As icy wind whipped the colorful flags planted in the sand outside Clayton’s Beach Bar on Monday, Christine Castillo and her sisters waited for the signal.

Precisely at noon, they joined the crowd rushing toward the water to start the new year as part of Clayton’s Annual Polar Bear Dip. It marked the 20th year people have gathered at South Padre Island for the event, which is celebrated around the world.

“It’s just that burst of energy you get,” Castillo, 48 of Harlingen, said of what brought her back to the dip for the 14th year. At 38 degrees Fahrenheit, it was one of the coldest days for the jump she can remember.

“It started out with a couple people just running from their house to the beach on New Year’s Day,” owner Clayton Brashear said. “I think they want to rid themselves of the previous year’s sins and (begin) the new year with a fresh start.”

He estimates Monday’s event drew about 1,000 people.

Among them was first-timer Mary Juarez, 37, who came alone from Brownsville to take the plunge. She had hoped the day would be a little warmer but was still excited.

“It’s something new. I didn’t want to back out because I told everyone I was going to do it,” she said, laughing. “Everybody stayed home, nice and cozy in bed.”

The Polar Bear Dip is an annual tradition for Nick Kapp, 54, of Pacifica, Calif. He has participated more times that he can remember, and couldn’t miss that chance to take part again while visiting family in the area.

“It’s a great thing to do to ring in the new year,” said Kapp, who was with his 15-year-old son, Ethan. “There’s a great community with it, and it’s a lot of fun. I’m really impressed everyone’s out here.”

Proceeds from Polar Bear Dip t-shirts benefit the Friends of Animal Rescue, a no-kill animal shelter on South Padre Island. Sherry Pindart, operations director for the nonprofit, anticipates the event will raise about $6,000 for the shelter, which is currently caring for 32 cats and dogs.

“It brings the community together and starts the new year off right,” she said.

As for Castillo, she and her family headed a few miles down the road to take the plunge again during a similar event at Boomerang Billy’s Beachfront Bar and Grill. She’ll be back next year, too, hopefully with her grandchildren in tow.

“Everybody should do it to keep themselves young,” Castillo said. “It’s a great family tradition.”

By Nadia Tamez-Robledo | Staff Writer