Taking the plunge

Hundreds of New Year’s Day swimmers race into the ocean Tuesday at Alfred B. Cooper Memorial Park in Atlantic Beach for the annual Penguin Plunge. (Dylan Ray photo)

ATLANTIC BEACH — It was not a typical winter day at the beach Tuesday as about 700 people lined up for a mad dash into the Atlantic Ocean.

No, they’re not idiots, though some call themselves that. They all gathered to participate in the 16th annual Penguin Plunge at Alfred B. Cooper Memorial Park next to Crab’s Claw Restaurant in Atlantic Beach.

The event raised money this year for the Mile of Hope charity that helps children with cancer “to forget about the doctors (and) about the needles,” spokesman Jim Knight said.

Several groups took a special interest in the cause this year.

Melanie Noble, of New Bern, has been joining in the plunge with a group of friends for five years. Every year, they try to find a costume that represents the “theme,” she said. This year, they won the award for best costume as “Superheroes against cancer.”

They dressed in gold capes and toted plungers, which Ms. Noble said has been their signature for five years participating.

One of the friends had his signature plunger sticking straight up on top of his head.

Ms. Noble said they wanted to be superheroes for the children Mile of Hope helps.

Overall, participants and spectators raised more than $7,000, according to Pat Wesson, the master of ceremonies for the event.

Since Mile of Hope’s weekend and events are based in Carteret County and Director Ed Moore and his wife, Sally, have a condo in the area, he decided to apply for the Penguin Plunge donation this year. He has also participated in the plunge for several years.

Donations like the one they will receive this year from Penguin Plunge organizers help Mile of Hope provide an all-expenses paid weekend on the Crystal Coast for about 25 to 30 children with cancer and their families.

Lisa Park, another plunge participant, is a member of the Pine Knoll Shores Women’s Club that regularly helps out with Mile of Hope.

Ms. Park came out in costume with her family. John Park was King Neptune. Ms. Park and Ashlyn Park were mermaids. Isaac Kuykendall came as a jellyfish.

Their homemade costumes featured seashell bras with shells from Pine Knoll Shores area beaches, cardboard mermaid tails and a crown and trident for King Neptune.

They dressed down to swimsuits, however, for going in the water.

Much warmer than the 2018 event, this year’s air temperature was 65 degrees, while the water temperature was at 54 degrees when the “penguins” raced in, according to Ms. Wesson.

“So, there’s no excuse for not going in this year,” she added.

“Last year was probably the worst conditions I can remember,” said Alan Leary, who has participated every year except one. The water was much nicer this year, he said.

The first time he took the plunge, “It was kind of an out-of-the-box thing,” he said, but he wanted to keep doing it. He’s watched it grow from 20 people to the hundreds he saw Tuesday.

“That’s the best thing about this community is that everyone comes together, from (ages) 2 to 82,” he said.

Ms. Wesson warned participants to watch out for debris, which littered the beach, but didn’t stop people from attending or rushing the waves.

Mr. Leary’s church, First United Methodist Church of Morehead City, had a strong showing, he said.

Also on hand were Atlantic Beach police and the Beaufort band Now or Never. They volunteered to play at the event.

“Music makes everything better,” Now or Never band member Tiffany Elaine said.

The band is familiar with the event since one of its members, Fernando Rivera, is a regular “penguin.”

“I love the Penguin Plunge. It’s awesome,” he said. He, along with many others, insist the cold dip isn’t too bad. “You get used to it quickly.”

Mr. Park said the water was “great.”

Many others, however, prefer to just watch.

“It just makes for wonderful people watching,” said Jessie Allen, of Morehead City.

For many, the event is a tradition.

“It’s a good way to start the new year,” Mr. Leary said. “Plus, you get to see the costumes and the crazies.”

However, the staple event started out with just about 20 people.

The idea for the plunge came from organizer Miriam Sutton and the late James Davis.

Ms. Sutton called it the Penguin Plunge because she likes penguins and has seen them when she’s been to Antarctica. Even though Mr. Davis died before the first plunge in 2004, Ms. Sutton decided to go on with what she thought would be just a dozen friends, but 24 people showed up.

She handed out little penguins for jacket zippers that year, Mr. Leary said.

The next year, the event doubled in size to 48.

Then, the third year, Ms. Sutton and Tabbie Nance, who helped out during the first few years, decided that if there were going to be so many people attending, they’d try to raise money to help out a friend, who has since died, with medical expenses. Ever since then, the event raises money for a new charity each year by selling tickets and shirts.

Sponsors like Crab’s Claw Restaurant help cover the cost of the shirts so the money raised can go to the charity, Ms. Sutton said.

Despite working to recover from Hurricane Florence themselves, Ms. Sutton said, the owners of Crab’s Claw Restaurant were delighted when she contacted them to sponsor the event again this year.

The hurricane didn’t bring down the attendees either.

Everyone who came out for the event seemed to enjoy the time to socialize.

“Penguins” Cheryl Balthrop, Kaye Jones and Susan Smith, of the Emerald Isle Sea Turtle Patrol, were dressed as literal penguins (including Cyndi Laupenguin).

They started coming on a dare at least five years ago and now say it’s “a fun time to start the new year, and it’s a good cause.”

The 2019 Penguin Plunge event brought a little bit of summertime fun to January.

Contact Megan Lewis at 252-726-7081, ext. 247; email megan@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter @meganCCNT.

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