As several hundred people ran into the Atlantic Ocean Tuesday, Jim Simpson of Summerville stood by, rolling his arms like a football referee making a call.

“False start on the play,” he said. “You all have to do it again at 2 o’clock.”

It was the annual Polar Bear Plunge on Sullivan’s Island, an event organized by Dunleavy’s Pub that benefits Special Olympics of South Carolina.

But this year there was some confusion about whether the event, dubbed “Freezin’ for a Reason,” was at 1 p.m. or 2 p.m.

The time is decided by low tide and set by the island’s public safety department, said Sullivan’s Island Police Chief Danny Howard. Last year’s event was at 1 p.m.; this year’s was set for 2 p.m.

As a crowd gathered on the beach, a group dressed as Baywatch lifeguards made their way to the front of the pack. All it took was one person and a whistle, and the crowd started running toward the water shortly after 1 p.m., breaking down the yellow-tape barrier on their way.

“I’ve been coming to this for years and never seen anything like this,” said June Benjamin of Mount Pleasant. “Nobody ever waits for the countdown to get to zero, but they don’t usually run in an hour early.”

It suited Tom Sussman just fine. The Greenville resident, decked out in his Michigan cap and hoodie, was anxious to get back to his vacation rental to watch his team take on the South Carolina Gamecocks in the Outback Bowl.

“I was planning to go in early anyway,” he said. “So this worked out as far as I am concerned.”

Officials with Dunleavy’s said they didn’t mind the miscue.

“We don’t care when they go in as long as we raise money for Special Olympics,” said Jenn Maher, whose husband, Jamie Maher, is a co-owner of the restaurant. “Some people even came out and did it yesterday.”

At 1:30, Plunge founder Bill Dunleavy and other family members, clad in their white tuxedos with green shirts, led a rowdy crowd of thousands from a street party surrounding the pub to the beach for the official plunge.

As they waited for the “go,” the crowd was whipped into a frenzy. Superheroes, Mount Pleasant’s Constructionland, Elvis, babies, Duck Dynasty, fairies and everything else imaginable yelled and bounced as they waited for Dunleavy to drop his hand.

Several of the early dippers also waited around to participate in the real event.

“I was talking to my friends and suddenly everyone started running in,” said Janie Miles of Charleston. “So we went too, but we didn’t know what was going on. Then we were cold and wet, but we waited and went in again. The water felt warmer to me than the air.”

The weather was cloudy and in the mid-60s.

The plunge raises more than $20,000 for Special Olympics, said Jamie Maher. The money goes to support local Special Olympic athletes at the mid-winter games at The Citadel in March.

Reach Brenda Rindge at 937-5713 or