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Divers brace for chilly dip

The 64 boys diving for the ceremonial Epiphany cross Wednesday may wish they were wearing wet suits instead of the traditional shorts and soggy white T-shirts.

"I don't think the (Epiphany Committee) board members are going to let us do that," said Jason Klimis, 18, who will dive for his third and final time. "I think it's going to be real cold."

After the Greek Orthodox boys thunder barefoot down Tarpon Avenue, they will dive into Spring Bayou near downtown and swim to a semicircle of dinghies anchored there. Then, soaked to the skin, they will sit in the boats and wait through a liturgy that will last at least 10 minutes.

They will do so in "some of the coldest weather so far this season," according to Walt Zaleski, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Ruskin.

"We would not be surprised to see the temperatures bouncing off the freezing mark" before dawn Wednesday, he said, to be followed by a clear, cold morning with a light wind. The temperature could warm to 52 or so for the cross dive just after noon, he said.

Compared to the air, the water may feel like a respite when the boys dive in to retrieve a white cross thrown into the bayou.

The one who finds it will receive a special blessing from the Greek Orthodox archbishop for North and South America in the church's largest Western Hemisphere celebration of Christ's baptism. Thousands of people converge on Tarpon Springs every Jan. 6 to participate or to observe the colorful event.

The Times checked the water temperature in Spring Bayou on Monday afternoon and found it at 67 degrees _ comparable to water temperatures at previous Epiphany celebrations. Zaleski said water temperature is slow to change and should fall no more than a couple of degrees by Wednesday.

At the 1994 Epiphany celebration, when a cold front had chilled the morning air to the 30s, the Times found the water temperature was 60 degrees.

"Those boys _ they're going to freeze their butts off," predicted Sevasti Karavas, a clerk at Catherine's Linens, a shop in the Sponge Docks historic district.

Tidal flooding filled that shop and neighboring businesses with inches of water overnight Saturday during a windy rainstorm.

The sudden flood also raised the level of Spring Bayou more than a foot above the sea wall that surrounds it, muddying the water and depositing refuse on the banks where about 20,000 spectators are expected to gather to watch the cross dive.

"Luckily, we don't have any damage," interim City Manager Mark LeCouris said. "It's just a simple cleanup today."

The chilly morning will be no reason to call off the diving ritual, which is propelled by decades of tradition, said Aleck Alissandratos, who organizes the divers each year.

"It just happens to be that they are diving on a cold year," Alissandratos said. "It's just part of the occupational hazards of being a diver."

Lest that seem unsympathetic, Alissandratos points out that the year he was the successful cross retriever was one of the coldest in memory: 1977. He said the high temperature was in the 50s, just as is predicted for Wednesday.