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Braving frigid waters a New Year’s rite

Over a century of tradition honored, as roughly 600 hardy souls ring in 2013 with a plunge into waters off South Boston

L Street Brownies

Dina Rudick / Globe Staff

Swimmers sprinted toward Boston Harbor for L Street Brownies’ annual New Year’s Day plunge Tuesday.

They came in waves, and leapt into the bone-chilling waves — or tiptoed. They came singly, in pairs, in groups of four, five, and nine, all driven by their own reasons.

“It’s on my bucket list. I’ve got to check it off,” said first-timer Kim Yates, 31, of Arlington.

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“In memory of our friend,” said Hopkinton resident Rick O’Dell, 23, standing among high school and college buddies who have come for four years. “He’d be right here shivering with us.”

“Why not?” said Lee Kennon, 28, a first-time swimmer who lives in Newton.

The water temperature was just over 40 degrees in Boston Harbor, about 5 degrees warmer than the air above, as a crowd of hardy swimmers participated in the L Street Brownies’ annual New Year’s Day plunge Tuesday morning.

Jack Dever, president of the Brownies, estimated that about 600 people plunged into the frigid waters, about the same number as have participated for the past 10 to 15 years. But Dever, 73, can remember when the event attracted no more than 40 to 50 swimmers.

The event derives from a Northern European tradition, Dever said, and was exported to South Boston in 1901. The following year, potential swimmers enjoyed “too many libations,” Dever said, and skipped the dip, but they picked up again in 1903 and it has been an annual tradition ever since.

Dever himself tries to swim two or three days each week, though in winter he keeps it short. “I do 20 or 30 strokes, and then I head right for the steam or the sauna,” he said.

The sky above the L Street Beach was bright blue Tuesday morning, but the sand was dusted with snow. Still, most of the crowd left the Curley Community Center and marched toward the waves with apparent enthusiasm.

“Punch the new year in the face,” one man cried. Another did jumping jacks and push-ups in the sand.

Swimmers sported unusual combinations of beachwear and cold-weather gear: swim trunks with heavy winter boots, long woolen coats over bikinis. Some wore wigs and outlandish costumes.

After their swim, nine men, all brothers and cousins from the Nealon family of Hopkinton, stood together, arms around one another’s shoulders, as they sang the national anthem. The men said they had been coming for seven or eight years, starting with a small group that has grown and shrunk over the years.

Peabody resident Terrence Joyce, 45, was a first-timer, and he dedicated his swim to the victims of the Newtown, Conn., elementary school shooting. He called the swim “refreshing.”

Ally Peebles was in the water for her third time. She said she felt it was required of her as a South Boston resident.

“I just tried to get my head under the water as fast as I could, hold my nose, get under, and get out,” said Peebles, 26.

Lifelong South Boston resident Dennis Conway, 57, said he had been coming for a dozen years.

“I used to always be the guy who looked at those nuts down there, and then I became one,” Conway said. “It’s the greatest way to start the new year.”

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.
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