By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
The forecast Saturday calls for sunny skies and a high of 34 degrees. The water temperature will be a downright balmy 43 degrees.
Perfect beach weather at the Jersey Shore, right?
In crowds mimicking the Fourth of July, thousands of visitors are expected to invade Sea Isle City this weekend for the Polar Bear Plunge, the madcap chilly dip in the ocean that awakens the shore town from its winter hibernation.
“We’ll be busy. We’re expecting a lot of people in town,” city spokeswoman Katherine Custer said. “Clearly, there will be tens of thousands of people.”
Traditionally, the plungers charge into the surf at 2 p.m., but the city has changed the start time to noon this Saturday to help with crowd control during a weekend of New Year’s Eve-like revelry by the self-styled polar bears.
Originally, a decision was made by city officials to shift the start time forward to 11 a.m. to heighten crowd control. After further discussion, a noontime compromise was reached.
“The city agreed to compromise by going to 12 p.m., which still achieves our objective of better crowd control and public safety – by getting people in and out of the ocean two hours earlier than in the past,” City Business Administrator George Savastano said.
The plunge is held downtown on the beaches between 38th and 40th streets. This year, Sea Isle has had to spread new sand to level off the pathways to the beaches following a series of storms in the fall that left the shoreline badly eroded in some spots.
“Before, they were cliff-like,” Custer said of the sharp drop-offs from the pathways to the beaches created by the storms eating away at the dunes.
The city’s Public Works Department, however, put new loads of sand at the ends of the pathways to give them a smoother contour down to the beaches.
Entering its 26th year, the plunge weekend has become a blockbuster for the local economy. The timing of the Polar Bear Plunge over the Presidents Day weekend every year allows the town to capitalize on the extended holiday weekend.
Custer explained that the crowds actually start to build on the Thursday before Presidents Day weekend because many visitors traditionally arrive early for the holiday weekend festivities.
“With so many events and activities taking place, it brings them in town at different times,” she said.
The entertainment gets underway on Friday, then spills into Saturday for the plunge and culminates on Sunday at noon for the Mike’s Seafood Polar Bear Plunge Walk-Run for Autism.
“Clearly, the weather is a factor for some of the people. But rain or shine, we’re expecting droves of people coming to town,” Custer said.