No ‘sissies’ at frigid Portsmouth polar dive

About three dozen brave souls splash around to benefit Hannah Wertens

By Jim McGaw
Posted 1/1/18

PORTSMOUTH — Despite several New Year’s Day polar plunges being either canceled or postponed due to the freezing temperatures on Monday, the show went on as planned at Island …

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No ‘sissies’ at frigid Portsmouth polar dive

About three dozen brave souls splash around to benefit Hannah Wertens


PORTSMOUTH — Despite several New Year’s Day polar plunges being either canceled or postponed due to the freezing temperatures on Monday, the show went on as planned at Island Park.

Standing next to a roaring bonfire before the noontime plunge, master of ceremonies John Vitkevich expressed concern over swimmers’ safety and acknowledged he was privately telling people not to go in.

“I don’t want anyone going in unless the fire melts that ice,” he said, pointing to the frozen shoreline just beyond the blaze.

Even the Rhode Island Department of Health issued a press release, recommending the postponement of any "polar plunges" due to the "dangerously cold temperatures predicted."

Despite the warnings, Mr. Vitkevich said no one would be prevented from jumping in, and that’s just what more than 30 brave souls ended up doing.

When Mr. Vitkevich later saw the impressive turnout of swimmers crowding the beach just before the horn signaled for them to run in, he couldn’t help himself. Referring to the other plunges that were called off in Jamestown and Newport — you can also add Tiverton to that list — he joked that those organizers were “sissies.”

“And this isn’t a plunge — it’s a dive. This is Island Park — we don’t plunge. Jamestown, Newport — they plunge, and today they’re not doing squat,” he said.

This year’s event was a fund-raiser for 14-year-old Hannah Wertens, a freshman at Portsmouth High School who’s battling leukemia for the third time. Unfortunately, Hannah couldn’t be there as planned, since she was admitted to Boston Children’s Hospital last week.

Like she did at Fenway Park in August, Hannah was planning on singing “God Bless America” to ring in the New Year. Instead, the crowd of swimmers and onlookers sang it to her, as a drone captured the tribute on video so Hannah could watch it on Facebook. (They also raised more than $4,000 toward her medical bills.)

Mr. Vitkevich said the bonfire used 402 pallets — one more than his original estimate. 

“I said I wanted to incinerate the beach,” said Mr. Vitkevich, who gave a shout-out to all the volunteers who helped out, including A-1 Paving. “They made all the trailers, trucks and pallets arrive,” he said.

He programmed an entire playlist of songs appropriate for the occasion: “Light My Fire” signaled the lighting of the bonfire, while “Burning Down the House” and “Comfortably Numb” were also played.

Early swimmer

Chris Freitas, who helped light the bonfire, first started doing the plunge in 2006. Despite the cold — at noon the air was 10 degrees, the water 35 — he promised to at least get wet. “I’m going to put my feet in the water,” Mr. Freitas said.

He was more than good on his word, flopping into the water at 11:20 a.m. — 40 minutes before the official dive. A few minutes later, he did it again.

Then he came out and reported to the crowd, “Oh, by the way? It’s cold.”

Also jumping in this year was a group of four men: Shaun Higgins (dressed in a bunny costume à la Peter Billingsley in “A Christmas Story”), Blake Hayden, Brian Giorgianni and Brenden Hayden.

“This year is something special to us,” said Mr. Giorgianni. “We had two family members pass away from cancer. We take a little fund at home; everybody comes and donates what they want, then it all gets donated in their name.”

The men also donated to Hannah’s cause. And no, the cold wasn’t about to keep them away this year, Brenden Hayden said.

“It’s great for the charity, it’s great to give back on New Year’s to start the season off right — and it’s just a little cold water,” he said.

Before jumping in like he does every year, longtime Island Park resident Bob Hamilton heard from Ray Berberick.

“Bob, you’re crazy,” Mr. Berberick yelled to him along the shoreline. “That’s why you’re going to live to be 101.”

Afterward, Mr. Berberick said he was surprised by the number of people who actually braved the water. 

“There had to have been at least three dozen, anyway,” he said, surmising that some people just keep doing it because it’s only once a year.

Mr. Berberick took the plunge himself for the town’s 375th Anniversary celebration in 2013, although the weather wasn’t quite as cold then.

“It was a very interesting experience. I have a lot of admiration for the people who do it on a regular basis,” he said.

Another spectator Monday was Town Council President Keith Hamilton.

“It’s wonderful that everybody’s coming out. I’m not crazy enough to go in the water, but I hope everybody who wants to go in gets out safely,” he said.

Thankfully, they did.

Island Park, Hannah Wertens, polar plunge

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