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Hundreds brave chilly Boston Harbor waters for annual swim

Fans gathered for the 2016 Winter Classic
Fans gathered for the 2016 Winter Classic

A giant leprechaun jumped the start line, beating hundreds of New Year’s Day swimmers into icy Boston Harbor on a bone-chilling morning.

But a group of Braveheart-inspired Scottish warriors claimed victory, waving swords above their heads, after taking part in the epic polar plunge.

“We are just a bunch of goofballs,” bellowed Mark Poutenis, 44, of Lunenburg, the leader of the pack.

His face was painted blue. Green-and-beige plaid fabric was tied around his waist.

“All it took was a trip to Jo-Ann’s Fabrics and 10 minutes at a sewing machine, and I had my uniform.”

The annual L Street Brownies New Year’s Day Polar Bear Plunge, which started in 1903 and is one of Boston’s oldest traditions, drew an estimated 600 swimmers for a frigid dip into Dorchester Bay.

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“I said there is no turning back,” said Linda Kelly, 60, a first-time plunger from Braintree. “I just went right in. It was cold. Cold. But it was fun.”

This year’s plunge took place at 9:30 a.m.,with the air temperature 25 degrees and the water temperature in Boston Harbor 42 degrees, according to the National Weather Service in Taunton.

“Everything has gone great today,” said Fred Ahern, director of the BCYF Curley Community Center, which hosts the event.

A Boston Police boat patrolled the bay, and EMS personnel stood on shore. But there were no medical emergencies among the brave-hearted swimmers, Ahern said.

As usual, the spirited tradition drew costumed revelers, who donned tutus, party hats, and pairs of 2015 glittering glasses. They jogged in place on cold, hard sand and chanted “Hey-ho, let’s go!” as they waited to start.

One swimmer, appearing to be dreaming of warmer climes, carried an umbrella disguised as a thatched tiki hut. Many took the dip to check an item off their bucket list. Others plunged in the name of charity, such as a group from an Ancient Order of Hiberians chapter in Worcester, which raised money for Why Me & Sherry’s House, which helps families whose children have cancer.

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“We’d like to raise $25,000 to help them,” said Joanne Chionchio, 57, dressed in warm pajama bottoms after taking the plunge for the sixth year. “They help a lot of people.”

“Tom Horn,” a Southie native whose real name is Tommy McAuliffeplayed the “Charge” fanfare on his tuba as he paced the starting line.

“I’ve been playing this here for at least 25 years,” said McAuliffe, 54, a South Boston native who works as a custodian at the Josiah Quincy Elementary School. “I do it because it makes people happy.”

Rosemary Coughlan of Tewksbury and Anne Sarno-McIlwrath of Billerica, aqua-aerobic swimmers, wore matching purple wigs for their first polar plunge.

“It wasn’t as cold as I thought it would be,” said Coughlan, 52, her eyes hidden behind sparkling silver glasses. “It’s like Hampton Beach in summertime.”

But a shivering ocean dip on Jan. 1 is still very different from swimming in July. And that’s the whole point of the polar plunge, said Jack Dever, president of the L Street Brownies.

“That’s why we call it the Polar Bear Plunge,” said Dever, 75, a South Boston native who now lives in Hull. “It’s not supposed to be like swimming in July.”

Money raised from the swim, through donations and  T-shirt sales, is donated to the South Boston Sports Hall of Fame Scholarship Fund and to support South Boston youth hockey.

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While they welcome the masses on New Year’s Day, the L Street Brownies, many of whom swim year-round at Carson Beach, still claim bragging rights.

“It’s not just how [quickly] you go into the water. That’s for tourists,” said Tim Regan, 58, a Dorchester native who now lives in Newton. “It’s who goes out the deepest.”


Kathy McCabe can be reached at katherine.mccabe@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter@GlobeKMcCabe.