Of all the ways to ring in the new year, stripping down for a dip in the ocean off the coast of wintery New York City may sound insane to the uninitiated. But for the Coney Island Polar Bear Club, the oldest winter bathing organisation in the US, it’s tradition. And while the ritual is definitely not for the faint of heart, everyone is invited to join the group for its New Year’s Day plunge into the frigid Atlantic Ocean.

“People usually just go in for a few minutes, scream, pose for pictures and run out,” said club president Dennis Thomas. Seasoned members, he added, will usually stay in for 10 to 15 minutes.

Considering normal New York January highs hover just above freezing, with water temperatures not much warmer, staying in for any amount of time is no small feat. Then again, the Coney Island Polar Bears partake in weekly Sunday swims between November and April, and credit the club’s founding in 1903 to Bernarr Macfadden, a man who believed the cold-weather forays were a boost to one’s “stamina, virility and immunity”. Macfadden, an early physical fitness fanatic, even changed his first name from Bernard, according to legend, to sound like a lion’s roar.

In 2011 and 2012, temperatures were practically balmy – around 50F – drawing thousands of swimmers and gawkers alike, but early forecasts for 1 January 2013 suggest a high of 37F. For the hardy souls who’d like to be part of Coney Island history this year, Thomas shared some sensible advice.

“Keep it short – get in and get out quickly,” he said. “This is not a competitive event; everyone should stay within their comfort limits. Also, people should not run and dive into the surf, just walk in quickly. This is normal beach procedure even in the summer. People have hurt themselves diving into knee-deep water.”

“Newcomers,” he added, “are welcome to scream”.

The open-to-the-public swim starts at 1 pm on 1 January from the boardwalk at Stillwell Avenue in Brooklyn. Participants should arrive by 12 pm to register. While the event is free, donations to Camp Sunshine, a retreat for children with life-threatening illness and their families, are requested.

Amy Brader is the New York City Localite for BBC Travel