2011-11-17 / Front Page

35 years as home to Penguin Plunge comes to an end

Insurance risks primary reason for relocation to Narragansett
BY KEN SHANE

For 35 years the Penguin Plunge has been a New Year’s Day fixture in Jamestown. That tradition has come to an end, as the wildly popular event will move to a new location.

According to Special Olympics Rhode Island CEO Dennis DeJesus, the move is necessary due to the insurance liability impact that the event could potentially have on his organization. Special Olympics sponsors the event.

“One of the problems that we had with Jamestown is that it was just an uncontrollable event,” DeJesus said. “Mackerel Cove is so wide open and it would allow people at so many access points that we couldn’t control the people who were showing up. From a liability point of view, and that’s strictly where this decision lies.”

For the Mackerel Cove event, Special Olympics created a chute in the center of the beach to funnel people into the water. Problems arose when scores of people entered the water to the left or right of the chute, giving the organizers no ability to control the event.

“Last year on New Year’s Day it was a 50-degree day,” DeJesus said. “We had to have at least 2,500 people down at the beach. We had a registration area. We registered 135 people. There had to be close to 500 people going in the water that day, and yet we only registered 135.”

DeJesus said that he checked with his organization’s insurance carrier and found out that they were liable for anyone participating in the plunge, whether they were registered or not.

“They let me know that if it’s known as a Special Olympics R.I. event, we’re liable for any injury at that cove,” he said. “We just could not put the organization in jeopardy anymore.”

The historical significance of Jamestown’s role in the annual event is not lost on DeJesus. “The Penguin Plunge in Rhode Island was the first Penguin Plunge in the history of Special Olympics,” he said. “Now almost every single state program in the U.S. does a Penguin Plunge, copying what we’ve done for the last 35 years. So from a historical perspective, not only has it been beneficial for Special Olympics R.I., but for countless other state programs throughout the U.S. that copied what we were doing here in Rhode Island.”

Over the 35-year history of the Penguin Plunge in Jamestown, Special Olympics has raised over $1 million to support intellectually challenged athletes. In its heyday – 10 to 15 years ago – the event would raise $85,000 annually.

Town Administrator Bruce Keiser responded to the departure of the Penguin Plunge from Jamestown. “We were fortunate to be the host community for a wonderful charitable event for 35 years,” Keiser said. “We understand from conversations with the Special Olympics’ director that it really had gotten unmanageable given its popularity as one of the premier New Year’s Day plunges. So we understand their decision to relocate.”

Keiser said that there were some aspects unmanageable by the town also.

“The traffic congestion that was created by the throngs of folks who wanted to participate directly – or serve as a spectator – had reached somewhat unmanageable levels for the town,” he said. “So I think given the popularity that it had attained, it’s probably appropriate to move on to another venue.”

This year’s Penguin Plunge will be held at Roger Wheeler State Park in Narragansett. DeJesus feels that the beach’s large parking field, and improved access control, will be beneficial to the event. “We can block off all of the access points to the beach so that there is only one entranceway,” he said. “We’re going to be very, very strict with those people who are coming. They must sign a waiver form. They will be given a bracelet when they go in the water to identify themselves as being part of our event.”

Following last year’s Penguin Plunge, the town’s Conservation Committee sent a letter to Town Administrator Bruce Keiser highlighting the negative environmental impact that the large New Year’s Day crowd had on Mackerel Cove.

According to DeJesus, while Special Olympics was aware of the complaints, they weren’t the deciding factor in the decision to move the event. “We certainly read those accounts in the local press,” he said. “We wanted to be a good neighbor because Jamestown was a good neighbor to us. When we read about that it raised some concerns. But the ultimate decision was clearly a decision made from a liability standpoint.”

“We’re forever grateful to the town of Jamestown for hosting us for the last 35 years,” DeJesus added. “There was tremendous support from the police department, the fire department and the town administrators over 35 years. And yes, tremendous support from the residents of Jamestown who welcomed us with open arms and knew that the organization was supporting those athletes with intellectual disabilities that we serve on a regular basis.”

DeJesus said that he wishes the event could stay in Jamestown, but he had no choice but to bring it elsewhere. “I only wish that we could have continued because of the great relationship we had with the whole community of Jamestown, but as the CEO of Special Olympics R.I., I had to determine if we were at risk, and we certainly were.”

The Special Olympics’ decision is bound to have an impact on local businesses, particularly the restaurants that saw increased busi- ness on New Year’s Day. Chopmist Charlie’s owner Chuck Masso expressed his concern. “I was very disappointed to hear that the plunge isn’t going to be in Jamestown this year because it’s usually a real fine day in Jamestown with all the restaurants and bars being very busy,” Masso said. “I think we’re definitely going to miss it.”

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