees to the cause.

And the lack of truly frigid coastal waters can mean swimmers are even eager to get out of the air and into the water. A spate of 60-degree-plus days is expected over the weekend, making it even more likely that near-ideal conditions will exist for Monday’s event and its noontime plunge into the ocean.