The gorilla suit Jeb Banks was wearing felt as heavy as chainmail when he donned the costume -- but the full weight of his decision to go incognito was only fully realized as he plunged into the icy Atlantic waters with hundreds of others for Boston's annual New Year's Day dip into Boston Harbor.
"I almost drowned," the South Boston resident, who has done the L Street Brownies' swim for almost a decade, said this morning as he thawed out in a white bathrobe at Woody's L Street Tavern. "It was warm outside, but the water was cool."
Fred Ahern, director of the Curley Community Center, estimated that about 700 swimmers braved the waters, as another 1,300 watched. "The L Street Brownies are like the Red Sox Nation -- it's a state of mind," Ahern said, noting that each year, more and more young people, many from South Boston, join in the tradition that the L Street Brownies have kept going for more than a century.
"It gets better and better every year," former Mayor Raymond L. Flynn said. "We all grew up in this tradition. You meet people, it's healthy, it's fun, and it does a lot of good for charity." Flynn did not venture into the water this year, but said he has fond memories of going in in his younger years.
Banks said the anticipation is often worse than the actual plunge. "Getting out of bed in the morning is the worst part," he said.
Organizers say that the past few years have seen a sharp rise in the number of people who wade into the waters, perhaps drawn by its legendary healing powers for the New Year's Eve hangover. Jack McDonald of Hyde Park said he has been coming with his sisters for a decade, including last year, when about 200 fewer swimmers showed up because of extreme cold. "It's been so out of hand lately," he said of the large crowd
For those who made it into the waters, it's the feet that take the brunt of the cold. "I thought I would be able to maneuver in the water, but the sensation of pain I felt told me to get out," first-timer Nick Jaworek, 30, of Marlborough said. "It's a New Year's cleansing."
His wife Renee, 27, who watched from the shore, keeping whiskey in hand, said they had heard the swim started at 11 a.m., but while en route, they heard on the radio that it actually started at 10, so they arrived just in time to use the Curley Community Center, formerly known as the L Street Bathhouse, before it closed at 11 a.m.
There was some confusion this year about the start time -- with many arriving an hour after the official plunge. McDonald's sister Janice, also of Hyde Park and wearing a Santa hat, said that the start of the event varies from year-to-year, and that she missed the comraderie of the bath house changing rooms. "We had to be rogues this year," she said. The start time, she added, depends on the tides.
Attending at least one New Year's Eve house party in South Boston last night came with a stipulation: that attendees make the plunge the next morning "Everyone peer-pressured me in," Laura Delorenzo, 27, of Manhattan, said, standing amid her group of friends -- only one of whom did not muster the courage to head into the waters.
While the annual swim itself raises money for the South Boston Sports Hall of Fame Scholarship Fund, the tavern was using it as a way to raise funds for scleroderma research, a connective tissue disease that owners say has affected a number of people in the neighborhood. At noon, the bar was packed wall-to-wall with patrons, many of them with hair still drying out.
"It's like last call," Susan Woods, L Street Tavern owner, said of the New Years Day crowd. Banks and his friends said they planned to stay until tonight's last call.
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