By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
The “polar bears” will have some polar-like weather when they charge into the chilly surf at noon Saturday in Sea Isle City.
The weather forecast calls for temperatures to hover around the freezing mark by the time the wildly popular madcap Polar Bear Plunge gets underway. Warmer, but hardly tropical, the water temperature is expected to be around 41 degrees.
Renny Steele, chief of the Sea Isle City Beach Patrol, noted that hypothermia can set in within minutes when the water is that cold.
Sea Isle will have about 30 lifeguards on duty for the plunge to protect bathers and make sure no one stays in the ocean too long. Lifeguards clad in cold water rescue suits will be stationed on the beach and others will be riding two Jet Skis just offshore to quickly respond if there are any emergencies, Steele said.
“My biggest concern, obviously, is public safety,” he stressed.
It is all part of Sea Isle’s elaborate plan to provide public safety both on the land and in the water for an event that is expected to attract thousands of plungers and spectators.
Sea Isle Police Chief Tom McQuillen good-naturedly called it “15 minutes of controlled chaos.”
City officials estimate that tens of thousands of visitors will be in town for the Polar Bear Plunge weekend festivities. Coinciding with Presidents Day weekend, the celebration is highlighted by Saturday’s plunge and then the Mike’s Seafood Polar Bear Walk-Run for Autism at noon Sunday.
“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.”
McQuillen explained that Sea Isle’s police force and other law enforcement agencies have been preparing for weeks for the arrival of such a huge surge in visitors. In comparison, Sea Isle’s year-round population is about 2,100 people.
“There’s weeks and weeks of planning that takes place before this event,” McQuillen said. “We feel that we’ve got the best plan to provide a higher level of public safety for participants and visitors.”
State, county and local law enforcement agencies will join with Sea Isle police for a multi-layered security network. Like with the 2019 plunge, there will even be State Police troopers on horseback to help with public safety and crowd control.
“With an event this large, a gathering of this size, you have to take precautions,” McQuillen said.
The Sea Isle Police Department’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/SICPD/ has an overview of crowd control measures, parking restrictions, traffic routes, transportation services, safety tips and other information useful to the public for the plunge.
One “See Something, Say Something” sign entering town on the John F. Kennedy Boulevard corridor urges the public to report any suspicious activity to authorities. Another large sign warns that drinking in public is illegal.
Now it its 26th year, the Polar Bear Plunge is going through a major change with the start time. Traditionally, it gets underway at 2 p.m., but the city has switched the start time to noon this year to help with crowd control during a day of revelry.
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 that left the shoreline badly eroded in some spots.
McQuillen, Steele and other high-level city officials surveyed the beaches Friday while discussing final details for crowd control and safety. Public Works crews are cordoning off the area with caution tape to prevent crowds from trampling the dunes.
Polar Bear Plunge Weekend, held every February, is a blockbuster for the local economy. Sea Isle awakens from its winter slumber for a weekend of partying, dining and shopping that gives a boost to local bars, restaurants and retail shops.
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 festivities.
“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.
Polar bear-themed signs, memorabilia and merchandise are scattered throughout town. Retail shops and restaurants that are normally closed for the winter season reopen just for Polar Bear Plunge weekend.
Liz Essick, owner of the Sunsations women’s boutique on the beach block of JFK Boulevard, is selling polar bear-style caps and T-shirts, along with having a big sale on other merchandise.
She believes the weekend will be “awesome” for her shop and the rest of the town. Essick is one of the shop owners who reopened for the weekend celebration.
“It’s a great, great weekend,” she said.
Laurie Brill, a Sea Isle resident and Sunsations customer, was buying polar bear T-shirts for her family members who won’t be able to make it down for the plunge.
“We always do this. We’ve been doing it forever,” Brill said of the plunge.
However, she is planning to skip jumping in the ocean this year because none of her relatives will be around to join her Saturday, she said.
“I’ll be all alone,” Brill said, glumly.
“No, you won’t be,” Essick quickly shot back. “There will be 50,000 people in town.”