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Cold Turkey Plunge in Nantucket | Only in New England

Cold Turkey Plunge in Nantucket | Only in New England
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Turkey Plunge
Photo/Art by Mark Brewer
It’s admittedly counterintuitive, calling the sensation of wearing almost no clothing in 20° to 30° air and 38° ocean water “warm and fuzzy,” but that’s precisely how Nantucket Islanders describe the feeling on Children’s Beach on Thanksgiving morning. Nantucket’s “Cold Turkey Plunge” pulls some 500 big and little dippers out of bed and away from their kitchens to brave the elements, all for the love of children’s books, housed at the Weezie Library, a wing of one of New England’s most venerable institutions, the Nantucket Atheneum.

The Weezie Library for Children offers 500 free programs a year. Bess Clarke, the Atheneum’s development director, tells us that the Plunge was inspired by a fundraising event in the seaside village of Skerries, Ireland (near Dublin), where townsfolk wade into the Irish Sea on Christmas Day. It was Clarke’s sister-in-law, born in Skerries, who proposed this Atlantic adaptation.

Clarke, however, had her doubts that anyone would even show up that first year in 2002. “It was so cold the sand felt like glass,” she says. But when the air horn blared at 10 a.m., the official starting time, the 100 bathing-suited enthusiasts–including one mermaid–who had gathered at the town beach began racing into the near-freezing water. And then promptly racing back out again.

Ten years later, the event lures a couple thousand supporters, some of them costumed as superheroes, bananas, and, yes, more mermaids, to cheer on the Plungers. Others are focused on serious fun(d) raising, and still others muster as many family members as possible into the frigid harbor. One of those hardy souls is Eleanor Antonietti–Plunge committee member and winner of 2008’s Golden Plunger Award for immersing herself the longest–who gleefully floats among three generations of her tribe.

There are free treats and refreshments, including coffee and pastries donated by local businesses, and renowned island personalities act as chief turkey herders. “Around 9:55 a.m., people can’t stand the anticipation and start heading in even though we try to hold them back,” Clarke says.

In addition to Coast Guard personnel and EMTs, the 2010 Plunge featured Secret Service agents in foul-weather gear overseeing the festivities, as even Vice President Joe Biden basted in the cold brine of Nantucket Harbor.

By late afternoon, the mermaids have turned in their fins and gone back to slacks and the beach is desolate and deserted again. As the bathers tuck into real turkey, the staff of the Weezie Library says grace in honor of their Plungers and sponsors, giving thanks for raising $60,000 in the wettest, chilliest, warmest, fuzziest way possible.

Please Note: This information was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.

Julia Shipley


Julia Shipley


Contributing editor, Julia Shipley's stories celebrate New Englanders' enduring connection to place. She digs up facts and stats for each issue's "By The Numbers" feature; she's also the author of Yankee's "Vermont Rural Life" blog, as well the Yankee Plus column, "The Farmer's Life." An award winning poet, her long-form lyric essay, Adam's Mark was selected as one of the Boston Globe's Best New England Books of 2014.
Updated Wednesday, October 9th, 2013

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