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Chillin’ for Charity

Many attendees don wild costumes for the Polar Bear Plunge, presided over by founder Bill Dunleavy (right, with brother Tom). Photographs (2) by Dennis Ehney

December 28, 2011

Chillin’ for Charity
Dash into the New Year with a Sullivan’s Island splash benefiting the Special Olympics

written by Lauren Brooks Johnson

With ocean temperatures typically chilling around 50 degrees, the Dunleavy’s Pub Polar Bear Plunge may seem the polar opposite of its cousins to the frostier north, but this New Year’s Day dive has fired up enough revelers to earn its place among our favorite holiday traditions. It could be the draw of hot cocoa, cold beer, and good food that calls folks to Sullivan’s Island each January 1. Perhaps the colorful costumes bring crowds to the water’s edge. (One year witnessed a roving band of “Eskimos” hunting an elusive white bear, and you’ll certainly observe a few white bottoms bared.) Then again, maybe it’s just that an icy bath is the best way to wake up your senses after a long night of imbibing. But more than likely, this refreshing ritual has held fast because cool things happen when a community pulls together for a collective dip in the winter water.

The event began in 1994 when Bill Dunleavy, the proprietor of Dunleavy’s Pub on Middle Street, jokingly challenged his buddies to take a New Year’s Day dunk in the Atlantic. Since then, the do-it-if-you-dare affair has gathered a cult following of sorts, and now some 4,000 participants make the annual trek to Station 22 for the family-friendly fest (though only about half take the plunge). And while an off-season swim in our waters may not be as dicey as those in the upper states, it’s still pretty chilly. So for the past decade, organizers have warmed those suffering from cold feet by raising funds for Special Olympics South Carolina’s Mid-Winter Games. In 2011—between cash gathered through a bucket brigade, business sponsorships, and donations brought in by plungers—the event generated more than $47,000.

By 11 a.m., folks begin gathering for festivities at Dunleavy’s before heading to the beach at 3 p.m. Dunleavy, who, along with his family, presides over the ceremony in a white tuxe and tails, begins the countdown, and a communal excitement starts to pulse. “It’s awesome to see so many generations lined up,” says Dunleavy’s nephew and pub co-owner Jamie Maher. Then the count hits one, whoops rise up, and the mob surges forward in a sandy sprint to the surf and to a splashy New Year here in the Lowcountry.

Festivities surround Dunleavy’s Pub, 2213-A Middle St., Sullivan’s Island, (843) 883-9646; plunge takes place between Stations 22 & 22 ½,

For more events coming up this holiday weekend, click here.

Happy New Year from the Charleston magazine staff!

Wed, 12/28/2011