By Donald Wittkowski
All that splashing, screaming and shivering by more than 1,000 bathers who took a madcap plunge in the chilly surf on New Year’s Day was for a good cause.
The John R. Elliott HERO Campaign for Designated Drivers raised a record $22,000 in proceeds from its sponsorship of Ocean City’s annual First Dip event, said Bill Elliott, chairman of the nonprofit organization.
Elliott noted that the event, also known as the HERO Campaign Pledge and Plunge, attracted a record number of participants. In addition to the more than 1,000 people who jumped into the ocean, several thousand onlookers lined the beach to watch the spectacle.
“It was just a great crowd for watching as well as participating,” Elliott said.
This was the third year the HERO Campaign had sponsored the plunge, a colorful and zany holiday tradition that is highlighted by the outrageous costumes worn by many of the participants.
Jim Berghaier, 67, who lives in Philadelphia and has a summer home in Ocean City, showed up wearing a patriotic-themed outfit resembling an American flag. Berghaier was preparing to participate in his first plunge, but his 57-year-old wife, Denise, had no plans to join him in the nippy water.
“I think he’s nuts,” she said, laughing.
The Berghaiers, who are avid runners, began New Year’s Day by participating in Ocean City’s annual First Day 5K race on the Boardwalk. Jim Berghaier said he decided to do both the race and the ocean plunge to celebrate the start of 2017.
“It’s the family atmosphere down here. With everything going on in the world, this is the place to be,” he said.
Sunny skies and mild winter temperatures in the 50s on New Year’s Day helped draw big crowds to the ocean plunge, Elliott said. The water temperature, though, was a brisk 42.8 degrees.
Anticipating the shock of cold water on their bodies, many of the bathers let out a scream while charging toward the surf. Most splashed around for only a brief time before emerging from the water shivering.
“It was colder than I expected. But it was awesome,” said Brian Green, a veteran dipper from Ocean City who jumped in wearing a superhero costume inspired by Capt. America.
Despite all of the wackiness, the event continues to have a serious undercurrent. The sponsorship by the John R. Elliott HERO Campaign helps to promote the organization’s mission to prevent drunken driving through the use of sober, designated drivers. The campaign is named in honor of Bill Elliott’s son, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate who was killed by a drunken driver in a highway crash in 2000.
People taking part in the plunge were asked to sign up for HERO pledge cards to serve as designated drivers. In addition, those who donated $25 to the campaign were given a commemorative long-sleeved T-shirt. Elliott said the organization sold all 500 T-shirts that it had for the plunge.
Proceeds raised on New Year’s Day will go toward the “Be a HERO” registration drive, the campaign’s marketing initiatives and its education programs at schools and colleges. Elliott said the campaign has helped to contribute to a decline in drunken driving deaths in New Jersey and nationwide.
“You have to change the culture with drinking and driving. We are moving the needle in a positive direction,” he said.
So far, about 30,000 people have taken the HERO pledge to be a designated driver. Elliott said the campaign hopes to sign up 100,000 pledges. Participating bars and taverns give the HERO designated drivers free soft drinks.
Over the Thanksgiving weekend, the campaign began working with local bars and taverns on a new initiative to prevent drunken driving crashes. Patrons are encouraged to leave their cars overnight in the tavern parking lots instead of getting behind the wheel after they have been drinking. A HERO card is placed on their car and can be redeemed for free appetizers or chicken wings at those taverns.
“They see it as evidence that they are keeping their patrons safe,” Elliott said of the bar owners. “They see it as a point of pride.”