Portsmouth 375th year ends with an icy dip

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PORTSMOUTH—"Polar bears" and "penguins" Tuesday said farewell to Portsmouth's 375th year the same way they ushered it in — by plunging in 40-degree water at Island Park Beach.

Although most polar plunges are held Jan. 1, this one was a day earlier as a ways of wrapping up the town's 375th celebration. Any concerns about a lower turnout due to the work day were dashed when a few hundred spectators and swimmers showed up before the noon dip.

As he did on Jan. 1, John Vitkevich had his body covered with anti-Sakonnet River Bridge toll slogans. He also pooh-poohed the cold. (It was just a tick above 20 degrees at splashdown.)

"Between the sun and the bonfire, it's going to be just like Florida," Mr. Vitkevich said before jumping in.

The big event brought out several of the area's first responders and politicians. Police Chief Thomas Lee and Fire Chief Michael Cranson were among those who jumped in.

It was the first polar plunge for Chief Lee, who was appointed to be the town's top cop in September. Beforehand, he promised he would be wearing a Speedo. He stayed true to his word, although he sported a boxer-style Speedo swimsuit and not bikini briefs.

"A little chilly," the chief said after rushing out of the water. "It stings a little bit."

Rep. Jay Edwards was there, too. "What we do for our constituents, huh?" he quipped.

Liz Pedro was the sole member of the Town Council who braved the icy dip.

"I did it on the first, so I felt obligated to do it on the 31st," she said while warming up afterwards with a towel.

Besides fulfilling an annual tradition, the event also served as a Portsmouth 375th fund-raiser to help set up a section devoted to local history at the Portsmouth Free Public Library. After the plunge, many participants retired to the Beach House, where members of the Portsmouth 375th Steering Committee counted up all the pledges. The post-dive celebration also included a symbolic passing-of-the-torch to the City of Newport, which is celebrating its own 375th anniversary in 2014.

Doug Smith, chairman of the 375th Steering Committee, said he was pleased with how the year-long celebration turned out. "I think it went great; it couldn't have come out any better and just a great group of people to work with. It showed real community spirit," he said.

Town Historian Jim Garman, another member of the 375th steering committee, echoed Mr. Smith's sentiments.

"I think we stimulated a little interest in Portsmouth history, which is very rich," said Mr. Garman, who presented several lectures about the town's bygone days over the course of the year. "I also hoped it would bring the community together with events like this, and I think it did that."

Mr. Smith plans on taking it easy this year, which marks the town's 376th birthday.

"I think we'll celebrate quietly over a few beers," he said.

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