Frigid tradition of Coney Island Polar Bear Club takes breath away
It sounds crazy, but these guys say the best beach weather on Coney Island comes in January.
The Coney Island Polar Bear Club meets every Sunday at the aquarium on the Boardwalk. There, in a makeshift clubhouse, they change into swimsuits – even bikinis – and make their way toward the frigid waters of the Atlantic Ocean.
Some people run right in. Some people step in slowly. Others get in and out and in again.
The goal is simple: get your body from the neck down under water. Avid polar bear bathers will tell you that the 20-or-so minutes they spend in the water is the highlight of their week.
While the club meets every Sunday at 1 p.m., New Year’s Day is a big event for the organization, when hundreds – even thousands – of people show up to try it.
The club uses New Year’s to raise money for the aquarium and Camp Sunshine, an organization that helps children cope with life-threatening illnesses.
About 150 active members brave the cold every weekend in the winter months. Amazingly, the Coney Island Polar Bear Club has been around since 1903.
The Daily News asked three members how they got involved and why on Earth they keep going back for more.
Developing a taste for it
Dan Chatman took his first winter ocean bath in 2003. An amateur photographer, he went to Coney Island to take pictures after hearing about a group of crazy people who gather there every Sunday.
“It didn’t even occur to me the first time I went that I would ever try it,” said Chatman, 41. “I quickly realized the only way to get the shots I wanted was to get the sun in their faces, so I had to go out into the water a little bit.”
Chatman, a sign installer from the East Village, liked the compositions of gunmetal-gray skies and murky bluish water, so he went back. Eventually, he tried going in without his camera.
“The energy and the camaraderie was infectious,” he said. “It really grabbed hold of me.”
His first time going all the way in “felt like razor blades at the tips of my toes and the ends of my fingers, a sharp pain,” he said. As the pain subsided, he felt “euphoria.”
“It’s a numbness that makes me feel like I’m in the right place. There’s no pain anymore. It feels good,” he said.
“It’s become more important to me than I anticipated. It gives me something to look forward to every weekend in the winter.”
Florida can wait!
Tony Nastro’s love for the Polar Bear Club stems from his love of Coney Island as a child. He was raised in Bensonhurst and spent summers on the Boardwalk.
“The first time, it was a little scary,” he said of his first bath eight years ago. “I walked into the water and I got my breath knocked out of me.
“I took my first breath after that and I smelled the Coney Island of my childhood – the Nathan’s Hot Dogs and the soft serve ice cream. It was amazing.”
Nastro, 64, of Bay Ridge, “knocked the hell out of my shoulders and knees” for almost 30 years as a pressman for the Daily News and New York Times. He believes the icy Atlantic has healing powers.
“After about two years of doing this every Sunday, all my pain is gone. I’ve got the full range of motion in my shoulder now. I didn’t really change my diet or exercise and then all of a sudden it’s better after the swimming. And it only costs $10 a year in dues.”
Nastro’s 39-year-old daughter lives in Florida and asks him to come visit every winter. “I say her pool is too warm and I can’t go till April,” he said. “In the summertime I have no problem, but in winter, I’m not going to miss beach days.”
The friends he’s made as a Bear are some of the best of his life.
“You’ve got serious guys, cops and lawyers, but they let their hair down. We even started the Coney Island Polar Bears kazoo band. There’s no audition, just an initiation – go in the ocean naked.”
‘They can’t understand’
Capri Djatiasmoro didn’t like her first dip in the cold ocean.
“A friend of mine went and told me to go with her. I said, ‘How cold can it be?’ But then I got in and immediately lost feeling in my hands and feet and I got scared and ran out.”
When she stopped shivering on the beach, the 58-year-old advertising exec started to feel really good, she said.
“I went back in, and that was it. I go every day I can.”
Friends say she’s insane.
“They can’t understand why I do it. It’s like the feeling you get after a good workout. It’s the chemical release in your brain. It’s a natural high. It feels so good.”
Djatiasmoro, of Park Slope, understands why her friends don’t like the idea of it. “It’s so extreme, either you love it or you hate it,” she said.
She’s never felt unsafe because “everyone keeps an eye on each other,” and that puts worriers at ease. She also has a safety rule.
“One of the hypothermia tests is you have to touch your pinkie to your thumb. If I can’t do that, I get out.”