Plunging into the frigid Atlantic on New Year’s Day with nothing but a swimsuit and the optimism of a new year to protect you would be, by some standards, entirely bonkers.

But if the cold-water dip helped raise funds for a worthy cause, the neighbors might be a little less likely to point the crazy finger.

The Special Olympics Lobster Dip has been sending brave and benevolent swimmers into the chilly ocean waters at Old Orchard Beach since 1988.

“It’s Maine’s original plunge,” said Lisa Bird, director of public relations at Special Olympics Maine. The New Year’s Day dip is the organization’s largest fundraiser of the year.

“It sets the tone for the entire fundraising year,” said Bird. “It’s a really important event for us.”

Participants are asked to raise a minimum of $100 for Special Olympics Maine. In exchange for their altruistic efforts, fundraisers are given the chance to strip down to their swimsuits and run headlong into the ocean at a time of year when the water temperature hovers around 43 degrees Fahrenheit.

Adding to the slightly off-kilter climate, some participants will be costumed. Some dress as teams, some wear shirts with logos from area businesses and some simply dress crazy.

“The crazier the better,” said Bird. “It makes for a fun, festive atmosphere.

“People think they’re insane,” she added. But the dip is an adventure most participants won’t soon forget. “Nobody ever leaves thinking, ‘I shouldn’t have done that’ or ‘That was stupid.’“

In fact many dippers return year after year, often bringing friends and colleagues along for their own first-dip experiences. Participation has lingered just under 400 in the last few years and Bird hopes that 2011 is the year it will break through the 400 wall.

The official dipping occurs at noon on the beach in front of The Brunswick, 39 W. Grand Ave., Old Orchard Beach. Participants register inside before making their way to the sand, where a group of “original dippers” — who were there during the inaugural dip in 1988 — take the first plunge.

A countdown will then send the hundreds of gathered plungers into the water simultaneously, where the loud splashing will blend with spirited yells and surely a few shouts of, “Wow! That’s cold!”

There’s no pressure to stay in longer than it takes to get wet and get out, but Bird noted that some folks loiter in the water and others take the time to gingerly swim a few strokes. For true cold-water gluttons, there’s a “double dip” option.

For most, though, it’s out in a hurry and into the warm and dry confines of the nearby Brunswick hotel. To ease the ocean-to-afterparty transition, Bird offers some suggestions: “We recommend going in with shoes and that you have somebody standing by on the beach with a blanket or towel.”

Hot showers are available for those who need them, she said, as are warming tents on the beach.

In truth, said Bird, “The coldest part is standing on the beach waiting to go in.”

For supportive people who simply can’t imagine diving into the Atlantic this time of year, there is the Chicken Dip. Chicken Dip participants are still asked to raise a minimum of $100, but they’ll be excluded from the plunging and instead kept in the “chicken coop” on the beach, where they can lounge on beach chairs near a warm fire.

The afterparty at The Brunswick boasts complementary food, a cash bar, live music and football. This year’s party also includes an auction of items, such as overnight packages, restaurant gift certificates, sports memorabilia “and 14 feet of loam,” said Bird.

While the water may seem intimidating, it’s worth braving to support Special Olympics Maine. Besides, there’s a good story in those waters.

“How many people can say they went swimming in Maine on New Year’s Day?” said Bird. “It’s a chance to do something really cool, no pun intended.”

Locals who can’t make the Special Olympics Lobster Dip are always welcome to donate online at www.specialolympicsmaine.org. “We take donations 365 days a year,” said Bird.

Crazy cold-water dip not required.

Staff Writer Shannon Bryan can be

contacted at 791-6333 or at:

[email protected]