Technically, 2010 arrived with fireworks over Kuressaare castle, but for me the new year didn’t really begin until twelve hours later as I climbed up a four-rung ladder out of a hole in the ice, feeling my wet hands trying to freeze to the metal railings, giving a curiously sticky sensation.
For the last five or six years I’ve made it a ritual that I must go for a swim outside on New Year’s Day, wherever I am. I find it a way to make the freshest of fresh starts, and apart from the obvious baptismal symbolism of the act, it’s also given me some wonderful memories with which to launch the year.
An early example saw me splashing around off the Promenade des Anglais in Nice as wealthy widows in fur coats and Gucci sunglasses pointed and laughed. The cafe creme I drank afterwards in a 1930s corner cafe two blocks the wrong way from the Negresco was the best I have ever tasted.
On another occasion I ventured into the River Lielupe in Latvia among sheets of transparent ice like abandoned windscreens. I emerged the colour of a cooked lobster and glugged Rigas Balzams as I pulled my trousers over frozen toes.
Probably the best swim of all was at the Venice Lido. Myself, one Finn and around forty barrel-chested Italian gents who called themselves the ‘Ibernisti’ emerged from a changing room with a red balloon each. A crowd several thousand strong cheered as we paraded into the water, released our balloons and unfurled a banner wishing everyone a happy new year. As we did so, Strauss waltzes began and the friendly Ibernisti passed me shots of grappa and slapped me on the back when we returned to the changing room. On the way back to the vaporetto, the owner of a cafe gave us free prosecco and panettone.
But 2010 probably looked just as spectacular in its way. On New Year’s Eve I scouted the area that serves as Kuressaare’s very pleasant beach during the summer. A thick layer of snow covered the ice all the way to the horizon. The only tiny patch of water visible was next to an outflow pipe and I began to fear I would have to take my new year dip in a hotel pool, which would be highly unsatisfactory and defeat the object of the whole exercise.
As the light faded to a luminous grey I was skirting the shoreline as best I could – everything was so frozen and snowbound only the occasional line of reeds or ice-locked diving pontoon showed where the summer sea should be.
Then I found what I was looking for beside one of the pieces of unseasonal beach furniture – a square of clear water barely larger than a window which was already starting to freeze over once again. The snow had been scraped aside and a short ladder led down from a tiny wooden jetty. It was a sort of reverse Eureka moment, making me want to jump into rather than out of the water. There are Ibernisti everywhere, evidently.
So at midday on January the first I returned and used my handy Swedish army folding entrenching tool to scrape away the thin crust of ice that had re-formed overnight. As I did so, two more people with spades and the same general idea showed up. One introduced himself as Marten, a military man who looked exactly what he was.
He always took a swim here on January the first, he said, and had been doing so for probably a decade. It seemed like it would be a breach of protocol to be first in the water – after all I was the “guest” so deferred to Marten who plunged in with a broad smile right up to the lion’s head tattoo on his upper arm. Out he came and as he dressed I undressed and was next into the water which was so cold it seemed to lift a layer off my skin, as if I was removing an overcoat I had left on.
But it was also an exhilarating sensation, particularly when I briefly dipped my head under water and seemed to momentarily lose any sense that I was anything other than a limitless volume of ice.
I climbed out and my head was steaming as I dried and dressed.
The third swimmer, whose name I unfortunately have forgotten, was clearly a little less enthusiastic. This was his first time, he told me and I had the impression he was thinking this wasn’t such a good idea as it had originally seemed. But he didn’t want to lose face in front of Marten and went through with it, even though he seemed to be coming back up the ladder before he’d even gone down it.
He was far leaner than myself or Marten and probably felt the cold more painfully. His face suggested as much, with a weak smile failing to convince. But he did it, chalking up an impressive bit of ice swimming at his first attempt.
So the year is now properly under way for me – and I hope for you, too.