Water temperature 38 degrees. Air temperature 45 degrees. A chill, although not exactly "polar," time had by all.
Those were the readings Saturday afternoon before approximately 450 people braved the chilly waters off Compo Beach for the Penguin Plunge benefiting Special Olympics of Connecticut. The event took on a festival atmosphere, with rock music blaring across the beach, wacky costumes and general good cheer and revelry.
Seeing that everything ran like clockwork was Gail Feinstein of USI Insurance and the volunteer coordinator of the plunge. "I've been associated with this for over a decade since it began and when it was a lot smaller," she said. "This year we're on track for a fundraising goal of $130,000."
While many would consider the day's weather to be on the brisk side, the sun was high in the sky and there was not even a suggestion of snow or ice as the group would have enountered last year. "The favorable weather has helped attract people," said Feinstein, "including a young man in his 80s who has been plunging here every year." Assisting Feinstein with event coordination were 80 volunteers, helping with pre-registration, incentives, crowd control and greeting people. A separate group managed a raffle. Westport police and fire personnel, as well as a dive team, were also onsite to ensure safety in and out of the water.
The Westport event is one of several plunges Special Olympics sponsors during the year around the state. Individuals, teams from high schools, families, companies and groups from the Special Olympics all participate.
A fun feature is the attire participants choose to wear. "You can put on anything to take the plunge," said Feinstein, as pirates, ninja turtles, leprechauns and other characters roamed the beach.
A consistent wardrobe item among all participants, however, was a bowtie. They varied in color, depending on the fundraising level a person achieved. The minimum fundraising level was $75.
Besides individual donations, corporate sponsors like Lexus and USI Insurance provided support.
Because of the size of the plunge field, the event was staged in five waves.
"This is the 13th year I'm doing this," said Pete Dennin of Team Happy Feet. "We're six people, including my brother Dave, who was the first Special Olympics athlete to do this, and my daughter Abby," he said. "Every year when I step out of the water, I say I'm never doing this again -- your feet take three hours to warm up. But I always return. The first year, maybe 40 people participated. It's been great to see the numbers explode."
The participants were in -- and out -- of the water in a matter of minutes, scurrying out of the water with shouts and fist-pumps as they lunged for towels.
Madison Snyder, with friend Katie Morgan, was among them. "We are freezin' for a reason, that's for sure," she joked. "This is my fifth year and it seems to get easier every year. It's a great cause and I love doing it, and will be back for sure."
Mike Lauterborn is a freelance writer.