Breaking the Ice at Coney Island


Lou Scarcella is considering a moment of silence before the Polar Bear Club’s annual plunge into the icy surf of Coney Island on New Year’s Day. “But I don’t know if I want to go that route,” the group’s president adds, thinking of the general air of abandon as 400 New Yorkers charge into the ocean, past waving banners, throngs of photographers, and Amos Rigler strumming his self-composed “Polar Bear Song.”

Yet Scarcella, 56, feels that he has to do something to acknowledge the death of
Mohan Seneviratne, a 32-year-old online producer for Esquire, from neck injuries suffered this past January 1 while apparently diving into a sandbar in two feet of water.

“This will always weigh heavily on me,” concedes the retired homicide detective. “You have a celebration of life, and life was taken.”

It was a variable no one ever calculated. As participants whooped and splashed in the frozen water, Seneviratne was quietly carried from the beach—still in his swimming trunks—and loaded into an ambulance.

“About 50 years ago, I think, an 80-year-old member had a heart attack eight hours later and died,” Scarcella says. “Otherwise, nothing more serious than a foot cut on a mussel shell.”

But in the weeks following the tragedy, the Polar Bears were told of a probe by the Department of Health (which apparently cleared the organization, since an agency spokesperson claimed to have no record of any investigation), and the Department of Parks and Recreation demanded guidelines for future plunges.

“I don’t know if it threw us into turmoil,” Scarcella says. “But it put us through some changes.”

Membership rolls were closed and guest swimmers banned. “Too many people were turning up,” Scarcella says, noting that the Polar Bears meet every Sunday from November to April. “On any given Sunday, we had 80 to 100 people with us in the water.”

The club invested in a $3 million insurance policy—a formidable undertaking for a group that usually functions on $4,000 a year—while Silver Star Marine, a company that generally provides underwater technicians and divers for feature films, analyzed the tides and currents, as well as the surface below the water, pro bono.

Last month, 29 “cubs” (aspiring Polar Bears hoping to attain membership after 12 cold-water swims) were invited back. And on New Year’s Day, rescue divers and swimmers, as well as kayakers, will be on duty, alongside beach marshals committed to keeping guests away from the ocean before the 1 p.m. start time.

Lifeguards—the Polar Bears have pledged to provide one for every 120 swimmers—will receive $50 apiece. Everyone else is working for free, supporting, if not proselytizing for, the cause of winter swimming in Brooklyn.

The grandfather of the Polar Bear Club was Bernarr Macfadden, a native of the eastern Ozarks who attempted to form a chain of health-food restaurants; a “physical culture” religion, “Cosmotarianism”; and a city in Monroe Township, New Jersey. While these efforts fell short, “Professor” Macfadden—who lectured against the evils of white bread and corsets, and on the virtues of fasting and sexual intercourse—pioneered bodybuilding competitions, founded a publishing empire that grew to include True Detective, SPORT and Teen Beat, and, in 1903, organized the first winter swim in Coney Island.

“There are a lot of things about it that grab me,” says Scarcella of his bracing diversion. “Every time you hit that water, the endorphins go off. You can’t catch a cold from it—you catch a cold from germs. It’s nature’s ibuprofen.”

On New Year’s Day 2001, a year after retiring from the NYPD, Scarcella came to Coney Island with a friend he knew from running marathons. Since then, he’s missed only three Sunday swims. “Even on the day my father died, I went in the water,” he recalls, “because he died later that night.”

Scarcella’s father was a cop who walked a foot beat on the Bowery—not the one in lower Manhattan, but the small street wedged between Surf Avenue and the boardwalk in Coney Island. “Sammy Spookarama from the Spook Ride, and Rose and Myrtle from the hammer-and-nail game, would spend Christmas Eve in my house,” says Scarcella.

During his 13 years as a Brooklyn detective, he moonlighted on the Bowery himself, urging passersby to hurl baseballs at the felines on the “cat rack,” fire water guns at open-mouthed clowns, and shoot baskets through a high-tension hoop.

There’s no shortage of Coney Island savants in the Polar Bear Club. But Scarcella takes pride in what he calls the diversity of the 100 members: “We have old Jewish men with hairy chests, three generations of Dominicans, and beatniks, arty people from Williamsburg and Manhattan. Vegans who don’t eat meat. There are grandmothers, lion tamers, trapeze artists. I even allow lawyers in the club, believe it or not.”

Still, from time to time, members have fractured into rival groups—with names like the Arctic Ice Bears and the Icebreakers. At last year’s swim, Scarcella says, a sect calling itself the Staten Island Polar Bears drunkenly tossed beer cans into the Atlantic.

“They said they were being hooligans because the Coney Island Polar Bears didn’t recognize them,” Scarcella says. “I never heard of these guys before.”

Although the incident was unrelated to the death of Mohan Seneviratne, Scarcella worried that the two events, taken together, might lead to the impression of lawlessness.

Then there’s the problem with some of the Russians in neighboring Brighton Beach, a population known for enthusiastic winter swimmers who choose to shun the Polar Bear Club.

On a recent 36-degree morning, Brighton Beach is the picture of urban serenity, the sands empty, the sky cloudless and blue—save for a slice of the moon still noticeable at 7 a.m.—the Parachute Jump visible down the boardwalk in one direction, the truss spans of the Marine Parkway–Gil Hodges Memorial Bridge in the other.

When a bleached-blonde woman in her sixties peels off her sweats near a collection of rocks, she becomes so perturbed by a reporter’s questions—”It’s very cold. You distract me!”—that she turns and marches toward the direction of the Moscow and Tatiana restaurants on the boardwalk. Down the beach, though, a slate-haired man runs back and forth, shirtless and barefoot on the frigid sand, waving over his head at a pair of appropriately dressed women—one from Odessa, the other from Poland—sitting some distance away, cross-legged on towels, listening to the tones of a flute on a Falun Gong tape. When approached, the man recommends an interview with “the doctor,” an athletic-looking individual in a bathing suit and wool hat, frolicking with a half-dozen others in the water beside a jetty.

The doctor is actually a 45-year-old dentist named Igor, who literally hails from Siberia.

Like other Russian speakers, Igor opts to swim in small, unorganized groups. With the Polar Bears, he says, there is an “English problem, life-experience problem. You crack a joke, no one understand you.”

Eighty-five-year-old Milya Friedman joins the conversation, gesturing at three bumps in his scalp. “I was in the Red Army.” He holds his finger to his head like a pistol. “Three times. I go in the cold water. The water helps.”

Asked about the Polar Bears, Friedman says, “They’re nice people. I know them. But they only go Sunday. You need to go every day. You go every day, the medicine go in the garbage.”