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John Potvin, of Coventry races to the water during the 46th annual Penguin Plunge held by Special Olympics Rhode Island at Roger Wheeler State Beach in Narragansett on Jan. 1.

NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — A question about who is crazy enough to go swimming in 48-degree ocean water is January didn’t quite stop more than 200 people taking the annual Pier Plunge at Narragansett Town Beach on New Year’s Day.

Mark D’Arcy, 53, of Wakefield, has been doing it for 25 years, and he continued the tradition this year, too.

“It’s such a re-invigorating experience. It’s a good cleansing of the soul and spirit,” he said, standing on the beach, with his daughter, Ella, 18, and girlfriend, Tara Malcolm, 44, a nurse-anesthetist at South County Hospital.

They, too, went in for a minute or less, all admitted. It wasn’t exactly a summer swim, but the long-time tradition now sponsored by the Narragansett Lions Club, raises money from donations to support a number of local causes, such as heating assistance and other charities.

In the crowd were Aiden McGonagle, 19, and Chris Nhem, 19, both of South Kingstown, who said they’ve been doing it a few years. “I just woke up one New Year’s thinking the water’s cold, let’s go swimming,” McGonagle said with a laugh.

For his third year taking the icy dip, Corwin Butterworth, 47, of Wakefield, said he liked it, as he was quickly dressing with long pants and a skull-cap hat on this windy Saturday that had some white caps on the waves rolling into the beach.

“It feels really good,” he said, though acknowledging he didn’t wear the cap into the water as some family around him just shook their heads in disbelief that he continues to like this short, but freezing, bath.

Even four-year-old Calvin Hopkins of East Greenwich, on the beach with his mom, Elizabeth, decided “he was going to go in with the big kids and just took off his shoes and shirt and went in for a couple of seconds,” she said.

Often called a “polar bear plunge,” similar events are held during the winter where participants enter a body of water despite the low temperature. In the United States, polar bear plunges are usually held to raise money for a charitable organization. Narragansett also hosts the annual Penguin Plunge for Special Olympics, which took place at Roger Wheeler State Beach, now in its 46th year. North Kingstown has an annual plunge at the town beach to raise funds for the local food pantry, and South Kingstown this year saw the ninth annual Dip for Multiple Sclerosis in Matunuck.

Preparation for it

D’Arcy said that contrary to any popular belief, there’s no training in ice-filled bath tubs prior to the event. He does admit, though, he takes some Irish Coffee with a shot or two with Jamison whiskey about a half-hour before.

“There is mental preparation for it. You have to focus on doing it,” he said, calling it the “Geronimo” effect. While not jumping from the sky, the exhilaration is still the same, he added.

And girlfriend Malcolm is quite aware of the effects of hypothermia from patients she has treated, but that worry never crossed her mind because all these ice-box swimmers were not staying in the water long enough.

Even she, though, has some yellowed hands with some blue streaks on them from both the dip into the January ocean. For anyone, extremities may tingle, start losing feeling, and feel like a block of wood.

Malcolm said that when getting into the water, “you first feel it in your toes, there’s a burning feeling that you feel at the cold comes up your legs. You feel it in your bones,” she said, laughing.

Hands and feet become white, hard, and/or waxy with some showing a whitish-purple or yellowish hue. Nonetheless, daring people like these two love the dare to do it, they said.

Ella D’Arcy said she’s gone for the full swim, including the required head under the water, in the past, but this year wanted to only go up to her knees. “I knew it was going to be painful, cold and terrible,” she said.

“It is a challenge, though, and once you are in you are happy you did it,” she said.

Write to Bill Seymour, freelance writer covering news and feature stories, at independent.southcountylife@gmail.com.

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